In search of the Paynes Prairie Bison

There are many ways into Paynes Prairie, and I’ve been on a quest to explore them all in hopes of finding the elusive prairie bison.

There’s the Bolen Bluff entrance, off of U.S. 441 near Gainesville, and there’s the La Chua Trail entrance,  off the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail.

I’ve hiked each of these several times, but despite my passionate finger-crossing, I’ve yet to spot the bison.  So, I went to the only park entrance left – the main one. (Scroll down for an interactive map of the park entrances.)

Paynes-Prairie-watch-tower

The three-story watch tower looking over the prairie.

The main park entrance, which is along U.S. 441 near Micanopy, provides access to the park’s campground, ranger station, observation deck and several trailheads.  I went for the trails and the tower, hoping to spot the bison before the herd is no more.

I went twice, on consecutive weekends, to no avail.  But I did get to check out the trails on that side of the prairie, and I had another encounter with the Spanish horses that roam the park, which was a nice consolation prize.

The two main trails that leave from the park entrance are Cone’s Dike and Chacala Trail.  Cone’s Dike is a four-mile, one-way trail that heads straight (literally) into the prairie.  It’s beautiful scenery, but the hike itself isn’t terribly enjoyable.  Cone’s Dike Trail is four miles and exactly three 90 degree turns.

Cardinal-Paynes-Prairie

The view from Cone’s Dike Trail (and a solitary cardinal).

Built on the route of an old ranger service road (still apparent, as the first two miles of the trail are gravel), the trail runs in a straight line for a half mile before making a sharp right, where it goes for another half mile.  Eventually, and this is exciting, the trail turns left.  In two miles, another right.  Eventually, it dead ends, and you walk back.

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A Fitness Hike in Newnans Lake Conservation Area (Terri Mashour Guest Post)

I’m happy to have Terri Mashour guest posting today about a fitness hike she led at Newnans Lake Conservation Area, near Gainesville.  Read on to hear about her encounter with a water moccasin, an unfortunate split in her hiking group and (I never knew this) how the land management staff uses horses to assist in prescribed burns.

Terri owns Gainesville Ecotours, a company that offers interpretive and informative hikes in some of Alachua County’s most interesting parks and preserves.  Before running her own show, she worked in land management for over six years, specializing in prescribed forest burns, among other things.

But now, her focus is on hiking.  You can catch up with Gainesville Ecotours on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and GainesvilleEcotours.com.  Check Terri’s calendar to join a hike!

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Newnans Lake Conservation Area is owned and managed by the St. Johns River Water Management District and is located in Alachua County, just outside of Gainesville, Florida. It is 6,500 acres found in three disjunct parcels with around 16 miles of hiking, biking, and equestrian multi-use trails divided amongst the three. Mostly mesic flatwoods habitat with some sandhills, the northern most tract, Hatchet Creek, has some floodplain systems via Bee Creek, Little Hatchet Creek, Hatchet Creek, and Gum Root Swamp that allow for some beautiful hiking minutes from Gainesville.  That was the setting for our hike on this adventurous day.

Wild Azaleas

The beautiful wild azaleas.

The hike started out with a brief meeting with the on-site resident for the Rotary Club outparcel.  Mr. Sullivan noted that there was a Florida black bear sighting at the entrance the week before. Checking for any food-related care packages, I’m sure! OK, as a veteran of the woods, but a relatively new hiking guide, I could handle that: talk loud and keep a good look out. The group of five – four long time Gainesville residents/friends and me, the fearless guide set out on the main hiking trail at the Newnans Lake Hatchet Creek entrance on the north side of SR 26, five miles east of the Gainesville Airport.

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Hiking the Big Oak Trail at Suwannee River State Park

One of my favorite trails of last year was the Big Oak Trail, which winds through Suwannee River State Park and visits two of Florida’s most impressive rivers – the Suwannee and the (north) Withlacoochee.

There are a number of ways to hike this trail, and a number of trailheads (some official, others less so), but the main loop of the trail is between 11 and 12.5 miles, depending on who you ask.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of hiking at the park is finding where to park.  You have  a few options:  Starting at the ranger station (where admission is $5), the hike is a full 12.5 miles.  Starting from the parking area across the Withlacoochee (free admission), the hike is 9.5 miles.  And starting from the “gas pipeline entrance” along C.R. 141 (free side-of-the-highway parking), it’s only about 4.5 miles.  All of these hikes are possible day hikes, but you’ll want to make sure you bring the right provisions for the longer ones.

