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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A Florida “bucket list” for 2013

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, and I don’t have a bucket list.  But I do like making goals (for example, seeing all of the National Parks) and I’m a sucker for a good list.

In that spirit, I’ve compiled a list of adventures I want to experience in the year 2013.  Some are things I’ve never done but feel like I should.  Others are things that I’ve recently discovered.  And a few are things I’ve already done but want to do more of.

Please add your suggestions in the comments section and share with friends!

 

1) Explore the Florida Caverns

Yep, that’s right.  If you’re not a panhandle-ite, you’ve likely never heard of the Florida caverns.  Located in Marianna, these caves are the only ones in the state park system, and park rangers offer “moderately strenuous” guided tours Wednesday through Sunday.  There are also opportunities for kayaking, camping, biking and hiking at the park – I’m planning on making a weekend of it.

Florida Caverns

The Florida Caverns | Photo from Florida State Parks

2) Swim at Devil’s Den in Hawthorne

Situated in the middle of an admittedly hokey-looking themed campground, Devil’s Den holds its own as a unique geological formation and one-of-a-kind dive spot.  The crystal-clear spring waters are almost entirely enclosed in a cave formation, save for a small vent directly above the spring (in the mornings, steam rises up through the vent, giving the spot its underworldly name).  Snorkelers and divers are allowed in the water, but no swimmers or gawkers.  It’s a narrow staircase down to the spring and a small platform from which to enter the water, so they don’t allow onlookers to clog them up for the divers and snorkelers.  Bring some gear and get ready to dive.

Devil's Den

Devil’s Den in Hawthorne, Fla.

3) Hike a section of the Florida Trail

OK, this is one I’ve done (in part) before.  But the Florida Trail runs for 1,400 miles, and I’ve not seen nearly enough of it.  The central Florida section is great for long section hikes, particularly as it winds through the Ocala National Forest.  And there are some wonderful sections in the panhandle, which make for great day hikes along the Suwanee River.  But I’m looking forward to getting out onto the southern sections of the trail in the cool early spring months.  Hiking along Lake Okeechobee sounds like a great February adventure to me.

Florida Trail

The Florida Trail winds all the way up the state and through the panhandle.

4) Kayak the rapids at Big Shoals State Park

Big Shoals boasts the only class III whitewater rapids in the state of Florida, and it’s calling to me for an adventure.  Of course, you can kayak or canoe the river and portage around the shoals, if that’s more your speed.  Make sure to call ahead and check the water levels before you go, as low water makes the river impassible, high water makes it flatwater paddling, and between 59 and 70 feet above mean sea level, it’s whitewater.  The park also has miles and miles of riverside hiking trails (maintained by the Florida Trail Association) with great views of the river.

Big Shoals State Park

Big Shoals State Park | Photo by B A Bowens Photography

5) Dive in Biscayne National Park

There are good reefs to dive all over Florida, but I hear some of the best are at Biscayne National Park.  I’m waiting for some warmer weather, but I couldn’t be more excited to explore Florida’s least-well-known national park.  The park itself doesn’t offer dive trips, but an outside company, Biscayne Underwater, offers daily snorkel and SCUBA trips to reefs throughout the park.  Located in the waters off Homestead, there are plenty of hotels and campgrounds nearby.

Biscayne National Park

The lighthouse at Biscayne National Park | Photo courtesy of Corey Butler

6) Try to find Fort Caroline in Jacksonville

Fort Caroline (the fort) was built in 1564 as part of Fort Caroline (the settlement) by French explorers near present-day Jacksonville.  Fort Caroline (the settlement) was the first French settlement in the United States.  The main defense at the settlement was a fort by the same name – although it was mostly ineffective.  A year after it was built, the Spanish destroyed the fort and built their own on the same spot.  Two years later, the French set the new fort ablaze.  The Spanish rebuilt the fort again (this was all great news for the Spanish construction companies), but abandoned it a year later.  Now, nobody has any idea where the fort is or was.  There’s lots of speculation, and a lot of people think they know, but archaeological digs and satellite images haven’t proven anything conclusively.  I’m going to find it.

Fort Caroline National Memorial

Fort Caroline National Memorial | Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

7) Make a donation to the Florida Trail Association

If you hike in Florida, chances are you’ve been on trails blazed, maintained or built by the Florida Trail Association.  This volunteer army of intrepid hiking enthusiasts keep trails marked, remove fallen trees, build boardwalks and provide information to hikers across the state.  They are partly funded by a federal grant but still rely heavily on donations.  Money is tight for everyone nowadays, but if you’ve got some extra bucks, send them their way.

