First published in The Florida Times-Union on Monday, March 3, 2014.
Story idea was requested by Outside section coordinator Francine Frazier.
Reporting, interviews, photography and writing was done solely by Matt Keene.
Published in print and online.
North Florida Trailblazers maintain area’s ‘best kept secret’
More than 33 years ago, the North Florida Trailblazers made it their mission to protect and maintain an 18-inch-wide strip of hiking trail known as the Florida National Scenic Trail.
The trail, popular with backpackers and day hikers alike, runs more than 1,000 miles from the cypress sloughs of the Everglades to the sand dunes of Gulf Islands National Seashore in the Panhandle. While the Florida Trail Association is responsible for the promotion, development and preservation of the trail, the Trailblazers are one of eighteen regional chapters dedicated to active participation and maintenance.
“The Florida Trail has been the best kept secret for so many years,” said Janie Hamilton, section leader of the Trailblazers.
As the local chapter for northeast Florida, the Trailblazers maintain the Florida Trail from Keystone Heights to the town of White Springs, amounting to around 115 miles. This segment of trail winds through native azalea, wild rosemary and fire-dependent wiregrass ecosystems. Hikers are often shaded under expansive oak canopies and cooled by soft breezes blowing across the numerous lakes.
Florida’s subtropical climate, however, makes trail maintenance a challenge and demands rigorous upkeep. An average annual rainfall of 50 to 65 inches causes vegetation to grow quickly along the trail. Without support from regional chapters like the Trailblazers, the route would quickly become overgrown.
The group coordinates work hikes where they spend seven to eight hours at a time pruning bushes, sawing fallen trees, mowing the narrow hiking strip and painting fresh blazes to mark the route.
They schedule work hikes from late Fall until late Spring, allowing for a clear trail when the majority of hikers will be passing through. The group logs more than 800 volunteer hours a year maintaining their section.
For trail-keepers, protecting remote and wild areas of the state is all the incentive they need.
“The main thing is to get out and see a part of Florida that you don’t see by driving,” said Hamilton. “If you don’t see it, you’re not going to care. If you see what’s out here, you become attached to it and want to take care of it.”
The rapid urbanization of Florida and the loss of natural areas have spurred the Florida Trail Association to build and protect a continuous, permanent hiking corridor through Florida.
Established in 1966, the trail now partners with the USDA Forest Service, private landowners and more than 23 land management agencies to manage the hiking path.
In addition to the more than 1,000 miles of continuous trail, there are more than 365 miles of loop and spur trails in state parks, state forests and other public lands.
Plans call for another 400 or more miles of trail to be added.
“There’s some beautiful scenery if you open your eyes and look for it,” said Cary Beuershausen, trail coordinator for the Trailblazers. “It’s so diverse from one end to the other.”
For Beuershausen, going from hiker to volunteer was a natural development. An avid Appalachian Trail hiker, he started volunteering with the Trailblazers in 2012 as an activity leader.
While he enjoyed the responsibility of organizing and leading hikes, an opportunity arose to work with section leaders, land managers and private landowners to preserve the hiking path.
Beuershausen is proud of his chapter, which has been able to grow their work hikes and attract participation often numbering more than 20 volunteers.
“I just encourage anybody to get out and explore the state,” said Beuershausen. “People don’t realize how much there is to explore right in their own backyard.”