I parked near the abandoned bridge across the Withlacoochee.  Heading west on U.S. 90, take the first right after you cross the Withlacoochee – follow that road to the right until you reach the dead end.  To your left will be a small parking area, straight ahead will be an abandoned bridge, and to your right will be a single home with a rabbit farm (you’ll smell it).

Withlacoochee Bridge

The abandoned bridge over the Withlacoochee, once a vital passage for livestock transport.

Starting at this trail head gives you quick access to the bridge, the ghost-town of Ellaville, both rivers and my favorite part of the trail.  Also, it’s a fairly secure parking lot with free admission.

You have three options from here, and all of them are worth exploring.  You can head across the bridge to hike back toward the Suwannee River State Park, you can hike out on the blue-blazed trail that connects to the parking lot, or you can head through the opening into the woods.  I’d suggest the third option.

Even though this is an unofficial and unmarked area, there’s an amazing number of things to see back here.  It’s the shortest walk to the river, and it’s also the quickest route to some of the more interesting ruins from the town of Ellaville, which disappeared from the map about a hundred years ago.  But in the late 1800s, Ellaville was a town of about 1,000 and home to Florida’s first governor, George Drew.  Ruins from this town can be found all over the park and all along the trail, but the greatest concentration is right near the abandoned bridge trailhead.

The most interesting of these is the dammed Suwannacoochee Spring, which flows into the Withlacoochee.  I haven’t found a definitive answer to the function of the dammed spring, but I’d imagine it was used as a source for clean, cool, fresh water with easier access than the river itself.

Suwannacoochee Spring

The spring flows through the ruins of the old dam and out into the Withlacoochee.

Hiking along the river from the spring, you’ll run into all sorts of old brick structures, wells, storage silos and machinery.  It’s a bit of a puzzle to figure out what any of them are, as most are in the process of being swallowed up by the vegetation.

If you decide to hike along the river here, be careful.  There is something of a trail, but there are no blazes or other markers, and often the trail disappears altogether.  Clearly, people hike here, but it would be easy to get lost.  Stay within sight of the river and you should be OK.

Ruins Ellaville Suwannee

A 20-foot deep brick storage silo (maybe?) along the river.

For better hiking, though, you should head back to the parking lot and get on the trail marked with the blue blazes.  Hike for about a half mile on this trail and you’ll come to a split.

Ellaville cemetery

The most well-preserved of the tombstones in the Ellaville cemetery.

Blue blazes head to the left, orange blazes to the right.  The blue blazed trail is about two miles long (four miles roundtrip) and takes you out to the old cemetery and the former site of Governor Drew’s mansion.

The cemetery is one of the oldest in the state and is in pretty dour shape.  A very, very rough logging road runs nearby, but otherwise, there’s no access to this cemetery but by foot.

Finding the governor’s mansion is a little more difficult.  It’s along this same trail, but the remaining wood structure was burnt to the ground by arsonists in the 1970s.  I found it impressive that it lasted that long, abandoned in the woods as it was.  If you’re looking, you’ll still find some broken piping, a well and a foundation, under a foot of fallen leaves, if you’re there in early winter.

There’s also a picnic table that has somehow made it’s way out into the woods.  It’s a good indicator of the home site, though probably an improbable place for a picnic.

Ellaville cemetery

The remains of the Ellaville cemetery.

Drew Mansion

The Drew Mansion in its heyday.

Drew Mansion Site

The Drew Mansion “clearing” today.

Drew Mansion ruins

Ceramic drainage pipes near the Drew Mansion site.

Heading back to the blue-orange split, you can enter the actual Big Oak Trail and begin the nine-mile loop.  If you imagine the Withlacoochee and Suwanee Rivers coming together in a Y shape, the loop sits in the bowl made by the upper arms of the Y.  Leaving from the Blue-Orange split, the trail hikes up along the Withlacoochee, then cuts east to meet up with the Suwannee.  Hiking down the Suwanee and back across the abandoned bridge, you’ll eventually return to the parking lot where you began.

