Early last Thursday morning my son and I woke up around 3:30 am (Central time), made some coffee, loaded up the car and drove off. About five and a half hours later we were standing in my buddy Craig Smith’s house near Atlanta, GA. That afternoon we had some beer & pizza for lunch with Craig, Benny Braden (Plug-it In Hikes) and Ben Smith (from GooseFeet Gear), then loaded all of our gear in the back of Craig’s truck, and drove south…The plan was to meet up with several other folks at Rodman Dam that evening, then stage cars and camp near Clearwater Lake that night. This would allow us to get an early start on our first day of hiking ~20 miles along the Florida Trail. As it turns out, that wasn’t exactly how it went though…
On the (rainy) drive south, our group decided to stop in at the Marion Street Bistro & Brew House in Lake City for (an awesome) dinner. It was nice to get out of the truck to stretch our legs for a bit, but the cool, rainy weather made us start thinking twice about setting up tents in the middle of the night, and in the rain…
Once we finished our dinner and got back on the road we noticed that the plans for that night had changed with the group. Rather than staging cars that night we were now going to simply camp at Rodman Dam that night, then drive to Clearwater Lake the next morning and start out hike… This settled it for us! We decided to just grab a hotel room in Gainesville and then meet up with the rest of the group the next morning. Kept us out of the rain!
Since we stayed in a hotel Thursday night, we were up and on the road by about 4:30 am the next morning. We grabbed some breakfast from McDonald’s, then finished the hour or so long drive to meet up with everyone else.
We arrived at Rodman Dam around 6 am. Here we met up with Matthew Favero, Will “Red Beard” Wood, Stephanie Hare (hardcoresteffhikes), Drew, Trystan (all from Zpacks), and Steve Kaiser (a good hiking buddy of #teamzpacks). Unfortunately, Joe Valesko (the owner of Zpacks) would only be hiking and camping with us on Day 2, so we didn’t meet up with him until we reached the Juniper Prairie Visitor Center the next day. (And in case you aren’t keeping count, that comes to 11 hikers, plus Steff’s puppy. Then on day/night 2 we were at an even dozen! This is the largest group I have hiked with!)
Once we all officially met everyone we all jumped into as few vehicles as we could, then drove about another hour or so to the Clearwater Lake area to start our hike.
Now I have never hiked any of the Florida Trail up to this point, and our plan was to hike approximately 70 miles over the next 3.5 days. In the mountains, this could be some relatively big days, but Florida isn’t the mountains… however, 70 miles is 70 miles, and while Florida is still flat, I knew it still wouldn’t exactly be a cake walk.
When we started our hike Benny and I quickly fell to the back of the group… in fact, I was the last one to leave the parking lot! We used this time to catch up with one another, and of course began snapping pictures and video of almost everything we came across…
When I thought of hiking in Florida, I think I imagined pretty much we saw, however, there were some things that I didn’t expect, like all the smaller, old hardwood trees with limbs stretched out in all directions and draped in Spanish Moss! Besides this, the trail was generally a white sandy trail (which I would imagine led to some distant, secret beach) with pine needles either outlining the trails edges, or completely covering the trail. The Palm trees were amazing, especially in the random area’s that we would come upon with super tall Palm trees that looked as if they were quite old, as well as all the short palms only waist-high! And the cactuses… I don’t know why I didn’t think about there being any cactuses in Florida, but the first one that Benny pointed out to me really caught me off guard, and it was just awesome! 🙂
When we left the hotel room that morning, we caught a forecast for that day… it called for more rain and cool temperatures the entire first day. However, that was the exact opposite of what we experienced! While the morning did start out a little cool and cloudy, the day turned out to be sunny and hot (81 F & humid). Don’t get me wrong, I was fine with this, however, the water was pretty scarce on the trail that day, and the blistering hot day made me wish I had more. A few times we came across some small overgrown ponds, some of which we collected water from, but let me tell ya, it wasn’t the cleanest water I have collected…
Around mid day the group came back together as a whole when the guys at the front of the pack stopped for a lunch break. Matt informed us that we were getting close to the blue blaze trail that lead to Alexander Springs (IIRC) which was about a half mile off the trail. This was the best place to grab some water until we made it to our destination for that day. By the time we all arrived at the spur trail though, most of the group decided that they would make do with the water they already had and continued down the trail, while a couple of us stayed behind and filtered water from a small overgrown pond right on the trail… the water looked eewww…
As time went on, our large group again became smaller groups. And again, Benny and I found ourselves hiking together again. We eventually came to a large area that had been logged pretty drastically, at which point the trail skirted the edge of this huge area. The lack of tree coverage allowed the sun to beat down on us pretty hard… It was in this area that we caught up to my son and Craig. Craig had just shared the last bit of his water with my son, however, we all were quite a bit thirsty. I offered my son what remained of the (eewww) water I had filtered earlier and he drank it up, then we pushed on. After about another 2 or 3 mile’s we eventually came to a large lake with a water pump! We were camping in this area that night, but at this point, we really just focused on finally having as much clean water as we wanted!
