Gainesville, Home of the Florida Gators

This week it is not the reptilian, lazy black Florida Gators that we are amongst, but it is the famous Florida Gators intercollegiate sports teams here in Gainesville, home of the University of Florida. The orange and blue colors are everywhere and the university is central to the life of the town. (Photo below of the mascots Albert and Alberta Gator is not a photo we took, but was found on the web).

With a spell of rainy weather this week we have not ventured as much as usual on nature excursions, leaving more time for things like exploring the university campus. We have found that Gainesville is a bike friendly town and, although, our hotel is not close to downtown or the university, it is possible to ride our bikes there from the hotel.

Lake Alice is a wildlife area in the center of the campus, a sanctuary for alligators (the reptilian kind) and birds.

When we stopped at the lake we saw only one small alligator, but there were at least a half dozen, huge snapping turtles, floating near the shoreline competing with the birds and alligator for whatever food could be found.

In the case of the ibis, the lunch we saw him gobbling down was a discarded french fry. I suppose that is typical food one would find in the middle of a college campus.

Yesterday was the best day of the week for bike riding. We did a 32-mile ride from Gainesville to Hawthorne (a nearby village) and back.

The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail that we used surprised us with a fun 2-mile stretch that had some hills and curves. Up until this point, everything in Florida has been flat, but there are a few hilly areas around Gainesville. (“Hilly”, of course, being a relative term for those of you who ride in Oregon and Iowa).

We were joined on the ride by our friend, Jerry.

Although, I have been complaining about “rainy” weather, it is mostly clouds, sprinkles, and threat of thunderstorms. There has been very little accumulation of moisture. The evidence of the drought conditions is everywhere. None of the creeks along the way had water in them, including Prairie Creek, seen in this photo.

Jerry had been on this trail last January and said that the creek at that time had water in it and he had wondered how deep the creek was. The bottom is definitely visible now!

Well, the sun is not visible now and, so far, it looks like today will be another drizzly day. But at least it is warm outside. Maybe not a day for riding bikes but we still have some hiking trails in the area to explore. Time to get out the rain jackets and see what we can discover.

It’s Freezing

Literally, it’s freezing. Last night and the night before the temperature here in Ocala dropped down to a frigid 26 degrees. I know, for those of you in the Midwest and Northeast that’s not cold at all. But our blood has thinned since we’ve been down here and I didn’t expect to go out and have to scrape frost from the windshield of the car while in Florida. One thing for sure, I’m glad that we are in a warm hotel room and not out in a tent in the Ocala National Forest.

Given the weather conditions, we have temporarily delayed our plans to camp and have been spending more time investigating outdoor activities in the Ocala area. The Cross Florida Greenway trail has a section that passes through Ocala. One day last week, looking at a map, we were able to find a way to ride our bikes from the hotel room to the Teak Way Drive Trailhead.

This area of the Greenway has a 3 mile unpaved hiking section through the Marshall Swamp, as well as a section of 3 paved loop trails that we could ride our bikes on.

In contrast to the 110-mile Greenway trail, which is mostly unpaved the Withlacoochee State Trail, at 46 miles, is the longest paved trail in Florida. The Citrus Springs trailhead is about an hour’s drive from Ocala and the day that we did some biking there we were joined by our friend, Jerry.

We weren’t prepared to do the whole trail, but, instead pedaled 16 miles south to Inverness, where we had lunch downtown, before pedaling back.

When we were here in January we had made a short visit to the Silver Springs State Park that is just outside Ocala. It was late in the day and we only had time to hike a short trail before the park closed. Also, it is only on weekends that the museum at the park is open to visitors. So on Saturday we made another visit, which allowed us to tour the museum and walk a couple of other trails.

We learned more about the Silver Springs area at the museum and were especially interested in the information about films and TV shows that were made here over the years. These included six of the original “Tarzan” movies filmed in the 1930s and 1940s, “The Yearling,” starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman that was filmed in 1946, “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” in 1954, and more than 100 episodes of the famous television series “Sea Hunt,” that starred Lloyd Bridges.