This section of the trail is part of the Florida Trail, meaning it’s well maintained and well marked by our friends at the Florida Trail Association.  The hike offers wonderful views of both rivers, more ruins, sinkholes, wildlife, and some of the more interesting terrain in Florida.  There are no major inclines or declines on the hike, but it is rarely flat either.  At several points, unofficial side trails lede down to the river, and they are certainly worth taking.

Florida Trail entrance

Florida Trail Entrance at the Blue-Orange split.

Suwannee River railroad

Crossing the old, but still active, railroad tracks along the Florida Trail.

Withlacoochee River

The Withlacoochee River in December.

On the back side of the hike, as you follow the Suwannee south, you’ll pass the big gas pipeline that crosses the river.  Shortly after, you’ll notice the massive Big Oak, for which the park is named.  It’s big.  You can’t miss it.

Big Oak Trail.

Hiking the Big Oak Trail.

The whole trail is great, but it’s important to have a plan and a good map before you head out.  There are side trails and shorter loops within the big loop (along the pipeline), and getting side tracked on a full-day hike could leave you out in the cold.

If you plan to hike overnight, and there are primitive campsites along the river, I’d suggest leaving from the official park entrance, where the parking lot is secured and maps are provided.  Leaving from the other two spots, while shortening the hike and providing quicker access to the highlights of the park, are a bit of a gamble in terms of parking lot security – especially overnight.

Make sure to bring water and snacks if you’re heading out on the longer hikes.  There’s nowhere to stop along the way – once you’re out there, you’re out there.  And again, make sure to have a plan.  This is a big park with lots to see, but it can get confusing once you’re out on the trails.  A trail map is must-have:  Here’s the map provided by the park (PDF).

On the map below, I’ve marked the three trailheads.  Any of the three would make for a great day of adventure, but my recommendation is the abandoned bridge trailhead.

Enjoy!

 

Hiking the ravine at Gold Head Branch State Park

Halfway between Gainesville and Jacksonville, there’s a state park with long trails and a really long name.  Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park (a mouthful) also has the distinction of being one of the oldest state parks in Florida.

Originally established in the 1930s as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps program, the park is consistently rated as one of the best in the state’s system.

Florida Trail entrance

The entrance to the Florida Trail, near the ranger station.

The park has more than eight miles of trails, 5.4 of which are part of the Florida Trail.  This scenic stretch is the best hiking in the park and makes for a nice afternoon trek.

The trail begins across from the ranger station at an informational sign with emblazoned with the familiar Florida Trail logo.  From the trail head, a mile’s walk through the sandhill ecosystem takes you to the junction with the ravine trail.

Sand trail Gold Head State Park

The ravine is the most dramatic feature in the park and is a unique formation for this part of Florida.  The naturally occurring ravine is about (best guess here) 50-60 feet down at its deepest.  A staircase, and a number of unofficial side trails, take hikers down to the bottom, where a small creek – Gold Head Branch – flows through the park.  As you hike along the ravine, the creek’s flow increases as new water sources join in.  By the time the creek approaches Big Lake Johnson, it’s moving a substantial amount of water.

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Hunting for shark teeth in Central Florida

I got a tip a few weeks back from someone who told me to look for shark teeth in the creeks around Gainesville.

The teeth are there, they said. You just have to know where to look.

So, I set out to find them. And find them I did.

Hogtown-Creek-Gainesville

Hogtown Creek in Loblolly Woods Nature Park

I went to Loblolly Woods Nature Park, which is one of many parks that protects Hogtown Creek, the small, swift brook that cuts across the city.

Loblolly Woods has a few miles of hiking, biking and jogging trails and, likely because of how convenient the it is, the park gets a lot of use.

But the star of the show is the creek. The ages-old creek plays a vital role in Gainesville’s ecology, and it ultimately flows into the aquifer from which Gainesvillians draw their drinking water.

The creek has a mostly sandy bottom, but pebbles gather in the bends and where the elevation of the creek bottom changes. Grab a handful of pebbles and you’ll be surprised what you find.

In 15 mintues of looking, I found about 10 sharks’ teeth. Most were small (1/4 inch, maybe), but some were of a decent size. All of them were very, very old.