Once the entire group was back in tact again, we walked a little farther down the trail and made camp for the night. The clouds had started moving back in, and according to the forecast the rain was still coming in that night, followed by colder temps the next morning. So everyone got busy setting up our shelters, made some dinner, then kicked back and relaxed for a bit… And oh yeah… it was a like Zpacks exposition! It was awesome! 🙂
By the time night settled down on us a few of us had already retreated to our home away from home. It didn’t take me long to do the same thing… the previous two nights I had gotten very little sleep, and I was excited to hopefully get more than a couple of hours that night!
Sure enough, around 9 pm or so I began hearing random ticks on my tarp… soon after, it was a constant pitter-patter of rain drops on my tarp singing me to sleep… I have got to admit, as tired as I was, and as good as it was to be laying there, I still didn’t get a great nights sleep that night. There was no specific reason, I was warm, I was comfortable, I was dry, and I love the sound of the rain and slight winds against my shelter, but it generally takes me several nights in the woods before I can start sleeping good at night… so at best I would doze off for an hour or so then wake back up… and on and on.
The next morning it was definitely cooler, and wet. Thankfully though the rain had started after I got into my shelter, and stopped before I got out of my shelter. Perfect timing I’d say. After sorting through my food and getting everything inside my tent packed up I ate my breakfast, then got to work at stuffing a cold wet shelter into the front pocket on my Zpacks Arc Haul. This resulted in some cold, numb fingers for a while, but that was fine… they would dry, they would warm up… and they did!
At only ~15 miles planned for that day, it was a bit shorter than our first. But this allowed us to get up and get started a little later (around 8:30 am IIRC). Our plan was to hike 5 miles, then break, then 5 more miles and break at the Juniper Prairie Visitor Center Store (which is also where we was meeting up with Joe), then hiking the last 5 miles to our destination for the night at Hidden Pond. And yeah, this is pretty much what we did…
When we came to the road leading to the store at Juniper Prairie a few of us decided to walk down to the store… We had only been on the trail a day and a half, but the lure of Hot Pockets and Ice Cream was too much. As it turned out, it was too much for just about everyone else too!
Once we filled our bellies with junk, we followed the road back to the trail and began our last 5 or so miles. This was an exciting time for me too… I finally got to meet the infamous Joe Valesko from Zpacks! And as it turned out, he seemed to be a pretty normal guy, just like the rest of us! (I was still stoked though! lol)
About 2 hours later we came to a pond unlike all the other ponds we had come across… the water in this pond was crystal clear! As it turned out, this was Hidden Pond, which as I understand it, is a spring fed pond, which is why the water is so clear. Behind the pond is a large clearing, which is where we had planned to camp that night. But what we found was a large Boy Scout group already set up there… thankfully though, when we pushed back a little farther we found plenty of other great spots to set up!
Joe, Matt, Benny and my son and I arrived first. We went ahead and got our tents set up and started settling in. Over the next hour or so the rest of the group trickled in. A few of them had actually walked past the turn off where we were before turning back and finding us. For a bit, we expected our group to be 2 groups that night, but as it turned out, we ended up as 1 large group!
While waiting Joe and some of the others began collecting wood and got a fire going… A little later we were all settled around the fire and got to know one another as the sun set. That night the sky was clear, and the stars shined bright. Before crawling into my own bed I stood gazing up… staring at the big, starry sky is one of my favorite parts of backpacking, and this night was perfect for that!