Silver Springs is the site of one of the largest artesian spring formations in the world, producing nearly 550 million gallons of crystal-clear water daily. In the mid-1800s tourists flocked by steamboat to see the crystal-clear waters of Silver Springs. In 1878 when Hullam Jones invented the glass bottom boat, its popularity soared, laying the groundwork for a flourishing tourist industry here. In the 1920s, Carl Ray and W.M. Davidson made the land around the headwaters of the Spring into something resembling the attraction that is there today, now known as the Silver Springs Nature Theme Park. The attraction features native animal exhibits and glass bottom boat tours of the springs. Since it is a separate, privately-owned concession, with a steep price tag we did not go to the theme park. Instead, we walked a couple of the trails that we hadn’t seen when we were first here. At the end of the Swamp Trail a viewing platform allowed us to peer over into Silver River, where we got a sense of the beauty of this clear water that allows you to see the sandy bottom, and many fish swimming through the grass and reeds.

The viewing platform was the one spot where we also finally saw some wildlife. Since leaving the southern part of Florida we haven’t seen many birds or other creatures of interest. On the platform we saw an alligator, a great blue heron, ibises, turtles, cormorant, and many fishes.

The other exciting viewing of the day was in the woods on the way back. I had heard that there were armadillos in Florida but had only caught a glimpse of one from a distance. This time we came upon one that was so busy snuffling his way through the leaves looking for his lunch that he was oblivious to me standing there with my camera.

I thought he might walk right over my foot. Armadillos don’t look like they can move very fast but when he finally became aware of our presence he scampered off in a flash.

Now it’s time for us to scamper off and leave Ocala behind. We hear that the weather will warm back up to more normal temperatures in a couple of days. Until then we will continue to hotel and sightsee and then, depending on whether or not we have strayed too far from Ocala, we may circle back and do the camping we had hoped to do in the Ocala National Forest.

In Every Life a Little Rain Must Fall

We were getting spoiled by this winter’s drought conditions in Florida, fooling ourselves into thinking that every day was going to be sunny and warm. On Monday evening this week we experienced the first rainfall of our time here. It didn’t rain on Tuesday, but that day was a first because it was a day when the sun remained behind clouds and never appeared the whole day. The weather front that brought the rain has been followed by some cooler temperatures. We are having to adjust our “sunny and warm” expectations a bit, but the weather is still plenty warm enough for our continued enjoyment of Florida outdoors. We have seen signs of spring, such as this redbud tree, which we would not expect to see in Virginia for at least another 6 weeks.

So far this week we have visited a couple of state parks, checked out one bike trail and walked some trails in nearby Ocala National Forest.

The bike trail was a small piece of the Cross Florida Greenway trail that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Johns River. Most of the Greenway is unpaved and more suitable for off-road cyclists. We drove to Inglis to ride the one section that is asphalt. It traverses 5 miles west to the Gulf of Mexico, paralleling the former Cross Florida Barge Canal.

Viewing platform into one of the salt marshes along the trail as it approaches the Gulf.

The end of the trail at the Gulf of Mexico.

Our exploration of the Ocala National Forest started at the northwestern section nearest Ocala and included driving across the northern section to Salt Springs on the northeastern side. Along the way we stopped to walk the 2-mile Lake Eaton Sinkhole Trail, followed by the adjoining 2-mile trail that led to Lake Eaton. The sinkhole is an 80 foot deep, 450 foot wide dry sinkhole.
An observation deck allows a view of the sinkhole and there are stairs leading down into the sinkhole.

We learned how sinkholes are formed and read that Lake Eaton, as many of Florida’s lakes, is itself a sinkhole that has filled with rainwater.

One of the viewing platforms at the edge of Lake Eaton.

When we were in Salt Springs we looked at the campground there and noted that it would be a good location for a couple of days of camping next week, if the weather permits. We found a trail outside of town that led to a wildlife observation platform on Salt Springs Run.

Yesterday found us driving once again to the west of Ocala. Our first stop was at the Crystal River Preserve State Park. We found a 7-mile loop trail that was suitable for bikes and allowed us to see the variety of habitats that are within the preserve area.

The Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park that we visited next was not the type of park that we are used to seeing. The park’s mission is to showcase native Florida wildlife, but not wildlife that is living “in the wild.” Most all of the animals have been rescued and rehabilitated from situations where they would not have survived if left in the wild. Walking around the park is similar to the experience of visiting animals in the zoo. But it is a beautiful environment and an educational experience. I’m not sure where else, besides as plastic lawn ornaments, we would have been able to see flamingos.

My favorite “wildlife” sighting was at feeding time for Lu, the resident hippopotamus. Nice to see a huge, lazy munching critter that was not a manatee. In fact, the story of Lu and how it fits into the park’s history, is quite interesting.

In the 1960’s the original development of the park was as a privately owned tourist attraction to house exotic animals like lions, tigers, monkeys, etc. When the state bought the property for a park in the 1980’s the intention was to only have animals that were native to Florida; new homes had to be found for all the animals that were not native. Unfortunately, no home could be found for poor, old Lu, the hippopotamus. Hundreds of local residents sent letters to Florida’s governor, asking him to allow Lu to remain at the park. The kindhearted governor came up with a way to make it possible for this African beast to remain in a park that is for Florida wildlife. Lu was declared to be an Honorary Citizen of the State of Florida so he could live out his days at the park.

Even with the occasional cool and overcast day, I think living out your days in the beautiful state of Florida sounds like a pretty good way to go. But with many travels and adventures that await us in the months ahead it remains to be seen what state Lee and I will end up calling home.

Another Extended Stay

Yesterday afternoon we arrived in Ocala and checked into a Value Place hotel again for another week-long stay. We selected Ocala because of its central location in the state and its proximity to a number of parks, reserves and bike trails that we can explore in the coming week.

Our weekend of camping at Lake Griffin State Park was a success. The possibility of rain that had been forecast for the weekend did not materialize. The campground was small and close to a major highway, but not so close that we were bothered by noise.

One of Florida’s five largest live oak trees is in this state park so one of the first things we did was walk on the nature trail that leads to the tree. It is hard to do justice to the immensity of this tree with a photograph.

If we were fishermen we might have found more activities within the park itself. The park is not actually on Lake Griffin. There is a boat ramp and dock located on a canal that leads into Dead River, which empties into Lake Griffin after about a mile. It appeared to be an area popular with fishermen.

Since the park activities were limited we spent Saturday morning exploring the nearby town of Leesburg. There is a nice historic area in the downtown and a farmer’s market was set up that morning in the town square. It was also a short walk to Bourlay Historic Nature Park. There we walked on lakeside trails, visited a “shot-gun” style Cracker House, and picked some tangerines that were small but juicy. Just can’t resist fruit that is free for the picking.

We returned to the state park in the afternoon and took advantage of the canoe rentals available in the park. For a minimal fee we were able to rent a canoe for a couple of hours. We paddled down the river to where it empties into the lake and then a bit further into the lake to get a good view. There were a number of alligators along the banks of the river and even one that actually slid into the water and started swimming mostly submerged but with his beady eyes peering up and seeming to look right at us. I told Lee I didn’t want to stick around to see if he was going to swim in our direction.

After checking out of our campsite Sunday morning we went back to downtown Leesburg to attend church at the Good News church that meets on the second floor of the Leesburg Opera House.

What fun to climb up the stairs of a historic opera house and gather with a group of fellow believers–a sort of “upper room” experience. The pastor had a timely and timeless message on building strong relationships, with an emphasis on how to strengthen marriages.

As we drove north towards Ocala Sunday afternoon the highway passed through The Villages, a planned community for persons age 55 or better. We had heard so much about it that we couldn’t pass through without stopping for a short visit.

One of the things we had heard about The Villages was that everyone drives around in golf carts. As we walked the street towards the Information Center and glanced over at the parking in front of the Panera Bread, we saw evidence of the truth of that!

All that we took time for was to find the Information Center. There we were given a quick rundown by a sales representative and some literature to look at later. It certainly is an interesting concept and we may go back later in the week and do some bike riding there to further explore the community.

But now it’s time to get ready for the day here and plan what we want to see and do with our Monday. So nice to know that we don’t have to start a week of work like so many others we know!

