Silver Springs to join the state park system in October

The Florida State Parks system is about to get a big, wet addition.

On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott and his cabinet voted to let the current leasers of Silver Springs, near Ocala, out of their contract with the state.  Their theme park, which has operated on the spring since the 1980s, will be closed on Sept. 30, and the land will be turned over to the state park system and returned to its natural state.

Nearby Silver River State Park is already a wonderful place to camp, bike and kayak, and soon that park will extend to encompass the spring that feeds it as well.

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Algae blooms taking over Silver Springs | Photo from the Audubon of Florida

Surely, this is good news for us.  Recently, concerns have been raised about the impact of the theme parks on the spring’s water quality.  The water flow has slowed, a thick layer of brown algae blankets the spring bottom, and water visibility has diminished dramatically.

Alan Youngblood, a photo editor with the Ocala Star-Banner, wrote in July about the changes he’s witnessed in the years he’s photographed the spring.

Diving in Silver Springs used to be like diving in air. The virtually pure water that shot like a fire hydrant from the main spring was so clear and clean you could lay on the bottom and read the names of the glass-bottom boats that passed over 40 feet above you. You could easily recognize the tourists looking down at you waving.

Now, though, that’s not the case.  It’s hard to make out underwater landmarks.  From the bottom, the surface seems much farther away.

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Algae overtaking the spring floor. | Photo courtesy of Ocala.com and Alan Youngbood/Staff Photography

I don’t mean to imply that the theme parks on the site, Silver Springs Nature Theme Park and Wild Waters, are the sole cause of this – they are not.  Polluted runoff, agricultural chemicals and overuse have  introduced new chemicals into a dangerous ecosystem, and skyrocketing nitrate levels have fostered massive algae blooms.

But there’s hope for the historic, world-famous spring.  The owners of the theme parks have agreed to pack up shop and return the spring to a close-to-natural condition before their departure.

At that point, the state park will expand and conservation will begin.  This likely means that the spring, one of the largest in the world, will be open to minimally invasive recreation as well – diving, snorkeling, canoeing and kayaking.

According to the Gainesville Sun, Palace Entertainment, the theme park operator, is planning to spend $4 million to improve the ecology of the site before turning it over.

Environmental officials from the state have already begun discussing plans to manage the river basin and to reduce the nitrate contamination.

Department of Environmental Protection secretary Herschel T. Vinyard, Jr., said in a statement,

We are pleased that the Governor and Cabinet have decided to approve this agreement so that the Department can return the property closer to its natural state, involve the community in recreation opportunity decisions and continue our efforts of improving water quality in Silver Springs, one of Florida’s most iconic treasures.

Count me in on that sentiment.  When the state park opens the gate to the new Silver Springs State Park on Oct. 1, I’ll be there.

Silver Springs has a fascinating and colorful history, and I’m excited to see how the state park system incorporates those elements into the new park.  For a time, Silver Springs was the biggest tourist attraction in the state and a hub for river travel.

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An 1886 photo from George Baker shows a steamboat heading up Silver River from Silver Spring.

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Silver Springs, circa 1900. The Okeehumkee riverboat docked and waiting for passengers.

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Six Gun Territory, a theme park that operated at Silver Spring until 1984.

There have been numerous theme parks on the property, including the two that are there now.  There have been, and still are, glass bottom boat operators.  There have been movies (James Bond) and TV shows (“Sea Hunt,” “I Spy,” “Six Million Dollar Man”) filmed there.  There’s even a population of wild monkeys at the park, escapees from a failed ploy to attract even more tourists to the area.

Silver Spring really is one of the most interesting and beautiful springs in the country, and I could not be happier that it will now get the commitment to preservation that it so deserves.

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.

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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.

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A handful of shark teeth found along the creek.

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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 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?

 

 

Getting chased by chainsaws in the Newberry Cornfield Maze

In the last few years, theme parks have made big bucks selling late-night tickets to Halloween-themed special events.  Busch Gardens has Howl-O-Scream, Universal Studios has Halloween Horror Night, Sea World has Spooctacular, Lowry Park Zoo has Zoo Boo.

And Hodge Farms has the Newberry Cornfield Maze.

OK, so the cornfield maze isn’t as big or flashy or scary as the shows put on by the big-shots, but it’s got a certain small-town charm that Universal Studios could never match.

The Newberry Cornfield Maze is held every year on a remote farm about 20 miles west of Gainesville.  For $9, you can walk the haunted corn maze as many times as you’d like and make one pass through the haunted house.  For an additional $5, you can ride a haunted hay ride around the farm.

Corn maze entrance

That’s about as ominous a maze entrance as I could imagine.

The corn maze was a lot of fun.  The maze wasn’t too extensive, but navigating your way through with flashlights and moonlight makes the event pretty spooky.  Of course, the masked, chainsaw-weilding psychos add some scares too.