The next morning was again, comfortably cold. And yet again, while it didn’t rain the night before, we did wake up with wet tents from all the moisture in the air. This again resulted in cold, wet fingers while packing away a wet tarp… but it was still better than being at work!
That morning Joe turned around and headed back the direction from which we came the day before. As for the rest of us, we pressed on another ~21 miles to our destination for that night, the wooded area behind the 88 Store!
Craig and Ben left before the rest of us at 7 am. The rest of us began trickling out in loose groups. My son and I left around 7:30. A few miles in we came to a(nother) road crossing that lead to a large campground which the trail skirted right next too. As I crossed over the road and got back into the woods I heard a truck go by… When I looked up I noticed both Matt and Benny in the back of the truck! Say whaaatttt…..???
I encouraged my son to speed up to get to the campground to catch up to them. The campground was farther down the trail than I thought and by the time we got there I didn’t see anyone, so we kept going… I thought that maybe they were in front of us, so we pushed on…
At this point we came to the largest prairie that we came upon for the entire hike. In fact, it was so large, by the time we trekked around its perimeter to the other side, we had covered ~5+ miles! As my son and I was nearing the other side we spotted Craig and Ben not too far ahead of us…. but no Matt & Benny…
Soon after the trail cut back into the woods my son and I caught up with Craig and Ben. We walked together a little ways before stopping for a foot care/lunch break. Ben had gotten a couple of blisters, namely one large one on the back of one of his heels. He had felt it pop while hiking that morning and was causing him a bit of pain. As well, I noticed the night before that I had on the outside of my left large big toe. Thankfully this blister was not causing me any pain, however the nail on my left pinky toe was starting to hurt just enough to be noticeable… I used this down time to dry my tarp in the sun as well!
From this point we had a few more miles to go, so we pressed on. I also took this opportunity to leave some messages in the sand for those behind us… just something fun to do! Anyway, a couple of hours later and we were nearing the area that we knew the 88 Store should be… and thankfully we soon found it! A sign right on the trail declared so!
The great thing about being at the 88 Store was that we finished another long day (~21 miles, and ~56 mile total at this point), but even better, we could have real pizza delivered to us here, and we could buy some beer! So I quickly ran up the hill, walked in and bought a PBR and some Doritos’ (I really wanted them after watching Matt eat them during the rest of the hike).
Very soon after we arrived, Benny and Matt walked around the corner! They went in and grabbed some stuff then came back out and we started looking over the pizza menu. After figuring out what we wanted, those of us that were there went ahead and called in our order. While waiting Benny and I split a 6 pack of Yuengling, and the others soon began trickling in too… It wasn’t all that much longer that the front porch was filled with #teamzpacks and #teamgoosefeetgear!
After we finished our food and drink, the first group of us went ahead and set up our tents for the night. This was our last night on the trail, and while it was supposed to be cold again (especially for Florida) it was supposed to be just a degree or 2 warmer than the night before…
By the time the sun was setting we had finished setting up our tents. Benny and I found 2 Miller High Life’s still on the stringer right on the trail, so we attempted to drink them before crawling into our tents for the last night on the trail… The skies were yet again quite dark with tiny holes punched through… it was beautiful. And while I still didn’t sleep great throughout the entire night, I did sleep a little better that night…
The next morning Ben and Craig left camp at 7 am yet again. Benny, Matt, my son and I left camp around 7:20. We only had ~15 miles to go to get back to our vehicles that day. The cold weather again caused numb, wet fingers, but that was just more reason to get going rather than standing around.
My son and Matt pulled ahead of me and Benny little ways… not surprising though as we were trying to take in the last day of hiking, and still taking a bunch of photo’s and video! After a while we warmed up a bit and stopped off near a(nother) road crossing to shed my wind jacket and roll my Patagonia shirt sleeves up. While here we noticed a nice bear print in the sand… Over the course of the entire trip we say plenty of scat right on the trail, and random prints here and there, but this was the best impression that I noticed…
A little ways up the trail we came across Matt and my son stopped on the trail having a snack/breakfast. Both Will and Stephanie also showed up while we were stopped. Stephanie went ahead little farther, and the rest of us followed along shortly after.
