This year’s spring break trip had a number of inspirations. First, Christy was eager to get back into triathlons, and decided to do an off-road race (lake swimming, mountain biking, and trail running) at Bear Lake near Pensacola, Florida. It was my job to build a trip from there.
One of my goals is to do at least one hike in every state. I came up with a plan that would enable me to hike in four new states – Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, and Illinois. Of course I didn’t want to spend the entire trip in those states. I’ve wanted to do some serious hiking in the Ozark Mountains of northwestern Arkansas for years now. Last September two good friends of mine had a great trip that included some hikes in that area. Their trip inspired me to do some real exploring up there.
As luck would have it, I got a job assignment outside of Atlanta the week before the trip. I was scheduled to finish my job Thursday afternoon. That meshed well with Christy’s desire to get to Pensacola by Friday afternoon. There were some logistical challenges, but I solved them by renting a car one-way from Charlotte to Atlanta for my job. I did most of the packing the weekend prior to leaving for Atlanta. On Thursday afternoon, Christy would pick me up at the Avis office in Buford, GA. We’d ride together from there, spending Thursday night at a hotel in Montgomery, Alabama. That would allow us to get to Pensacola early on Friday. As a result, Christy would be able to ride the course in advance and pick up her race packet.
After Christy’s race on Saturday morning we planned to hit the beach for a little while. Then we’d head to Percy Quin State Park in Mississippi, where we had campsite reserved. On Sunday we’d knock out two ½ day hikes. The first would be to several waterfalls on Clark Creek and its tributaries in southwestern Mississippi. That afternoon we’d do a hike to Castor Creek near Alexandria, Louisiana. After camping near there Sunday night, we’d drive to the Ozarks on Monday. We’d spend the next few days hiking in and around the Buffalo National River. We also planned to check out some caves and were considering renting kayaks to paddle one section of the river. Thursday evening we’d visit Eureka Springs, Arkansas and camp at Roaring River State Park in Missouri. On Friday we’d hike to Cave Spring on Missouri’s Current River. We’d spend the last two nights of our trip car camping at Ferne Clyffe State Park in Illinois. On Saturday we’d do some hikes in the Shawnee National Forest in Illinois. Then we’d spend most of the day Sunday driving home.
BEAR LAKE AND JUNIPER CREEK
That final week of work was awful. It was a job I’d done previously, back in November. That assignment had been a disaster. Unfortunately, the follow-up assignment wasn’t much better. It was a relief when Thursday afternoon rolled around and I was able to pull the plug on it. I returned the rental car at the Avis in Buford and walked to the Mexican restaurant next door. I had chips and salsa and a couple of beers waiting for Christy. She arrived before long, having already endured a nightmarish drive. She recovered with a margarita. Then we made the short drive to P.F. Changs for dinner. This was strategic, as we were hoping that Atlanta’s rush hour traffic would clear out while we were eating. It was a good plan, but we hadn’t counted on a major bridge on I-85 burning to the ground that evening.
By the time we neared that area the ghost of General Sherman had already done his deed. I-85 was closed, so we took 285 around the south side of Atlanta. It was after 8pm, but traffic was still pretty terrible due to the closure. We eventually made it to the Candlewood Suites in Montgomery and crashed. The next morning we realized that the Prius needed an oil change. We had a lot of miles ahead of us, so we didn’t want to wait until after the trip. We stopped at an express oil change place and took care of that before hitting the road.
We went straight to Bear Lake, which is a 45-minute drive northeast of Pensacola. Christy’s race would include swimming in the lake (which is normally off-limits due to the presence of alligators), and mountain biking and running on trails in the area. While Christy was scouting the mountain bike course I hiked the running course. I followed the trail around Bear Lake, but I didn’t see any bears or alligators. However, I did find some wildflowers, including a couple of areas with white-topped pitcher plants in bloom.
I finished the 4-mile hike and met Christy back at the parking area. From there we drove to a bike shop in Pensacola so Christy could pick up her race packet. Afterwards we went to Olive Garden, mainly because someone had given us a gift card. They also gave us gift cards to Outback and Cracker Barrel. These aren’t restaurants we typically eat at, but this trip was a good opportunity to use them.
From there we headed over to the Candlewood Suites, where I’d booked a free room. I would’ve preferred to camp at Bear Lake, but they don’t take reservations and the campground is small. When we planned the trip we’d been worried about counting on getting a spot there.
We got up early the next morning and drove back up to Bear Lake. Christy dropped me off on the way though. While she was racing, I would hike the Juniper Creek Trail. She dropped me off at the northern trailhead, with plans to pick me up at the south end at Blackwater River State Park early that afternoon.
The trail is only 7 miles long, and I had plenty of time. Christy dropped me off at the bridge over Juniper Creek, so I took some time exploring upstream and down along it. There is a primitive camping area here, which would be ideal if Christy does this race again in the future. The creek is lovely, with numerous sandy beaches and dark tan water. A short distance upstream I found mountain laurel in bloom. Prior to this trip, I didn’t know that mountain laurel grows in Florida. It was great to catch it in bloom.
After exploring around a bit, I returned to the road and walked down it a ¼ mile to the actual trailhead. There was a small group of people here, as apparently there was a trail race on the Juniper Creek Trail that morning. I was amazed, as we were only a few miles from Bear Lake. It’s surprising that there were two different races going on in the same area on the same morning.
The first runners started passing by a few minutes later. Fortunately, I reached a side trail that demanded exploration at the same time. I followed it to the top of a colorful, eroded bluff. It was a dramatic spot, at least by Florida standards, as the bluff is 60’ above the creek. I took in the views from the top, and noticed another dense stand of mountain laurel. Then I found a trail that led down to the creek at the base of the bluff. From there I was able to explore around the eroded face of the bluff.
From there I rejoined the trail and followed it south. At times it followed the creek closely, but occasionally it wandered inland or up onto bluffs. One impressive stretch of bluffs featured a camping area and shelter. Farther downstream were more lovely beaches.
After about 4 miles the trail and creek parted ways. A bit farther on I crossed a paved road and passed through a stand of longleaf pine. A bit later I spotted another pitcher plant blooming in the middle of the trail. The final stretch of trail, in Blackwater River State Park, had some wet and muddy sections. I reached the picnic area and trailhead at the bridge a few minutes after Christy arrived. I had originally planned to lounge on the nearby beach while waiting for her, but I had dawdled so much during the hike that she beat me.
We drove into Milton and stopped at a Mexican Restaurant. Then we headed out to Pensacola Beach, which is pretty despite being very busy. We lounged there for a bit before resuming the journey west.
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