Goodbye, Lakeland

We have had a truly enjoyable week in Lakeland, but today it’s time to move on. We made camping reservations for tonight and tomorrow night at Lake Griffin State Park, about 60 miles north of here. The weather is still warm, although there is some chance of rain showers for the weekend. Let’s hope not.

Each day in Lakeland found us studying our maps and brochures to help decide what park or bike trail we wanted to visit for that day. Even with a week to look around I think there are some things we would still want to investigate if we are ever back in this area. Lakeland has a lot to offer for those who enjoy outdoor activities and history.

Monday afternoon we drove south of town to the trailhead of the Fort Fraser Trail.

This was a 7 1/2 miles out and back that paralleled Highway 98, from Lakeland, through Highland City and on to Bartow. For most of the distance it was far enough away from the highway that the traffic wasn’t too annoying. Besides a number of descriptive signs along the way that educated us on the history and ecology of the area, we enjoyed reading the motivational sayings that were on the utility poles along the trail.

“A diamond is a pieces of coal that stuck to the job.” is the one in the photo. Another one attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt: “If you are at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.”

On Tuesday, we made plans to do a bike ride with Gene Clendenin, on a trail that is near the RV park in Polk City where he and Mary Jane park their RV in the winter months. This trail was 5 1/2 miles out and back to the small town of Auburndale. On the Sunday sightseeing trip in the car with the Clendendin’s we had driven through the downtown of Auburndale and thought it would be a cute town to explore further and maybe treat ourselves to some ice cream. Unfortunately, the trail ended on a rural road that was not close enough to downtown for us to visit on our bikes. So no ice cream treat, but still an enjoyable ride.

Gene and Lee pedaling on the trail.

Resting at a picnic table at the turnaround point.

On Wednesday we decided to extend our explorations further afield by doing a bit of driving to check out the state park at Lake Kissimmee. A “bit of driving” in Florida at this time of year can rather quickly become a larger amount of driving. There is so much traffic on the roads and our route took us through a lot of stop and go intersections, since we weren’t on an interstate. There were some nice trails to walk at the park, but given the amount of time we had to spend in the car getting there and back we decided we would have been better off doing something closer to Lakeland.

2 sandhill cranes in the picnic area. We thought we were seeing some wildlife (we hadn’t seen much at all on our walk to the lake) and excitedly took pictures. Later when we were getting in our car we saw these same 2 birds walking right up to some picnickers and begging for handouts. The beggars were totally unafraid, even with a dog near the picnic table where they were begging.

One of the most valuable things that we gained on our walk at Kissimmee State Park was a tip from 2 fellow walkers who had stopped to chat about the lack of wildlife viewing that day. They told us that one of the best places to visit for seeing birds and alligators was the Circle B Bar Reserve, just outside Lakeland. I think I may have heard mention of it or seen a sign but I didn’t pay attention because I thought it was some kind of bar! Actually, the name comes from the brand of the cattle ranch that was once on the property.

Thursday morning we made plans to visit Circle B Bar Reserve and we were not disappointed. We didn’t have a map or much information to go on and just parked at the first place we saw by a trailhead, thinking there was just one trail into the reserve.
First trail.

Before long we found ourselves in the true wonder of the extensive marshes and wetlands that are part of the reserve.

An alligator with his head up, unlike most of them we have seen that are just flat, stretched out lazy.

Anhingas are these birds that are everywhere in the trees and on wires and, in this case, standing in the water, but what’s fun about them is the way they stand with their wings spread out in the sun to dry themselves off.

We walked much further than we had planned, even discovering that the trail eventually went to Lake Hancock with a dock to walk out on.

As it was getting close to the time that we needed to head back to the car we discovered the real entrance to the preserve, where the newly opened Polk Nature Discovery Center gave us the opportunity to pick up the trail map and brochure that we wished we had when we first started. This was one of our best park visits and it didn’t even charge a fee!

Thursday afternoon, Gene and Mary Jane promised to show us a special treat if we came with them on a drive to Plant City. Plant City is the strawberry capital of Florida. People come from everywhere to the Parkesdale Farm Market in Plant City to buy fresh produce and sample their famous strawberry shortcake. We were not disappointed. It was delicious strawberry shortcake, indeed. And Barbara got to sit on the throne and pretend that she was Strawberry Queen for a day.

