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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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.

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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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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