Florida Trail Association

The folks who pave your trails | Photo courtesy of Florida Trail Association

8) Fly around in a hot air balloon.

Never done it.  Always wanted to.  Hot air balloons are one of the most peaceful ways to see the state (so I’ve heard).  Out in the fresh air, no noisy engine and nothing between you and the ground except a wicker basket and 1,000 feet of air.  Big Red Balloon Sightseeing Adventures offers untethered flights in and around Hillsborough County – a welcomed departure from balloons-for-hire in Orlando, the city with the most balloon companies in the state.  Flights at Big Red Balloon leave every day of the week at sunrise.

Hot Air Balloon Ride

Photo by dfbphotos

9) Check out the remains of the steamboat Madison in Troy Spring

The steamboat Madison was intentionally sunk in Troy Spring in 1863 to prevent it from falling into Union hands.  This Civil War-era ship is still visible to snorkelers and divers at Troy Spring State Park in Branford.  Troy Spring is a first-magnitude spring, one of only 27 in the state.  Better still, kayakers can stop by this park on their way to a number of other springs down river.  Before you go, read this fascinating National Geographic article about the Madison and the sunken boat at Troy Spring (which they speculate may not be one in the same).

Troy Spring Madison

Some remains from the Madison in Troy Spring | Photo by Phil’s 1st Pix

10) Hang Gliding in the Florida Keys

…And you thought hang gliding was for the mountains.  At Paradise Hang Gliding in the Florida Keys, you can soar over the beautiful blue water near Islamorada.  After you’ve been strapped into your glider, you get towed behind a boat until you reach altitude (1,500′-2,500′) – at which point you’re cut free and left to sail back down to earth.  Sounds awesome to me.

Hang Gliding in the Florida Keys

Hang Gliding in the Florida Keys

That’s our top 10 Florida adventures for 2013.  What’s on your to-do list for the new year?

 

 

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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Living history and hiking trails at Morningside Nature Center

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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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Getting chased by chainsaws in the Newberry Cornfield Maze

In the last few years, theme parks have made big bucks selling late-night tickets to Halloween-themed special events.  Busch Gardens has Howl-O-Scream, Universal Studios has Halloween Horror Night, Sea World has Spooctacular, Lowry Park Zoo has Zoo Boo.

And Hodge Farms has the Newberry Cornfield Maze.

OK, so the cornfield maze isn’t as big or flashy or scary as the shows put on by the big-shots, but it’s got a certain small-town charm that Universal Studios could never match.

The Newberry Cornfield Maze is held every year on a remote farm about 20 miles west of Gainesville.  For $9, you can walk the haunted corn maze as many times as you’d like and make one pass through the haunted house.  For an additional $5, you can ride a haunted hay ride around the farm.

Corn maze entrance

That’s about as ominous a maze entrance as I could imagine.

The corn maze was a lot of fun.  The maze wasn’t too extensive, but navigating your way through with flashlights and moonlight makes the event pretty spooky.  Of course, the masked, chainsaw-weilding psychos add some scares too.

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How to set up a geocaching travel bug in 7 easy steps

Geocaching, if you’ve never tried it, is a fun addition to a day of outdoor adventuring.  It’s sort of like a treasure hunt, except instead of maps there are GPS coordinates, and instead of treasure there is, well, personal satisfaction.

In a nutshell, geocachers seek out small boxes of goodies that have been hidden by other cachers all over the world.  If you’ve never played, you’ve probably never noticed – but they are there, everywhere.  There are little boxes hidden in trees in the mall parking lot, under the log in that park where you walk your dog, at the beach where you went last weekend.  And you didn’t see them.  That’s by design.  One of the central conceits of geocaching is that it’s not supposed to be seen – the caches should be hidden out of sight, and cachers on the hunt stay out of sight of non-players.  (If they get spotted, weird things happen.)

Armed with a GPS device or smart phone, cachers find the area, then dig around for the cache.  It’s fun.  You should try it.

Dropping a travel bug in a geocache

Dropping off a travel bug in a north Florida geocache.

One optional component of geocaching is the “travel bug.”  Travel bugs are trackable items that you can hide in a cache.  Other cachers will pick up your travel bug and move it to another cache, then it will get moved again, and again, again, again.  The whole time, your travel bug is tracked online, so you can watch it as it criss-crosses the country and, potentially, the world.

Setting up a travel bug is easy, cheap and an interesting add-in to the geocaching game.  I set up a travel bug with the URL to this site, and I’ll be tracking it as it makes it’s way to the Pacific Ocean (that’s the mission, but more on that later).

If you’ve thought about launching your own travel bug, here’s the process in seven simple steps.

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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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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.

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