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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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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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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A small-town Independence Day in Micanopy, Fla.

Typically, I spend my Independence Days in the St. Petersburg area, which is a really unique place for a firework holiday.  St. Petersburg (and the rest of Pinellas County) is surrounded on 3 1/2 sides by beaches, all of which are lined with hotels, condos and restaurants – and all of which hope to attract tourists and residents with big fireworks displays.

So, every year on the Fourth of July, the whole county lights up with major, professional firework displays.  You can sit on any dock, or drive down any street, and enjoy a 360-degree light show.  It’s pretty cool.

Central Florida is different.  There’s no water from which to shoot off high explosives, cities are far more spread out and there’s always the danger of starting wildfires with an errant boom.

Fountain along NE 1st Street, the main road in Micanopy

But this year, I decided to celebrate the nation’s birthday in the little town of Micanopy, which is as charming to visit at as it is to say (me-CAN-opee).  It’s a town with about 700 people, four restaurants, seven antique shops, a church, a museum, a hair salon and a firehouse.  They appear pretty serious about their antiques.  Even places that aren’t antique shops, like the cafe and the bakery, are also antique shops.  That’s pretty much the contents of the whole town, but you get the feeling that the folks living there wouldn’t want it any other way.  I’ve been a few times, and it really is your quintessential sleepy Southern town – the time of place where you overhear kids talking about “Old Man Jackson,” as I did on Wednesday.

On Independence Day, the whole town turns out for their annual parade.  The parade was surprisingly large, given the population, so I’d guess that about 1/4 of the Micanopians were in the parade, while the other 3/4 looked on.

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