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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Photo Friday – 100,000 bats over the University of Florida

Bat houses UF Gainesville

 

 There exists, in one of the less-academic corners of the University of Florida, two tall structures overlooking a lake.  Like houses without walls or sheds on stilts, the exist not for the 50,000 students who attend the school, but for the 100,000 bats (roughly, I didn’t count) that call the field home.

Inside the bat houses, which stand among a lake, a community garden and several fraternity houses, a large colony of Brazilian free-tailed bats hang and squeak all day long.  When the sun sets (on days when the sunset temperature is over 70 degrees), the bats leave the houses in a swarm and head toward the lake, where they spend the night eating mosquitoes, moths and other small insects.

If you’re looking for a free show, head out to the bat houses shortly before sunset and join the crowd of onlookers – and there’s always a crowd of onlookers.  Arrive even earlier and watch the sun set over Lake Alice (right across the street).

These are the largest occupied bat houses in North America, according to UF.  And the bats eat 10-20 million insects every night, begging the question:  Why are there still so many bugs in Gainesville?

The bat houses were original built to lure the bats already on campus away from other buildings (like the football stadium and the journalism school) where they had set up camp.  The move was successful, although I’m not sure how you convince 100,000 bats to move across campus.  A question for another day, I suppose.

UF bat houses

The two bat houses are home to over 100,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats.

 

A Florida “bucket list” for 2013

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, and I don’t have a bucket list.  But I do like making goals (for example, seeing all of the National Parks) and I’m a sucker for a good list.

In that spirit, I’ve compiled a list of adventures I want to experience in the year 2013.  Some are things I’ve never done but feel like I should.  Others are things that I’ve recently discovered.  And a few are things I’ve already done but want to do more of.

Please add your suggestions in the comments section and share with friends!

 

1) Explore the Florida Caverns

Yep, that’s right.  If you’re not a panhandle-ite, you’ve likely never heard of the Florida caverns.  Located in Marianna, these caves are the only ones in the state park system, and park rangers offer “moderately strenuous” guided tours Wednesday through Sunday.  There are also opportunities for kayaking, camping, biking and hiking at the park – I’m planning on making a weekend of it.

Florida Caverns

The Florida Caverns | Photo from Florida State Parks

2) Swim at Devil’s Den in Hawthorne

Situated in the middle of an admittedly hokey-looking themed campground, Devil’s Den holds its own as a unique geological formation and one-of-a-kind dive spot.  The crystal-clear spring waters are almost entirely enclosed in a cave formation, save for a small vent directly above the spring (in the mornings, steam rises up through the vent, giving the spot its underworldly name).  Snorkelers and divers are allowed in the water, but no swimmers or gawkers.  It’s a narrow staircase down to the spring and a small platform from which to enter the water, so they don’t allow onlookers to clog them up for the divers and snorkelers.  Bring some gear and get ready to dive.

Devil's Den

Devil’s Den in Hawthorne, Fla.

3) Hike a section of the Florida Trail

OK, this is one I’ve done (in part) before.  But the Florida Trail runs for 1,400 miles, and I’ve not seen nearly enough of it.  The central Florida section is great for long section hikes, particularly as it winds through the Ocala National Forest.  And there are some wonderful sections in the panhandle, which make for great day hikes along the Suwanee River.  But I’m looking forward to getting out onto the southern sections of the trail in the cool early spring months.  Hiking along Lake Okeechobee sounds like a great February adventure to me.

Florida Trail

The Florida Trail winds all the way up the state and through the panhandle.

4) Kayak the rapids at Big Shoals State Park

Big Shoals boasts the only class III whitewater rapids in the state of Florida, and it’s calling to me for an adventure.  Of course, you can kayak or canoe the river and portage around the shoals, if that’s more your speed.  Make sure to call ahead and check the water levels before you go, as low water makes the river impassible, high water makes it flatwater paddling, and between 59 and 70 feet above mean sea level, it’s whitewater.  The park also has miles and miles of riverside hiking trails (maintained by the Florida Trail Association) with great views of the river.

