CREW Trust Executive Director Brenda Brooks always says that she doesn’t have a favorite CREW Trail, but instead a favorite place at each one. Since I first heard that comment I have occasionally wondered which is in fact my favorite. After close to three years exploring the diverse CREW trail systems, I’ve found a few of my own favorite places that keep pulling me back for more, surprising me with their fierce beauty. Perhaps you’ve had the same thought as you’ve explored various CREW trail systems, that excitement of walking through your favorite place on the trail.
While we may not have traditional seasons in Florida, we do have seasonal indicators, like the first blooming pine lilies of the fall mixed with the purple liatris starting in September. I love finding these flowers along the CREW Cypress Dome (CDT) Green and White Trails, catching the eclectic variety of contrasting wildflowers lining the elegant long straightaways.
To find my favorite place at CREW Bird Rookery Swamp Trail (BRS), you’ll have to hike the whole thing, so if you’re down for the distance this is a full 12-mile loop. In fact, if you hike the whole thing and you’re considered a Looper cause let’s face it, you have to be a little loopy to do that (in a good way)! I recommend starting the loop clockwise, so after crossing the boardwalk and past the curve north at the large lakes, head west (or left) at the only fork in the trail. At this point, you will see a new “you are here” sign at trail marker B (don’t forget to hydrate).
Now comes the fun and exciting dance I like to call the alligator-side-step, part of the enthralling section heading west between trail markers B and E . I think it’s best to get there early because the early bird avoids the alligators. After all that side-stepping, it’s quite relaxing to take a break at the lake, next to trail maker E. Sit, relax, enjoy a snack break – you’ve earned it! For those long-distance hikers willing to continue, you’re in for a treat, as this next portion is my favorite place on the trail, which you can also access from CREW Flint Pen Strand’s Purple Trail! For those of you ready to call it a day, trail marker E makes for a great turn around point.
Are you still with me? Good! This section is amazing! Continue walking toward the northwestern curve of BRS, from trail markers E to D. This is a beautiful place where your eyes get a break from the sun under the dense verdant cypress trees arching high above. Preludes to this section are foreshadowed earlier along the trail, with the first cathedral-like corridor of cypress trees buffeting the raised railroad bed between amber swamp water on either side. Still, nothing compares to the density of this northwestern section of enormous cypress stands mixed with pond apple, maples and magnolia trees. Stop and take it all in!
The northwestern curve of the loop trail, which is essentially as far from civilization as one can get on a trail around here (outside of the Fakahatchee), will transport you beyond your day to day existence and allow you that moment of pause that happens at a truly beautiful vista. However, this place has no mountain view; instead it boasts a sensational overload of lively trees dripping with color, screaming with cicadas above and choruses of frogs below; mix in the whispers of warblers and you’ve got yourself (arguably) the best show in town. Reaching this far corner of wilderness is an empowering experience not for the faint of heart.
Another of my favorite places is located at CREW Flint Pen Strand, on the section called the Yellow Trail North. During the rainy season this is like one huge lazy river- so splash in the seasonal sheet-flow of water cascading through the dwarf cypress forest, which starts just north of where the trail stops hugging the Kehl Canal. The dendrochronologist (tree lover) in me wonders at these cypress trees’ diminutive stature; with basically nothing to hold themselves up, they hold on. How they hover on spindly, sometimes hollow trunks buttressed by their neon-lichen painted skirts exploding with cardinal tillandsias swinging from their branches baffles my mind! I highly recommend you return to this trail at least twice a year, once in the rainy and once during the dry season to appreciate the dwarf cypresses and their fragile-by-appearance-only buttresses surviving in the sugar-sand, waiting for the waters to return, but thriving nonetheless.
At CREW’s oldest trail system, the CREW Marsh Trails (CMT), you’ll always find a diversity of ecosystems, wide open trails and a little more infrastructure than at the other trail systems. However, at CMT it’s the single-track section that winds through the pop-ash and oak trees of the southwestern loop on the Green Trail that captures my heart. My favorite way to navigate to this favorite place along the Green Trail is to approach it from the north. Head past Suzanne’s Pavilion, past the south-facing Blue “short-cut” Trail and around the dry gopher habitat until you’re forced to walk single file. That’s where the trail narrows and the trees grow. Enormous oaks dwarf your tiny little human body and give you that sense of wonder that accompanies forest exploration. Slosh through the muddy water in the wet season and revel in the brightly colored mushrooms reaching from the fallen limbs overwhelmed by carpets of green moss, resurrection ferns and “troll ponytails” (AKA shoe-string ferns). This is a trail that gives the sensation of forging a new path, as you carefully plan each step – looking up, down, side to side with every single step.
It’s special to take pause and stand witness to the innumerable special places at CREW. Maybe appreciate that place where ecotones exemplify the jargon that defines them (an ecotone is a transition area between two biological communities) such as enjoying that first overflow of water spilling from one marsh to the next during the rainy season. Take your time and you may find that you like to see the early wildflower buds ready to bloom, knowing what they will become, so you can plan your next hike to correspond with the future flowery-fireworks show! Whatever your favorite place or thing may be at CREW, we’re glad you continue to come back for more throughout each Florida season.