Alligator Lake Recreation Area is a large region with looping crisscrossing hiking trails cutting through the marshy lake. I had seen it on maps and the Big Shoals state ranger had recommended it as a great birding site.
I first visited the park on Thursday and decided to walk the main perimeter trail around the lake. It was seventy and sunny. The three mile trail began on Deer Trail near the playground. The playground area has a restroom (with plumbing), and several large picnic shelters. I followed the narrow Deer Trail a short distance until I reached the wider James H. Montgomery Trail. A young man was heading out for a run. We spoke a briefly. He had pointed out the trailhead. I saw him again when I had reached the half mile point. He had already circled around from the other direction.
I had only walked about one hundred feet onto the Montgomery Trail when I saw an eight feet long alligator crossing the path ahead of me. The gator moved quickly from my left to the right and then froze as it’s head disappeared down the bank toward the water’s edge. I readied my camera but the photo was not ideal. I slowly approached in an arc while keeping a good distance, hoping to see the head. After three steps the reptile bolted into the water. I missed my photo opportunity. It was the only alligator I saw all day.
The trail was well kept and rewarding. I saw hundreds of white ibis, even more American coots, one common gallinule, multiple blue herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, a great blue heron, American bittern, and many others. It was a birding jackpot.
The dike offers a good view of the waters on either side. The well mowed wide flat top forms a nice trail eight feet above the waters edge. Trees and undergrowth obscure the immediate water edge. The ducks always scattered before I ever saw them. The turtles were warming up on logs and dirt mounds. They scattered splashing loudly into the lake. There were only a few other hikers on the trail. I would nod and greet them as we passed. The three mile hike took me one and a half hours. I had stopped frequently to observe the birds and take photos.
Friday started with rain. The intermittent showers kept me close to the RV. I used the day to do some shopping and catch up on some RV chores. That evening the temperatures were dropping into the high forties. Winter is not over yet.
Saturday morning I joined the group at Osceola National Forrest Mount Carrie site. Jay and Linda headed up the group of seven on a one point four mile interpretive hike through the longleaf pine forest. The forest used to stretch from Texas to the Carolinas. It was heavily harvested as one of the few industries during the post Civil War reconstruction period. The trees were also useful for their sap which was refined into turpentine. There is now a reforestation effort to restore large segments of the old growth forest. Controlled burns are an annual part of the restoration process.
The forest offers a unique habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, and indigo snakes. On the hike we discussed how to identify the longleaf pine by it’s grouping of needles into pompoms on the branches and the growth of the needles in groups of three. The red-cockaded woodpeckers drill their burrows into the trees about thirty feet up and maintain the presence of sap around the opening to deter predators. We saw a gopher tortoise burrow. It was an oval opening at the base of a sandy rise. Linda and Jay knew where to find it, otherwise it may have gone unnoticed. The hike had followed a loop adorned with informative markers about the forest habitat.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Mount Carrie hike but It wasn’t enough for me. After we disbanded I stopped for coffee at Panera Bread then drove to Alligator Lake. I hiked the one mile Old Canal Trail. The path protrudes in a straight line from the east shoreline deep into the lake. The return path is the same as the trail out. I saw many of the same birds as I had seen on Thursday. I also saw a few red shouldered hawks, and a some birds I have not yet identified. The additional hiking gave me a total of two and a half miles for the day.
Sunday morning started off very cold. After breakfast at Cracker Barrel, I returned to Alligator Lake. I hiked a series of adjoining trails starting at Deer Trail to Montgomery trail, Possum Trail, Capybara Trail then turned left to circle around Egret loop Trail. Egret Loop Trail left me guessing all the way. It was not labeled or marked so I could only guess that I was still on a park trail. It seemed to fit the map I had looked at but who knew. The trail continued in a straight line for too long then slowly curved right along a fence line. A small gathering of turkey buzzards surrounded a carcass in the middle of a field. They were undisturbed by my passing. I encountered a large puddle that required me to walk along the trails edge and swing around one tree with my toes pointed outwards. The trail then opened up into a harvested field of baled hay. There was no sign of the trail since there were no markers. I hugged the edge of the small field and found an opening on the far side that turned right along a dike high above the waters. After completing a good three quarters of the loop I came to a wide gap. Waters freely flowed from one side of the dike to the other. It was too wide to consider jumping and too deep to think about climbing down to wade across. I would not consider entering the muddy waters anyways. There was no bridge. My only option was to return the way I had come. I was so close to completing the loop but it was impossible to continue. I quick-timed along the dike retracing my route. I was not out for extra exercise. I was demonstrating my frustration at having walked so far only to be thwarted by an impasse.
I kept up the fast pace most of the way back to my car. I took time to check out a side route and found it dead ended a short way from the main trail. There was a bench and a barrier. It did not make sense to have it there but there it was. I checked my total hike for the day and found I had walked four point four miles in two hours. On the way out I had taken my time while taking a few photos too. On the way back I was all business. I downed a lot of water afterward. I consulted the map posted by the restrooms and found that the unexpected gap was noted as an access for boats. Had I looked at the map closely I may have turned right at the loop and saved myself the frustration of having walked so far only to be turned around.
I am attaching a link of the Alligator Lake Recreational Area map: http://www.columbiacountyfla.com/Downloads/Parks%20and%20Recreation/Alligator%20Lake%20Park%20Map.pdf
You can see the trails that I have mentioned here.