Big Shoals State Park

Big Shoals State Park | Photo by B A Bowens Photography

5) Dive in Biscayne National Park

There are good reefs to dive all over Florida, but I hear some of the best are at Biscayne National Park.  I’m waiting for some warmer weather, but I couldn’t be more excited to explore Florida’s least-well-known national park.  The park itself doesn’t offer dive trips, but an outside company, Biscayne Underwater, offers daily snorkel and SCUBA trips to reefs throughout the park.  Located in the waters off Homestead, there are plenty of hotels and campgrounds nearby.

Biscayne National Park

The lighthouse at Biscayne National Park | Photo courtesy of Corey Butler

6) Try to find Fort Caroline in Jacksonville

Fort Caroline (the fort) was built in 1564 as part of Fort Caroline (the settlement) by French explorers near present-day Jacksonville.  Fort Caroline (the settlement) was the first French settlement in the United States.  The main defense at the settlement was a fort by the same name – although it was mostly ineffective.  A year after it was built, the Spanish destroyed the fort and built their own on the same spot.  Two years later, the French set the new fort ablaze.  The Spanish rebuilt the fort again (this was all great news for the Spanish construction companies), but abandoned it a year later.  Now, nobody has any idea where the fort is or was.  There’s lots of speculation, and a lot of people think they know, but archaeological digs and satellite images haven’t proven anything conclusively.  I’m going to find it.

Fort Caroline National Memorial

Fort Caroline National Memorial | Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

7) Make a donation to the Florida Trail Association

If you hike in Florida, chances are you’ve been on trails blazed, maintained or built by the Florida Trail Association.  This volunteer army of intrepid hiking enthusiasts keep trails marked, remove fallen trees, build boardwalks and provide information to hikers across the state.  They are partly funded by a federal grant but still rely heavily on donations.  Money is tight for everyone nowadays, but if you’ve got some extra bucks, send them their way.

Florida Trail Association

The folks who pave your trails | Photo courtesy of Florida Trail Association

8) Fly around in a hot air balloon.

Never done it.  Always wanted to.  Hot air balloons are one of the most peaceful ways to see the state (so I’ve heard).  Out in the fresh air, no noisy engine and nothing between you and the ground except a wicker basket and 1,000 feet of air.  Big Red Balloon Sightseeing Adventures offers untethered flights in and around Hillsborough County – a welcomed departure from balloons-for-hire in Orlando, the city with the most balloon companies in the state.  Flights at Big Red Balloon leave every day of the week at sunrise.

Hot Air Balloon Ride

Photo by dfbphotos

9) Check out the remains of the steamboat Madison in Troy Spring

The steamboat Madison was intentionally sunk in Troy Spring in 1863 to prevent it from falling into Union hands.  This Civil War-era ship is still visible to snorkelers and divers at Troy Spring State Park in Branford.  Troy Spring is a first-magnitude spring, one of only 27 in the state.  Better still, kayakers can stop by this park on their way to a number of other springs down river.  Before you go, read this fascinating National Geographic article about the Madison and the sunken boat at Troy Spring (which they speculate may not be one in the same).

Troy Spring Madison

Some remains from the Madison in Troy Spring | Photo by Phil’s 1st Pix

10) Hang Gliding in the Florida Keys

…And you thought hang gliding was for the mountains.  At Paradise Hang Gliding in the Florida Keys, you can soar over the beautiful blue water near Islamorada.  After you’ve been strapped into your glider, you get towed behind a boat until you reach altitude (1,500′-2,500′) – at which point you’re cut free and left to sail back down to earth.  Sounds awesome to me.

Hang Gliding in the Florida Keys

Hang Gliding in the Florida Keys

That’s our top 10 Florida adventures for 2013.  What’s on your to-do list for the new year?

 

 

Swimming the “world’s shortest river” at Falmouth Spring

There are so many things to do on, along and near the Suwannee River, I could type until my fingers fall off.

There’s hiking trails,  fishing spots, and miles and miles or scenic kayaking.  But the most uniquely Florida experiences along the river are at the many springs which feed into the Suwannee on its journey from south Georgia to the Florida Gulf Coast.

