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Backpacking Hopkins Prairie

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Backpacking Hopkins Prairie


I have backpacked different parts of the Florida Trail from the Rodman Dam to Clearwater Lake in the Ocala National Forest on several occasions, but there was a section between Salt Springs and Juniper Springs that I had never done. This March I closed this gap during a three day backpacking outing. Some of this hike covered parts of the Florida Trail in the Juniper Wilderness that I had done on two separate day hikes 22 years earlier. Another part of this year's hike was around Hopkins Prairie, which I had not visited before this.



After a relaxing pre-hike car-camp night at Juniper Springs campground with Virginia, I parked my car and she dropped me off where the trail crosses Salt Springs Highway(314). Unlike the time when I started from there hiking north to the Rodman Dam, I instead headed southbound. The trail here passes through several different habitats, one of which was some really pretty sandhills.



 Trail in sandhills



One of the things I like about sandhills is the wide spacing of trees and the forest floor of mostly grasses and wildflowers. After about four hours of hiking with many pauses to photograph various subjects, I reached the prairie just in time to see a Northern Harrier cruising above the grasses and occassionally swooping down after something to eat. I set up camp (photo at top) in a small peninsula between the trail and the prairie under some slash pines. Around the next curve in the trail was this lone slash pine that I photographed in the morning.


 Slash Pine at Hopkins Prairie


While I ate my dinner I enjoyed a seranade of sandhill crane calls across the prairie. As dusk approached a soft buzzing sound slowly increased in volume and a dense layer of mosquitoes appeared above my head. When they started landing on the tent and my gear I quickly prepared camp for the night and ducked into my tent, where the constant buzzing reminded me of sleeping in a canoe in the everglades years ago. I went to sleep to a chorus of what sounded like bullfrogs, although I could not be sure that they were not alligators grunting, which made me think of William Bartram's story of camping on Dexter Point along the St. Johns River in 1774.



 Morning at Hopkins Prairie Pond



As the lightening sky signaled the approach of dawn, I emerged from the tent with my camera to see what sights the morning would bring. One of these was the mist rising from the little pond by the trail where I got my water. Not an ideal source since the 'frog water' - as one passing hiker called it - required filtering through a cloth before treating. Also at this pond I photographed the diminuative quillwort arrowhead wildflower.



 Quillwort arrowhead flower



Hopkins Prairie is about three miles long and varies from about one quarter to a half mile wide with the Florida Trail following the north and east edges of the prairie for about five miles. Despite the name, this natural community is probably more like a basin marsh than a typical wet prairie. On one side of the trail is the prairie and on the other side the habitats varied between hardwood hammocks, various mixed wooded areas and scrub. As I was hiking past one of these scrub areas a family of Florida scrub jays were moving through the trees along the trail and dropping down to the ground to forage. A pair of brown thrashers and a male cardinal were also here and seemed to be hanging out with the scrub jays.



 Hopkins Prairie and Clouds



Not far from where I saw the scrub jays I photographed a mall patch of pretty little yellow wildflowers known as rock-rose. Also called pinebarren frostweed, Crocanthemum corymbosum is a perennial herb of scrub, sandhills, dunes and dry open hammocks in the southeastern coastal states from Mississippi to North Carolina and throughout much of Florida.



 Rock-rose



For much of this day's hike small lizards would run from just ahead of me on the trail into the undewrgrowth. I finally captured photos of several of these. Some of them were the Florida scrub lizard, a state endemic(only occurs here).



 Florida scrub lizard



Later I saw some six-lined racerunners.



 Six-lined racerunner



Nearing the end of the day's hike I came to places where there were several members of the pipewort family. The Eriocaulaceae is a family of plants primarily found in bogs and along the wet shores of ponds and lakes. These little wildflowers, commonly also called bog-buttons and hatpins, can be a challenge to identify more specifically. For instance, these tall pipeworts could be flattened or ten-angled.



 Pipeworts at Hopkins Prairie



As I approached the water's edge to photograph the pipeworts, I saw the much smaller whitehead bogbuttons.



 Whitehead bogbuttons



After passing the big bat house and the Hopkins Prairie Recreation Area campgound where I topped off my water bottles at the hand pump, I came to a live oak hammock that appeared to have been used as a campsite. I walked down towards a dry depression and found a flatter spot with a ground cover of pine needles surrounded by small sand pines. Deciding that this would make a nice campsite, I then set down my pack and photographed some jester lichen and deer moss.



 



I then went for a cooling and cleansing swim in the large sinkhole nearby. As I was returning to what I thought was going to be my campsite for the night I heard someone whistling loudly and calling out. I found the attendent from the campground standing by my backpack. He kindly explained that I can't camp there as it was still in the recreation area boundry, and also there was a concern that the only road exiting the campground would be blocked if a wildfire got started. I did not bother to explain that I was unlikely to have a campfire in 80 degree weather and was only using a little whisperlite stove.



 Trees reflected in the swimming hole



Glad that I had not unpacked very much, I reloaded my backpack and continued on the trail, passing the swimming hole and soon crossing the next forest road to leave the recreation area. I hiked about a half mile to where I found a tiny clearing off to the side of the trail with a spot where a campfire had been and just enough room for a one man text. This was my home for the night. The next day's hike took me into and through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, a subject for a future post.


Paul Rebmann

July 20, 2019