$40 to sleep on the sand? Check out Long Key State Park

If you’ve never slept on a beach, you should add it to your bucket list.

There’s something about the roar of the ocean in the middle of the night that is unforgettable.  I spent the first 23 years of my life within five minutes of the Gulf of Mexico.  I’ve spent every year since within an hour and a half.  I’ve boated, kayaked, fished, swam.  I’ve run on the beach, I’ve snorkeled on reefs, I’ve cruised from island to island in the Caribbean and Central America.

But I’ve never felt the ocean like I did sleeping in a cheap tent on the sand.

Sunset from Long Key

If you’re reading this within four hours of the Florida Keys, here’s what you should do this weekend:

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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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Swim the crystal waters of Fanning Springs State Park

Like Otter and Hart Springs just to the north, Fanning Springs is a second-magnitude spring that empties into the Suwannee River.  Unlike those two, though, the park is part of the state park system and isn’t managed by the county or a private company.  Personally,  I think that state parks do a better job of managing these natural resources than other entities – and I imagine it’s not easy to balance human recreation with natural preservation.

But Fanning Springs is really a lovely place to spend the afternoon.  It’s a small park, but the spring is beautiful.  The water is crystal clear and the spring itself is pretty deep (maybe 30 or 40 feet to the lowest point you can see from the surface).  The park service has built a boardwalk that surrounds the spring on three sides, allowing people to sunbathe near the water and preventing boats form the river from getting all the way into the spring.

The spring vent is located under the far trees.

The park service has also constructed a short boardwalk system (less than 1/4 mile) that takes visitors out to the river.  Looking out at the river, you’d have no idea that below the surface, about 100 yards from the Old Town bridge, the sunken remains of a 100-year-old steamship have sat relatively undisturbed since the early 1920s.  There’s lots of false information about the wreck – many claim it was a Union gunboat – but the truth isn’t any less interesting.  The boat, The City of Hawkinsville (that’s its name), was a turn-of-the-century steamboat that hauled lumber and naval supplies up to the Gulf Coast and into north Florida.

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