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Crossing Florida: Part 1

Exploring Palmettos & Pines

Jay KopycinskiPhotographer, Writer

The idea was to traverse from west to east across the Florida Peninsula, traveling many dirt trails and exploring historical and interesting sites along the way. With a good variety of rigs of all shapes and sizes, the 11-vehicle caravan planned to expedition ’wheel for four days, camping along the way as they ran across Florida.

When good friend Mike Marrero, from the Florida Expedition Wheelers, asked if I wanted to join him and a crew of wheelers exploring a section of middle Florida, I jumped at the chance. We set out on a clear March day, headed into the palmettos and pines in the Sunshine State.

Our trip started slightly inland on the east side of the Florida Peninsula. We wheeled into the sandy trails of Scottsmoor, which is largely made up of decomposed Coquina shell. A maze of trails runs all over this area, weaving through huge fields of palmettos and varieties of palm trees. While more commonly an ATV area, we crawled some of the narrow trails in 4WDs.

We ventured into Tiger Bay State Forest, which is home to a large swamp area lying between two historic dunes, the Deland Ridge and the Daytona Ridge. Here, there is also remnants of the Pershing Highway, an old brick road constructed in 1917 that connected DeLand to Daytona Beach. Terrain is a mix between swamp and pine islands.

As we ran backroads, we found interesting sites and historic locations. One was the Fort Gates Ferry that crosses the St. Johns River, the longest river in Florida. The ferry began service in 1853 and is the oldest ferry in Florida. It has transported farmers, soldiers, livestock, wagons, and vehicles between Salt Springs in the Ocala National Forest and the communities on the east bank of the river. The establishment of Fort Gates served as a federal encampment during the Second Seminole War (1835 to 1842), the longest Indian uprising in U.S. history.

We followed fire roads and dirt trails through the Ocala National Forest, a huge expanse of Florida pines, scattered with more than 6,000 lakes, rivers, and streams. Our first days were cool ones as the spring was unseasonably chilly. We tent camped as we went and covered a wide expanse of the middle peninsula. We stuck to dirt where we could, but added some highway miles as well. This is the first half of our expedition. The second half took us to more trails and interesting places. The fun continues in our story next month.