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.

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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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.

Otter Springs in Trenton, Fla., has lots of promise, little payoff

Coming off of my guarded endorsement of Hart Springs, we’re headed 10 minutes south to Otter Springs, which, like Hart, feeds the Suwannee River.  Otter Springs sign

Otter Springs is a second-magnitude spring, meaning it pumps out an awful lot of water (somewhere between 7 and 70 million gallons every day).  The park is privately run, and it has a modest entrance fee – only $4 a person.  The entrance fee gets you access to the springs, the boat ramp and a few miles of hiking trails.

The park also has a large RV campground near the springs.  Not close enough to be disruptive, but close enough to offer campers easy access.  I’ve been RV camping many, many times, and I’ve got to say, I’ve never seen sites as tightly packed as these ones.  I like to keep a little space from my neighbors, but that’s out of the question here.  On the plus side, there is an indoor swimming pool.  Frankly, I was a little surprised to see an indoor swimming pool a few hundred yards from a natural spring.  But then I saw the spring, and it all made sense.

I hate to be disparaging about this place.  The woman in the office was extremely helpful, answering all of my questions with a smile, and she gave me plenty of maps to help me get around.  But the springs are in rough shape.

[Read more…]

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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