Will sequestration hurt Florida’s National Parks?

Barring a miracle, Friday will see the federal government go through something now being called “sequestration,” a series of across-the-board, indiscriminate cuts to federal programs.

Sequestration was never supposed to happen, though.  It was a time-bomb signed into law to force our government to come up with rational, meaningful reductions before March 1 – something that now seems unlikely to happen.

If nothing happens in the next 48 hours, these cuts will go into effect, and they could have a dramatic impact on national defense, education, housing aid – and, of note for the adventurers among us, our national parks.

Florida is fortunate to have three amazing national parks: Everglades, Dry Tortugas and Biscayne. Like other federal programs, our national parks are scrambling to figure out how they’ll continue normal operations despite significant budget cuts.

Everglades rainbow

Everglades National Park | Photo used under CC license by Flickr user Photomatt28

The New York Times reported Monday that some parks have already begun slashing services – closing roads to avoid paying for plows, closing trails, reducing visitor center hours and closing campgrounds.

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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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Photo Friday – Sideways trees at Ft. De Soto

The effects of the Gulf breeze on young trees.

The effects of the Gulf breeze on young trees.

Last week, I reviewed Fort De Soto park in Pinellas County.  This picture didn’t make it into that review, but I wanted to share it anyway.

Many of the trees on the Gulf side of the island have grown sideways – a result of the gusty winds that blow in off the water.  Many of the trees, like this one, are growing parallel to the ground, giving the sensation of windy-ness, even on the calmest days.

If you’re in St. Pete this week, head out to Fort De Soto after you wrap up your holiday shopping and take in the views and the arboreal anomalies.  I promise it’ll be worth it!

An Interview with Marks and Joey Culver, Florida Nature Photographers

I spend a lot of time browsing the Web looking at nature photography.  It motivates me, and inspires me, and challenges me in my own attempts at wildlife photography.

So I thought I was used to the conventions of nature photography – that is, until I stumbled upon the blog of Marks and Joey Culver.  This husband-and-wife team are carving out their own niche as black-and-white film photographers, and they seem to love Florida just as much as I do.

Marks and Joey Culver

Marks and Joey Culver – Photo by Culver Photography

I was so captivated by their photography – and the haunting, antiquated look of much of their landscape photography – that I sought them out for a Q&A session.  They graciously agreed and told me all about their technique, their collection of antique cameras and their fondness for tree roots (yes, tree roots).

F.A.: If I’m correct, you each took a very different route to Florida.  Marks, you were born here, and Joey, you were born in the Netherlands and raised in Africa.  How do you think that changes your perspective on the landscape?

Marks: Yes I was born here in the town of Holly Hill, Fla. My family settled here in the early ’30s. They owned a chicken and cattle ranch, along with a citrus grove. My dad died when I was 7 so I became a farm hand then. My grandparents raised me. Always being in the woods and on the farm gave me a different look on life. Everywhere you looked there was something different. You appreciate that the woods and land,  will take care of you if you take care of them. So, whenever there was free time my grandfather would drag out his cameras and off we’d go. He bought for me my first camera when I was about 9 or 10 years old. From then on I was a camera junkie.

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Is Fort De Soto park the best beach in the country?

Fort De Soto Park is a county-owned park in Pinellas County, and as county-owned parks go, it’s one of the most spectacular.

With a beach that regularly ranks in Dr. Beach’s completely arbitrary top 10 beaches in the country, a historic fort, kayak trails, fishing piers, an amazing campground and miles of hiking and biking trails, there is no shortage of things to do at the park.

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Fort De Soto has a sentimental place in my heart – it’s where I had some of my earliest and most memorable tent camping experiences.  It was also one of the closest wilderness areas to my childhood home, presenting a drastically different beach landscape than the nearby tourist-filled, condominium-lined beaches of St. Pete and Clearwater.

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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.