Most of the last day we hiked through tall pine trees, with a nice open/clear floor. I really enjoyed hiking through these sections… The trees provided a little relief from the sun shining down, and the needles padded the trail significantly. Besides this, we could see a great distance all around us because of how sparse the trees were.
With about 4 miles or so left, Matt, my son and I stopped at a nice little spot to take a break. Benny soon walked up and we took about a 20 minute break to eat a little more and just enjoy the moment.
A few more miles down the trail and we came to a hard right, at which point we followed a large body of water to the dam. Even more exciting that this though was all the huge old trees draped heavily in Spanish Moss. This last (short) stretch of trail was one of the most majestic stretches on our hike to me. I grabbed my phone and was able to FaceTime my wife while here… she loved it too!
From this point we were pretty much done with our hike. When we reached our finishing point we found Ben and Craig waiting for us. Upon completion of our hike, we loaded our packs back into the back of Craig’s truck then talked with Matt a bit before finally leaving. We would have loved to stay long enough for everyone else to finish as well, but we still had a 6-ish hour drive back to Craig’s house where we would stay that night, before finally driving home the next morning.
So, after all these years I finally got to hike with the #teamzpacks core crew! I had met both Matt and Will before, but this was the first time I got to meet with Joe. After hiking with them all, I must admit, I am probably an even happier customer of theirs now… their gear had already proved to me over the last few years that it is what I am looking for, and while their online presence has also been outstanding over the years, their physical company while on this hike only reinforced these feelings more.
As well, it was also a great joy to be able to hike with Ben from GooseFeet Gear again. This was not the first hike I have been on with him, but each time we have hiked/camped together, I look forward to meeting up with him more and more. And just like with Zpacks, I cannot recommend his company enough, and this is from both, my experience with his gear, as well as knowing him on a personal level.
I was also excited to get to meet some of the other folks somewhat behind the scenes at Zpacks, and even their good buddy Steve that I see often times on other #teamzpacks trip reports. And of course it’s always great to hike with my good buddies Benny and Craig! I wish I could get out with them more on a regular basis… And last but not least, my heart was filled with joy for being able to spend this time with my son. For those that follow my trip reports somewhat close, you are probably aware of the many times I talk about being home sick, despite the beauty in which I find myself surrounded by while on hikes, but being able to take my son with me really helps with that… as well, it creates lasting memories that I will forever cherish… I thanks God for these experiences, and look forward to more of them in the future!
And I must give a HUGE shout out to Haley, aka Craig’s wife! She prepared a fantastic meal for us to “come home to” Monday night after the hike. Breakfast casseroles, delicious homemade biscuits, pancakes, BACON, cookies…. and even a great selection of beers! She really spoiled us that night! The only other “home-cooked” meal I have had on the trail that comes close to that one was at Mountain Harbour Hostel…. Not to mention that I really appreciate Craig and Haley’s hospitality for opening up their home to us and allowing us to shower and get a good nights sleep after the hike, before finishing the last 5 hours of my trip home on Tuesday.
So as I mentioned, this was my first trip on the Florida Trail. It was a great experience, and I am so glad that I was able to make it. The scenery alone was drastically different from the other hikes I have been on (and while I didn’t think about it while on the trail, after watching Will’s video, I noticed that he commented that some of it reminded him of the southern desert sections of the PCT). And yes, it was basically flat, and now that it’s done, I gotta say, it wasn’t that bad… Considering that we did hike ~70 miles in 3.5 days, I was pleasantly surprised that my legs were never sore… not during the hike, or even after. My feet were a little tender, but that should be expected after walking that distance in that time frame. In fact the only issues I had was my left pinky toe, and that wasn’t even that bad (I will discuss this more in a following video specifically about my shoes though). All in all though, I have chalked this hike up to a really great experience! I want to thank Matt from Zpacks for both inviting me on this hike, as well as organizing the hike. It was really good to be able to just show up…
Finally, be sure to check out Benny’s write up from this hike, as well as Benny & Red Beard’s video (below)!
So, until next time, thanks for stopping by!
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with anyone, or any of the above mentioned companies. I am not being paid, or compensated in any way to say anything about any of them. The trip report above reflects my own deepest thoughts… they are mine.