The alligator was no surprise. After all, this was a dike trail in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is known for alligators as well as a profusion of bird life, bobcats and other animals. I just didn't know where I would see the first one.
The seven-footer was alongside the trail beside a small pond-minding its own business. He didn't budge when I rode past him on my mountain bike. That suited me fine. I was on the first leg of a 12-mile loop ride on the east side of Lighthouse Road. When I took a right onto another dike after 4.5 miles, the trail was overgrown with tall grass-and sandspurs. They grabbed at my shoes and socks. The tall grass made for slow riding.
The payoff for the refuge's sporadic mowing were yellow wildflowers that drew a profusion of Gulf Coast fritillary butterflies. In October, migrating monarchs would also cover these blossoms. The orange-winged creatures flew up and fluttered around me as I slowly passed.
As the trail opened up into a vast panorama of open marsh, my field of vision increased by several miles. I never tire of the vastness and wild feeling of this coastal wet prairie. On past trips, I've spotted deer and bald eagles and I've seen bobcats frolic and hunt along these dikes near sunset. In the cooler months, when hiking and biking can be more pleasurable, a larger number of alligators sun along the dikes, so keep that in mind. No incidents have ever been reported that I'm aware of, although bringing dogs, even on a leash, is not a good idea.
I paused for a break at a live oak tree island known as the Ring Dike. This is one of the more spectacular primitive campsites for both long-distance hikers on the Florida National Scenic Trail and paddlers on the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail. Even though temperatures were above ninety degrees, a welcome sea breeze kept it tolerable and bugs weren't a problem.
The last leg of my loop ride was Lighthouse Road, where I rode to my parked car. I was sweat-soaked, but I still enjoyed the feeling of a good workout combined with outstanding scenery. If you have a chance, walk or ride on some of the refuge's many miles of dike roads and trails. Plus, the Florida National Scenic Trail covers 49.5 miles through the refuge, and much of the trail utilizes the raised dikes as well. Horseback riding is allowed on the back roads, too. Occasionally, portions of roads are temporarily closed due to bird nesting.
To learn more, log onto http://www.fws.gov/saintmarks/. Also, don't miss the refuge's Monarch Festival on October 27th. Beginning in mid-October, thousands of monarchs converge on the refuge as part of an incredible 2,000-mile journey to central Mexico.