Like, 10 million years old, according to the experts.  The creeks in Gainesville cut into a phosphate layer under the soil, which formed when central Florida was first rising out of the ocean.  That layer holds the fossilized remains of aquatic animals and land animals – saber teeth have also been found in the area, for example.

Hogtown-Creek-shark-teeth

A handful of shark teeth found along the creek.

gainesville-shark-teeth

Ten-million-year-old shark teeth, found at Loblolly Woods.

In fact, Gainesville is one of the best places in the state to look for fossils, especially shark teeth.  Hogtown Creek, Rattlesnake Creek, and many of their tributaries are littered with shark teeth.

The best time to go for a hunt is after a heavy rain, when the high water levels recede and leave less-dense fossils on top of the more-dense rocks.  The best places to look are in the bends of the creek, where small pebbles tend to accumulate.

Hogtown Creek

Pebbles and fossils have collected under this fallen log.

Take care to leave the creek in a better condition than you found it.  Don’t step on plants, don’t dig and take out any garbage you come across.

If you’re interested in reading more about the ecology of Hogtown Creek, check out the brochure created by the GainesvilleCreeks.org.  For more on the other parks in he Hogtown Creek basin, visit Gainesville’s parks website.

A hike through Torreya State Park (Florida Trailblazer Guest Post)

I’m so happy to have a fellow Florida hiker guest posting today.  The Florida Trailblazer has been hiking the backwoods of the Sunshine State for a few years now, and, like the rest of us, loves the history, geography, ecosystems and wildlife that make Florida so unique.  I first met up with him on Twitter and eventually made my way to his amazing YouTube channel, which is chock full of videos from hikes on the Florida Trail and state parks.  

Today, he’s writing about Torreya State Park in the Florida Panhandle.  Let him know what you think in the comments section.  And be sure to check out the Florida Trailblazer on Twitter, YouTube and at his blog.  You can also email him at o_rionstarr(at)yahoo.com.  Enjoy!

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Torreya State Park

Photo by Florida Trailblazer

One of the most beautiful and unique State Parks in Florida that I have had the opportunity to explore is Torreya State Park in Florida’s panhandle. The park is named for an extremely rare species of Torreya tree that only grows on the bluffs along the Apalachicola River. This magnificent place is located 15 miles south of Chattahoochee and 13 miles north of Bristol off of State Road 12 on County Road 1641. The High bluffs overlooking the Apalachicola River and Torreya trees are just a couple of the intriguing features there that you’ll discover. The park sits on 12,000 acres of river swamps, high pinelands, extensive ravines and high bluffs along the Apalachicola river. This area has one of the most variable terrains of any in Florida.

It was early morning, the skies were clear and the sun was shining through the trees. The temperature was a cool 45 degrees when we started out. It was autumn and we couldn’t have picked a better time to see this place! It was a stunning array of colored foliage.

Torreya State Park Joe Dunn

Trailhead at the picnic area | Photo by Florida Trailblazer

I’ve never seen so many fall colors in Florida and when you combine that with the terrain, you don’t feel like your in Florida at all!  Once you enter the park, drive past the gate entrance and pay at the self pay station which is only $2. Now that you are in the park it’s time to find some trails and begin exploring! You have some options here as to what trailhead to begin at, as there are a few. As soon as you enter there is a trailhead, however there is no parking available. Continue down the road to the picnic area on the right, or keep driving until you get to the historical Gregory House. On this particular hike we started at the picnic area trailhead for a blue connector trail.

After hiking through the bluffs, ravines and shaded forests we began to hike back up in elevation into the upland pine forest areas. What spectacular views here! We saw deer and plenty of birds in this part. This area of prairie is mixed with grasses and tall pine trees. It’s here where you’ll see cotton plants as well. An old cotton warehouse once stood along the river within the park – a reminder of the days when the cotton industry helped feed the area’s economy.

Torreya State Park

Photo by Florida Trailblazer

You’ll mostly hike on flat level terrain through here and notice off into the distance the surrounding border of trees and forests where you just came out of. Since it’s so open, it’s nice to take in the fresh air and sunshine. It is so relaxing and quiet here. As you cross through this area the trail lead you out to a paved road. This is the park road you drove in on, notice the entry gate here as well. By this time the temperature had climbed up to around 70 degrees and the weather was absolutely perfect.When leaving the stone bridge you begin to hike up in elevation.  We were now on the main orange seven mile loop trail that meanders through the park and is maintained by The Florida Trail Association.