Gene and Mary Jane after enjoying strawberry treats.

It is with fond goodbyes that we depart Lakeland, hoping to come back soon and maybe even to see Gene and Mary Jane again before they head back to Virginia at the end of their winter stay in Polk City.

Hey, stop this train!

After so many days of being on the road we knew it was time to find a place to stop and spend at least a week. After researching our options we decided to try out the Value Place extended stay hotel chain that is located in a number of Florida cities. Lakeland, Florida, seemed like a centrally-located city with enough surrounding options to keep us occupied for a week. It is also close to our friends from Virginia, the Clendenin’s, who spend the winter months here in their RV.

Friday morning before leaving Fort Pierce, we spent some time in the downtown area, which included a visit to the Manatee Education Center. Besides the indoor and outdoor exhibits we had an opportunity to watch a group of manatees hovering just beneath the surface of the water in the ditch behind the center. The manatees like the ditch because it is an outlet from a city utility plant. The water flowing into the ditch from the plant is warmer than the surrounding water and manatees crave warmth (I know how they feel)! One of the things we learned about manatees is that the leading cause of death for them is pneumonia. They don’t have a thick skin nor a high metabolism to help them stay warm.

Leaving the Manatee Education Center we took a short drive across the inlet to check out the nearby beaches. The beaches on the Atlantic side of Florida are different from the Gulf coast beaches. It was a windy day, rather chilly, and the waves were rolling in. Standing there in the wind reminded me of other beach visits over the years in places like Virginia Beach, VA, or Ocean City, Maryland. It seems like whenever I’m there it’s cold and windy and I want to just get somewhere warm like it was when we were at the Everglades. Still a lot warmer, though, than it would have been in Virginia or Maryland.

On our drive across Florida to reach Lakeland from Fort Pierce we stayed off the major interstates to get a better feel for what Florida is really like. Lots of cattle ranches and orange groves and orange juice processing plants to look at.

Here in Lakeland we are enjoying the chance to get our bearings and know that we don’t have to pack up the car again until Friday. Saturday we got on our bikes and explored the Lake-to-Lake bicycle route.

Lakeland is appropriately named. There are multitudes of small lakes in and around the city.
Lake Hollingsworth, first lake on the Lake-to-Lake route.

Lake Morton, close to downtown.

Hollis Gardens, close to downtown.

Yesterday we attended church with our friends, the Clendenin’s and got a tour of the area where they live in Polk City, which is a small town close to Lakeland. Today we are catching up on some business and taking time to figure out where things are around the city. Our hotel offers internet, but we have found it to be frustratingly unreliable. We are now happily working on our computers using the great wireless service that is offered for free at the Lakeland Public library.

Either a cold front has moved into the state or it just isn’t as warm here as it was in southern Florida. Our bikes are on the car and if it warms up enough this afternoon we will explore another bike trail here in town. Meanwhile, it is nice to have a few days to know we don’t have to be on the move and that we have a stove where we can cook actual dinners.

Everglades to Fort Pierce by way of Lake Okeechobee

We didn’t intend to be in Fort Pierce tonight, but our adventures in Florida have often led us to places that we hadn’t necessarily thought of visiting. The 3 days that we spent in the Everglades were like that. Until a conversation last Saturday with our friends, the Marshall’s, we weren’t thinking that the Everglades would be somewhere we would go during our time in Florida. I can’t believe that we almost missed going there. It was a fantastic 3 days, with so much more to share about than I will have time for here. But I’ll give a quick rundown just so you’ll know that we didn’t get eaten by alligators and are still alive and well.

Alligators, alligators, alligators. I kept pleading with Lee that we just HAD to go through the Everglades because I really wanted to see alligators. And see alligators we did. During the 3 days there were many places we stopped to view them. They like to lay out in the sun next to ditches, as well as sometimes when we would see them floating in the canals like half-submerged logs. At no time did we ever see one that looked like it had enough energy to even care one bit that a bunch of tourists were there gawking and taking pictures. Notice in the third picture that this is a whole nest of alligators!

