Sunny January hiking on a budget

May 5, 2004
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Sunny January hiking on a budget
Question: I am a college student at Southwest Missouri State University. I was hoping that I could get away with my girlfriend for a week in January, during Christmas break. Do you have any economical suggestions as to where we could go? My girlfriend is not the most hardy of hikers. A milder outdoor adventure would be preferable.

Ryan Jenness
Springfield, MO

Adventure Adviser: You need to think two words, Ryan: Sunshine State. The sad fact is, much of the nation will be under snow by January--or at least a layer of thick frost--so if you're planning a low-key hike in the winter, Florida's really your only viable choice. Beyond the retirement communities, shrines to Mickey Mouse, and miles of high-rise condos, Florida is home to the 430,000-acre Ocala National Forest, a veritable mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. The best part about Ocala in the winter is that the mosquitoes have moved on (where, I have no idea, but who cares as long as they're gone), so you're left to enjoy terrific bird watching, hiking, and canoeing in peace.

Base yourself at Juniper Springs Campground ($9-$14 per night; 352-625-2520 for reservations), one of 18 developed camping areas in the forest. From there, take your pick of a whole network of hiking trails in the area, a big swimming hole, and a narrow, seven-mile canoe trail through cypress-lined Juniper Creek. If you opt for the water route, keep in mind that Juniper Creek, while not exactly whitewater, does have some fast-moving sections and limited road access. Your best bet is to put in at the campground, with an experienced paddler in the stern, and take out under the Florida 19 bridge, where one of several canoe concessionaires (rentals available at Juniper Springs; $20-$25 per day) can shuttle you back to your start. Bear in mind that alligators have first dibs on the creek, so save your swimming and wading for stream-fed Juniper Springs and nearby Fern Hammock Springs.

As for hiking, it's hard to beat the Ocala Trail, a 67-mile section of the Florida National Scenic Trail, for convenience and wildlife viewing. Head north out of Juniper Springs Campground, through cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks, and sandpine scrub to Hopkins Prairie and Lake Delancy. Unless you've arranged for a shuttle pick-up, you'll need to turn around here and retrace your steps about 15 miles back to Juniper Springs. Even if the scenery gets old the second time around, there are plenty of bobcats, woodpeckers, egrets, and herons to keep you interested. There are backcountry campsites along the entire length of trail, but keep in mind that camping is restricted during the November-through-early-January hunting season. For more camping reservations (recommended on weekends) and trail conditions, call the Lake George Ranger district at 352-625-2520 or the Florida Trail Association at 800-343-1882. Juniper Springs Campground is a 90-minute drive northwest of Orlando, about 28 miles east of Ocala on Florida 40, and (gulp) a mere 700-some-odd miles southeast of Springfield, Missouri.

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