Further along we ran into a blue blazed trail that connects to the “Torreya Challenge Trail”. This part of the forest is extremely hilly so be prepared for climbing up and down as you cross over streams and ridges. I only got to explore a little part of the Torreya Challenge Trail on this trip so I am looking forward to checking more of it out on the next visit. The trail starts off as a wide multi-use trail and you begin to traverse down in elevation as you near a ravine. We hiked down this part until we reached an old stone bridge that crosses a ravine. It is part of the main orange blazed trail on your left around the bend. The stone bridge was the first scenic feature of the hike. We couldn’t resist to stop here for a break to take photos and videos.

The stone bridge was built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). This State Park is one of the first in Florida that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) helped develop.  Truly, this is a must see!  It just has an old rustic feel and I felt transported to another time and place. The ravine, stones and hilly pine forest beside it gives you this impression. You can feel the history here. Walk down the side of the bridge by the water and notice the ravine and rugged terrain as you look up. The water levels were low when I was here, but I’m sure they are higher during the wet season.  From the carved ravine you notice how high water levels have been in the past. Since the water levels were low, I took a walk under the bridge to get another perspective. I took this opportunity to take tons of photos and videos before moving on.

Torreya State Park

Rock bluffs | Photo by Florida Trailblazer

For this hike we continued on the main orange trail and this lead us south toward the front entrance gate. Upon entering, we were instantly surrounded by shaded hardwood hammocks. The trail is a single narrow path and is really well maintained. You’ll hike up and down over bluffs as you cross several creeks and wooden bridges over the ravines. Notice the geography here as you look at the surrounding bluffs and ravines. You can clearly see how the land has been carved out here. I could see the land sloping down back into the Earth. The place will have you marveling in wonder as you observe the terrain.

After taking a small break we continued on the main orange trail which dipped back into the forest, heading southwest. Upon exiting the upland pine forest area, we were immediately confronted with tall rocky ledges.  We took some time to explore the amazing structures and peer down from the high bluffs. The area reminded us of  the US Southwest which includes desert and canyons. When I stood at the bottom of the bluff I couldn’t help but think that it resembled a mini-canyon.

 

We continued along the trail and eventually came upon the Rock Bluffs primitive camping area. Along this part of the trail it’s very rigorous as you climb stairwells ascending into high rock bluffs. I was really taken back by this geography, it isn’t very common in Florida. I remember feeling like I was hiking in a mountain wilderness. We encountered high cliffs and rock ledges overlooking rim swamps which is nothing I’ve encountered along other parts of the Florida Trail. Along the rim swamps we continued and peered down into a meadow of green grasses and cypress trees. It was breathtaking!

Along the high bluffs you begin to see the Apalachicola River, get ready for some truly amazing views! From this area you’ll hike down from the surrounding bluffs toward the shoreline of the Apalachicola River. The trail will lead you along the river banks and I noticed the calm and beautiful water. The Apalachicola River starts high above Atlanta, Ga., in the Appalachian Mountains and flows all the way down and exits into the Gulf of Mexico.

As you hike down along the shore of the river, look up on the other side of the trail. You’ll notice the high ridges that you just came down from. Look at the very top of the cliff and you will spot the Gregory House. The Gregory House, which originally sat across the river at Ocheesee Landing, was built around 1849 by planter Jason Gregory. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, the plantation fell into decline. The house was donated to the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1935. One of the many projects that the CCC tackled at Torreya Park was moving and rebuilding the Gregory House. We continued along the shore and began the strenuous hike back up, we couldn’t wait to see this beautiful house up close. You’ll see a blue blazed trail off of the Orange trail, but don’t worry there is a sign and this will lead you to the house.