There’s the wonderful Fanning and Hart springs, and the slightly less lovely Otter Springs.  And further north, there’s Falmouth Spring.

The boardwalk down to Falmouth Spring.

The boardwalk down to Falmouth Spring.

Falmouth is a first magnitude spring, pumping out over 65 million gallons of water a day.  Unlike Fanning, Hart and Otter springs, Falmouth doesn’t visibly connect with the Suwannee; instead, the spring run heads under ground before eventually meeting up with the mighty river.

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How to set up a geocaching travel bug in 7 easy steps

Geocaching, if you’ve never tried it, is a fun addition to a day of outdoor adventuring.  It’s sort of like a treasure hunt, except instead of maps there are GPS coordinates, and instead of treasure there is, well, personal satisfaction.

In a nutshell, geocachers seek out small boxes of goodies that have been hidden by other cachers all over the world.  If you’ve never played, you’ve probably never noticed – but they are there, everywhere.  There are little boxes hidden in trees in the mall parking lot, under the log in that park where you walk your dog, at the beach where you went last weekend.  And you didn’t see them.  That’s by design.  One of the central conceits of geocaching is that it’s not supposed to be seen – the caches should be hidden out of sight, and cachers on the hunt stay out of sight of non-players.  (If they get spotted, weird things happen.)

Armed with a GPS device or smart phone, cachers find the area, then dig around for the cache.  It’s fun.  You should try it.

Dropping a travel bug in a geocache

Dropping off a travel bug in a north Florida geocache.

One optional component of geocaching is the “travel bug.”  Travel bugs are trackable items that you can hide in a cache.  Other cachers will pick up your travel bug and move it to another cache, then it will get moved again, and again, again, again.  The whole time, your travel bug is tracked online, so you can watch it as it criss-crosses the country and, potentially, the world.

Setting up a travel bug is easy, cheap and an interesting add-in to the geocaching game.  I set up a travel bug with the URL to this site, and I’ll be tracking it as it makes it’s way to the Pacific Ocean (that’s the mission, but more on that later).

If you’ve thought about launching your own travel bug, here’s the process in seven simple steps.

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Fishing (not catching) at the Cedar Key pier

John Muir, a Scottish-born wilderness advocate and dynamic 19th century beard connoisseur, once went for a long walk.  He walked away from Kentucky (who could blame him?), wound his way through the South and into northern Florida.  He kept walking until he got to Cedar Key, a little fishing village on the Gulf Coast.  In his journal, he wrote:

For nineteen years my vision was bounded by forests, but today, emerging from a multitude of tropical plants, I beheld the Gulf of Mexico stretching away unbounded, except by the sky. What dreams and speculative matter for thought arose as I stood on the strand, gazing out on the burnished, treeless plain!

Needless to say, he stopped walking at Cedar Key.  He hopped a sail boat and took off to Cuba.

John Muir looking into the distance (thanks to PBS for the photo)

But if you go to Cedar Key today, you’ll have much the same experience as Muir.  Of course, it won’t be quite like walking through the woods for 19 years, but there’s no way to get to Cedar Key without driving for an hour and a half through nothing.  So when you finally get there, the Gulf looks all the more impressive.

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Photo Friday – Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla.

This Friday’s photo is a quick iPhone pic from a family trip to Busch Gardens in Tampa.  I know, naturalists and nature-lovers often have adverse opinions of zoos and the like, and I must admit, my feelings are conflicted as well.  But believing that awareness is the first step in conservation, I’ve often defended zoos and nature parks as a primary reason that people care about these animals in the first place.  (This is starting to feel like an entirely separate post, and maybe it should be.)

Anyway, three things about this photo.  1) It was taken on an open air truck out in the faux-serenghetti.  That costs a little extra, but you go up-close with the giraffes and to “behind-the-scenes” parts of the park, and you get to hear a lot about their conservation efforts.  2) Sometimes I’m surprised by how nice iPhone photos come out.  3) This giraffe has attitude.