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 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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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.

 

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.

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

Quick note:  If you haven’t liked Florida Adventurer on Facebook yet, please do so – click here – it’s the easiest way to interact with us, share your experiences and see new posts and photos.  Thanks!

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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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Eight Awesome Adventure Races in North Florida

Looking to get out and do something different this fall?  Here’s a list of eight mud-soaked, fun-filled, free-beer-promising adventure races in Central Florida through the end of this year.  They all have a few things in common: free shirts, free beer, a completion medal and lots of mud.

Some are longer and have more obstacles, but they all follow a pretty similar formula.  And they’re a lot of fun and a good workout.  Don’t worry about being in tip-top shape either.  Other than the competitive heats in the morning, racers of all shapes, sizes and ages compete in these.  For most people, it’s all in fun – there are costumes, teams and plenty of goofing around.

Aug. 18 – Jacksonville – FL.ROC Running Obstacle Challenge 

This run, benefiting “26.2 with Donna,” a breast cancer charity, promises over 30 obstacles on a 3.5-mile course.  It’s being held at a horse farm (Diamond D Boarding and Stables), so you can bet they’ll have the stinkiest mud around. Their website gives the full obstacle list, and I’d be particularly interested in finding out what the “Triple By-pass Water Trudge” is.  Sounds cool.  Admission is $75 now, or $85 on race day.

FL.ROC mud pit. Photo from fl-roc.com.

Sept. 8 – Fort Meade – Dirty Foot Adventure Run

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