As we hiked along the blue blazed trail, we came across some old Confederate gun pits. You won’t find any weapons or guns here but simply markers indicating where they once were positioned. Some literature explains that this area provides high open views of the river, so during the Civil War this was a critical defense point. When Florida seceded from the Union in 1861, the Apalachicola River was a vital transportation artery. The river provided access to vital Southern industrial centers and one of the most prosperous plantation belts in the Confederacy. Part of the Union strategy was to blockade the Southern coastline, choking off commerce and slowly strangling the Confederacy to death. Rivers like Apalachicola could then be used to access the interior of Florida. The Confederates responded by fortifying streams and placing heavy cannons along their banks.  Following their evacuation of the City of Apalachicola in 1862, Southern troops built a series of batteries for heavy artillery along the river. One of these was built in 1863, at Battery or Neal’s Bluff in what is now Torreya State Park.

Torreya State Park

Gun pit area | Photo by Florida Trailblazer

After you pass this area you will come out to a trailhead and you see the the marvelous Gregory House. In 1935 the CCC moved the house to it’s current location and restored it, thinking it could be used as a small hotel. It is no longer a hotel, but they do offer tours. The day we arrived they were renovating it, but we were able to peer into the windows and admire it’s beauty. Be sure to take a break and enjoy the benches on the lawn, they overlook the river below. I remember sitting here and reflecting upon this place and taking in the spectacular view. I could imagine amazing sunsets here!

Torreya State Park

The Gregory House | Photo by Florida Trailblazer

Torreya State Park

The view from behind the Gregory House | Photo by Florida Trailblazer

We walked back over to the blue trailhead and started our descent. We went back down into the ravines and onto the main orange trail once again. We hiked through a portion of the trail that is bottom-land swamp that consisted of vast shades of green foliage and had a tropical feel.  We stumbled upon a blue blazed trail that leads to Rock Creek Primitive Camp and encountered a fellow hiker.  We followed the trail back around to complete the main orange loop trail. At this point we knew we had limited daylight since it was Autumn and the sun sets around 5:30pm, but I really wanted to keep exploring! The park closes at sunset but another amazing fact is that the park borders the central and eastern time zones.  As we were are hiking the trails, we had a chance to “go back in time”.  It was quite a unique experience, and fortunately my iPhone was able to keep updated by using it’s GPS to sync the time.

Torreya State Park

Searching for a Geocache | Photo by Florida Trailblazer

We couldn’t resist so we followed the main orange trail back to the blue connector that links to “Torreya Challenge”.  As an avid geo-cacher I wanted to locate the Torreya State Park geocache. There are 9 State Parks that have a hidden cache and if found, allows you to locate clues for a puzzle.  I’ve located a majority of them and am looking forward to when I can complete the mission and earn my CCC Geo-coin.  It took some time and patience but we were able to locate it and sign into it’s log, another reminder that we were once here. We packed up and prepared for the drive out, but I couldn’t help but feel like I had missed something and that I wasn’t ready to leave. That tells me this was an excellent hiking experience because it leaves you with the feeling of wanting more. This park will keep you coming back because there is so much to see and explore. I am thankful for the opportunity to experience what this wonderful park has to offer . I would love to come back and camp at one of the sites. I am glad to have shared this experience and I hope it inspires you to go out and enjoy this park!

To see even more awesome photos and videos of Florida Trailblazer’s hike through Torreya State Park, check out his blog!

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If you’d like to guest post or review a trail, campground or paddle, we’d love to hear from you.  You can email us at FlaAdventurer(at)gmail.com

Into the depths of the Devil’s Millhopper

Florida is really, really flat.

I know you know.  But sometimes you see something that, by its very un-flatness, reminds you of just how flat everything else is around here.

And that something, in this case, is the Devil’s Millhopper sink hole in Alachua County.

Devil's Millhopper Stairs

Stairs descend into its depths.

The sink hole is part of Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park (the only geological park in the state).  And I know what you’re thinking – Don’t we hate sink holes?  Aren’t they those things that swallow houses and insurance companies refuse to pay for? – and you’re right for the most post part.

But this sink hole is big, and old, and cool.

In fact, it’s very big.  The sinkhole is deep – 117 feet.  If you were to lower the Statue of Liberty into the sinkhole, you wouldn’t be able to see… well, you wouldn’t be able to see her knees.  Maybe that’s a bad example.

But you could comfortably fit an 11-story building into the sinkhole, which could come in handy next time you need to hide an 11-story building.