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Oh deer! A hike through Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve

I wrote recently about the Cedar Key Fishing Pier and the cool, somewhat-isolated, fishing town that it calls home.

I’m sticking with my assertion that kayaking and fishing are the things to do in Cedar Key, but if you’re itching to break in some new trailrunners, there’s a pretty sweet nature preserve nearby.

Thanks to Google Earth for the screen grab

The Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve, despite its forgettably bland name, is a rather interesting little slice of old Florida.  The park is mostly, as its name would imply, scrub and sand.  But it offers a great look at a piece of never-developed coastal Florida, a tragically rare thing nowadays.

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Easy access and easy trails – San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park

San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park is a nice, multi-use park in the northwest corner of Gainesville.

There’s about 10 miles of hiking trails, which are mostly flat and well-worn, but wind through old forests that aren’t too common anymore.San Felasco white flower

There’s also 20 miles of off-road biking trails, for all levels of experience, and another 10 miles of equestrian trails.  I list them all separately because that’s how the park wants them – hiking trails are only for hiking, biking for biking, horses for horses (interestingly, horse-drawn carriages are welcome on some of the trails).

I recently hiked the 5.6 mile white trail, which overlaps at points with the two other hiking trails (blue and yellow).  The hiking trails have several good things going for them: they’re well traveled, they allow leashed dogs and they are almost entirely shaded.  The shade is particularly important, because it’s so unusual for trails in central Florida.  It’s the only thing that makes afternoon hikes possible.  Last week, I got started around 10 a.m., and by noon, the temperature was well into the mid-90s – but in the shade, it was still pleasant.

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A small-town Independence Day in Micanopy, Fla.

Typically, I spend my Independence Days in the St. Petersburg area, which is a really unique place for a firework holiday.  St. Petersburg (and the rest of Pinellas County) is surrounded on 3 1/2 sides by beaches, all of which are lined with hotels, condos and restaurants – and all of which hope to attract tourists and residents with big fireworks displays.

So, every year on the Fourth of July, the whole county lights up with major, professional firework displays.  You can sit on any dock, or drive down any street, and enjoy a 360-degree light show.  It’s pretty cool.

Central Florida is different.  There’s no water from which to shoot off high explosives, cities are far more spread out and there’s always the danger of starting wildfires with an errant boom.

Fountain along NE 1st Street, the main road in Micanopy

But this year, I decided to celebrate the nation’s birthday in the little town of Micanopy, which is as charming to visit at as it is to say (me-CAN-opee).  It’s a town with about 700 people, four restaurants, seven antique shops, a church, a museum, a hair salon and a firehouse.  They appear pretty serious about their antiques.  Even places that aren’t antique shops, like the cafe and the bakery, are also antique shops.  That’s pretty much the contents of the whole town, but you get the feeling that the folks living there wouldn’t want it any other way.  I’ve been a few times, and it really is your quintessential sleepy Southern town – the time of place where you overhear kids talking about “Old Man Jackson,” as I did on Wednesday.

On Independence Day, the whole town turns out for their annual parade.  The parade was surprisingly large, given the population, so I’d guess that about 1/4 of the Micanopians were in the parade, while the other 3/4 looked on.

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Hart Springs in Bell, Fla., offers convenient dive location

The Suwannee River runs south from Georgia and cuts a diagonal line through Northern Florida, separating the panhandle from the Florida peninsula, before eventually dumping into the Gulf of Mexico.  It has a fascinating history, as it has been more-or-less continuously occupied for thousands of years.  At one time, the river was well-known for its antebellum steamship, the Madison – a sort of floating Wal-Mart for folks living near the river.  After the Civil War, steamships ferried customers from inland to the port of Cedar Key, which, today, is a quaint town with more seafood restaurants than residents.

For the outdoor enthusiast, there’s plenty to do along the river.  About 40 miles west of Gainesville, there’s a wonderful cluster of natural springs that are great for swimming and exploring.  Heading north to south, you could easily visit Hart Springs, Otter Springs, Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs in one day.  Going in order, the drive between parks is never more than 10 minutes.

Suwannee Springs Map

Hart, Otter, Fanning and Manatee Springs all located on a small stretch of the Suwannee River

Unfortunately, all of the parks are managed by separate entities.  Some are state parks and some are owned by private campgrounds, and they all require a separate entrance fee.  The going rate for most small parks is around $6 per car or $3 per person.  Still, head out with a group of friends for the day and you can explore all the springs for less than $15 a person.  It’d cost you more to spend two hours at the movie theater.

What’s more, all of the springs are accessible by kayak or canoe, and particularly with Hart, Otter and Fanning, you could easily get from to another without ever getting in your car.  We’ll take a look at what each has to offer, starting with Hart Springs.

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