Our tour of the Everglades started at the western end and included time in the Big Cypress National Preserve, which adjoins Everglades National Park in the northeast. One of the activities here (besides stopping at roadside viewing areas to see alligators and at visitor centers to watch educational videos about the park and preserve) was to hike a portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail that goes through the preserve from north to south.

It was an interesting surface to walk on, not rocky like trails we are familiar with in the Shenandoah, but often rough terrain where the limestone bedrock was eroded and pitted.
“Lee picking his way over the perilous pitted limestone path”

Our first night was spent at a nice, but rather pricey, motel in Everglades City. When we realized that we would want to spend more than one night, we decided to try our first campout of the trip and stay at the Monument Lake campground we had seen earlier in the day while driving through the preserve, not far from Everglades City. Even without having planned on camping out we found that we had all we needed to make it a pleasant experience.

Sunrise over Monument Lake the morning after our campout.

Early morning walk near the campground.

Since we weren’t prepared for campsite cooking we did go into town and enjoy a nice seafood dinner at a local restaurant. My dinner included a cup of delicious stone crab soup. We learned that stone crabs are harvested locally in the bay and that it is illegal to capture and keep the whole crab. Instead, only one claw is cut off and the crab is put back in the water. If done correctly, the crab will regenerate a new claw for the next hungry tourist.

A lot of what we learned about the Everglades was on a boat tour that we took from the park visitor center at Everglades City. The boat tour also provided the thrilling experience of watching a pod of dolphins race up to our boat and swim and play, jumping and rolling in the waves made by the boat’s wake. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a camera with a shutter fast enough to catch a picture of the dolphins.
Lee on the boat before departing the dock.

Two of us on the boat.

And we wouldn’t want to leave the western end of the Everglades without showing you the picture we took at the Ochopee Post Office, which is between Everglades City and the Monument Lake campground. It is the smallest post office in the US, but only in the size of the building. The postmistress said that it is a busy post office and not on the list of post offices planned for closure by the US Postal Service. Of course, it’s busy with all of us tourists who stop and get postcards of the cute, little building.

Midway through our Everglades experience we enjoyed a 15-mile bike ride through the area of the park called Shark River Slough. It should have been called Alligator River Slough, since alligators were visible everywhere along the ditches, but obviously no sharks in the middle of the everglades. And, as in so many of the other areas of the park, clouds of herons, egrets, wood storks, ibis, and anhingas, to name a few, were everywhere. What I found particularly interesting about this trail is that it was an asphalt road built to carry tourists by tram on a circular route with a stop midway at an observation tower. The bikes were allowed to share the road by pedaling in the opposite direction of the trams and then pulling over and stopping whenever a tram was approaching.

Observation tower at Shark Valley

Our overnight stay Tuesday night was at a motel in Florida City, which is at the eastern edge of the Everglades. Wednesday morning we took a short side trip to Biscayne National Park which is within viewing distance of Miami across the Bay. It is also the northernmost part of the Florida Keys. We didn’t take time to drive down into the Keys, but, hey, you can’t do everything.

Before saying goodby to the Everglades, we drove in through the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center and found a picnic area for lunch at Long Pine Key. After lunch we walked on a trail through the pines that came out on the shore of a small lake.

Wednesday night found us camping again, this time at a Corps of Engineers campground in the town of Pahokee on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. Don’t you just love the names of the places in Florida? Lake Okeechobee is the second largest freshwater lake in the continental US (bonus points for knowing what the largest one is). Herbert Hoover Dike was built around the lake in the 1930’s for flood protection. There is a paved and off-road trail called the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST) atop the dike. And wouldn’t you know it, but our intrepid travelers had to get their bikes off the car and see what it was like to pedal the LOST trail.

Pretty hard to get lost on it, that’s for sure.

So tonight, as I mentioned, we are in Fort Pierce, on the Atlantic Ocean side of Florida. This area is known as the “Treasure Coast” from a number of ships of Spanish galleons that wrecked off the coast during the 17th and 18th centuries. We don’t plan to dive for sunken treasures, but as this adventure continues, who knows what treasures await us.