Devil's Millhopper Stairs

The park has built a wonderful staircase down into the sinkhole (232 steps), and being at the bottom of a deep sinkhole is an interesting experience.  Once you’ve reached the bottom, you are entirely surrounded by exposed limestone.  A dozen springs empty into the sinkhole from all around you, so that water (albeit modest amounts) cascade into the sinkhole all around you.

Everyone I talked to agree that it has a decidedly Jurassic Park feel to it.  It’s so lush, and so deep, and the sound of the water is so hypnotic that it’s quite easy to forget that you’re in Gainesville.  It’s also a bit cooler than at the surface.  In fact, I’d quite like to camp down there if it was allowed (or if nobody was looking).

Things to do at Devil’s Millhopper:

Besides the sink hole itself, there really are only two things to do.

The first is the education center.  With a ranger on staff, a video on loop and several informational displays, it’s enough to keep you occupied for a few minutes and it’s a good way to learn a little about the geological history of the sink hole.

Devil's Millhopper Welcome Center

The other thing to do is walk around the sink hole.  The half-mile loop around the sink is a nice little walk through a pine forest, though not particularly long or interesting.  Unfortunately, the loop doesn’t get close to the edge or offer any looks into the sink, likely to keep idiots from falling in.

But I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m complaining.  The sink hole is cool enough to justify a trip to the park – really, it would be unfair to expect much else.

Devil's Millhopper Trail

The trail looping around the sink hole.

Foot Bridge on the trail

A foot bridge crossing one of the streams that runs into the sinkhole.

Why is it called Devil’s Millhopper?

Lucky for you, I read all of the information signs (I love those darned historical markers).

A “hopper” is the funnel-shaped part of a grist mill into which farmers dump their grains. The sink hole, of course, is also shaped like a funnel.  Devil's Millhopper bottom

At the bottom of the sink, early adventurers found fossilized bones and teeth, remnants of long dead animals that were exposed when the ground caved in.  Recently dead animal, likely from falling into the hole, added a layer of fresh bones to the depths.

Thus, it was said that the sink hole was the hopper that fed bodies to the devil.

Personally, I don’t buy it.  I’m pretty sure that if the devil has a portal to the underworld somewhere in central Florida, it’s in Starke.

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All in all, this park is definitely worth the visit, especially for geology nerds.  It’s only minutes from San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, so if you’re in the mood for a longer hike, you can easily do both parks in the same day.

Devil’s Millhopper is located at 4732 Millhopper Road in Gainesville, a few miles east of I-75.  Dogs on leashes are allowed.  Admission is $4 a car. Find it on Google Maps.

Living history and hiking trails at Morningside Nature Center

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Today, we’re going to look at a family-friendly park in Gainesville (sorry, hard-core adventurers) that has a little bit for everyone.

Morningside Nature Center, which is located on the east side of town, is a free, city-owned park and living-history museum.

Living-history museums, if you aren’t familiar with them, are often set up as farms or small towns.  There will be an old cabin, a blacksmith, a carpenter, etc.  Often, the buildings are original, having been relocated to their present sites for preservation and education.  When the “museum” is “alive,” volunteers in period costumes work the farm and interact with guests.  There’s also good living history museums in Ocala and St. Pete.

The Cabin at Morningside

The 1870s cabin, with biscuits and butter on the counter.

If you have kids, it’s a great way to show them what life would have been like in Florida in 1870 (although, for the adults in the room, it’s a rather whitewashed version on 1870 – the actors seem to genuinely enjoy back-breaking labor and there’s a startling lack of  malaria).

At Morningside, there’s a cabin, schoolhouse, smokehouse, wood shop and a forge.  The women mill about in heavy, floor-length, long-sleeved dresses, and the men in long pants, long-sleeved shirts and vests. (1870 was pre-global warming, I suppose).

The farm

1870’s Publix.

Kids will enjoy interacting with the volunteers,  who will have them playing with homemade wooden toys and helping pick vegetables.  But the volunteers interact with adults too, and it’s a little weird.

The weird-ness comes, of course, from the pretend difference in centuries.  The actor will say something to you in 1870’s parlance, and you’ll respond with a 2012 answer, and back and forth you go, feeling really unsure about what’s real and what isn’t.  Our conversation with a female volunteer, who was hanging clothes on the line when we arrived:

Her: “Welcome to our home!  We haven’t had many visitors this morning.  I made biscuits and butter this morning, and they’re on the table in the kitchen.”

Us: “Thanks.”

Her: “Did you come all the way in from Gainesville today?”  (Remember, this park is in Gainesville)

Us: “Yeah, we thought we’d visit somewhere new today.”

Her: “Your horses must be tired.”

Us: (Silence)

Her: “That’s a long way on a horseback.”

Us: “Well, we didn’t really…”

Her: “You must be hungry.  Try those biscuits.”

Us: “We will, that sounds nice.”

Her: “Is the Gators game over?”

Us: “Wait, but I thought…”

Don’t get me wrong, I admire their dedication to preserving history, and I think Morningside is a great place for families to spend an afternoon, but I don’t know how to talk to these guys.  They jump back and forth between 1870 and 2012 with such ease that I’m never sure what century I’m pretending to be in.

Anyway, the homestead also has it’s fair share of farm animals, which, unlike a real 1870’s farm, are still alive and likely will be well into old age.  If I go back next month, I doubt if I’ll walk up and be asked to try the fresh bacon.

The Morningside cow

The morningside sheep

The farm is open and active every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.  It’s free and parking is easy and nearby.  The farm also hosts a “Barnyard Buddies” program every Wednesday at 3 p.m., where kiddos can feed the animals and learn more about them.

If you’re looking for a hike, and I was after my encounter with Mrs. Time Shifter, the park has over six miles of hiking trails – and they are very well marked and well maintained.  The trails wander through longleaf pine woodlands and Cypress forests.  If the kids are with you (i.e. you didn’t leave them in the care of the 1870s crew), the park has great trails for little ones.  Wide, flat and easy to navigate.

I hiked mid-afternoon and didn’t spot much in the way of wildlife (one rabbit, several spiders), but I’m told it’s quite a hot spot for bird watching.  Bird watching guides are available from the info stand near the farm.

central florida orb weaver

A Black and Yellow Garden Spider (Thanks notacluegal for the ID)

Morningside Nature Center Trail

Blue skies and a wide trail.

Fall leaves

Fall colors still hanging in there, even though temperatures are dropping.

Picnic Area

A huge, shaded picnic area near the trail head. If I were 13, this would be prime birthday party real estate.

I’d recommend Morningside if you have a free morning and want to see something new.  The trails likely won’t satisfy your adventurous spirit, but they make for a nice nature walk with the family.

One final thought:  The bird watching guide lists the bald eagle as an “occasional” species at the park, as do so many of the parks in central Florida.  I’m not a bird watcher by any means, but I’d love to see one in the wild.  Any tips?  Great viewing spots?  I’m willing to sit for hours!

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Morningside Nature Center is free, open sun up to sun down.  Here’s a driving map.  Trail maps and bird-watching maps are available on site.  The farm has a free cellphone tour to offer more history.  Biscuits and fresh butter are complimentary.

A hike through Bivens Arm Nature Park

I drive by Bivens Arm Nature Park in Gainesville several times a week, but I had never stopped to check it out until last week.

What I found was interesting – a small park with an interesting, though short, hiking trail.  It’s not the type of place to spend a day, or even an afternoon.  But it’s the type of place where you can get outside, clear your head and still be home in time for dinner.

Bivens Arm Nature Park trail

The park is about 60 acres, and the trail just over a mile.  You pass through some interesting ecosystems in that mile, though.  Past imposing oaks and creeks that, despite the lack of rainfall lately, are still flowing with some gusto.

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Hiking with wild horses on Bolen Bluff!

Bolen Bluff Trail, which is part of the Paynes Prairie trail system, packs a lot into a three-mile trail.

There is easy access to the trailhead (right off US 441 between Gainesville and Micanopy), so it’s great for an afternoon hike.  I had never been, and considering I live only a few minutes away, that seemed like a problem that needed fixin’.

Bolen Bluff trail

The main trail is a 2.6-mile loop, with a bluff about halfway that (supposedly) looks out over the prairie.  From the bluff, there’s an additional half-mile spur that juts out, in straight line, into the prairie.

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