Florida’s Emerald Coast

We did not find the sunny weather that we hoped for when we drove to Florida’s Emerald Coast, but after driving for 2 days through rain we were happy that at least it hasn’t rained while we’ve been here. And even with the fog and overcast skies we can see why this area along the Gulf of Mexico is considered to have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. The sand is made up of pure Appalachian quartz, which reflects sunlight back up through the surf and gives the waters a remarkable emerald-green color. Walking barefoot on the soft, white, sugary sand soothes the toes and when you want to put your shoes back on it seems the sand falls right off leaving your feet feeling clean instead of gritty.

We had hoped to camp when we got here but the first night it looked like rain and we decided to get a motel instead. We stayed in Destin, Florida. Lee took a chance on finding the name of an old high school friend in the phone book for the nearby town of Niceville. They hadn’t been in contact for over 30 years, but Lee thought that Larry still lived in Niceville. Sure enough, his name was there, he answered the phone when Lee called, and he was delighted to hear we were in town. The next evening we enjoyed a delicious dinner with Larry and his wife while he and Lee hashed over old times.

The next day the weather seemed sufficiently clear for camping and we were able to get a tent site at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. The campsites are not on the beach, but in this cool, damp weather it was better, anyway, to be in the shelter of the pine trees.

The park contains 3.2 miles of pristine beach, old-growth longleaf pine forests, wetlands, 3 coastal dune lakes and several hiking trails. We especially enjoyed the hike to Campbell Lake and Morris Lake, 2 of the coastal dune lakes. This type of lake creates an opening called an outfall, to the Gulf of Mexico during periods of high water levels causing fresh and salt water to mix. Found in few places around the world, 15 of these rare lakes are found along this stretch of coast in Northwest Florida.

Campbell Lake, one of the coastal dune lakes

The hike not only had good views of the lakes, but there was also access to a beach on the Gulf, boardwalks through marshes and over sand dunes, and portions of trail through pine forests and oak hammocks. Because the day was foggy there was a special, eerie quality looking over the lakes and to the trees and dunes in the distance.

Wetlands and dunes bordering Morris Lake

Morris Lake at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.

Boardwalk on Deer Track Trail at Topsail Preserve State Park.

Beach access from Deer Track Trail at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park.

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is part of a 26-mile stretch of the Florida Gulf Coast called the Beaches of South Walton. Half of the land is set aside for state parks and forests, but the other half is a popular resort area with the type of development associated with beach towns. We got an opportunity to view the contrast of nature and commercial development on the day that we rode our bikes on a portion of the Timpoochee Trail. Street scenes on Timpoochee Trail through Beaches of South Walton.

One of the coastal dune lakes along the Timpoochee Trail. Commercial development around this lake, unlike the ones in the state park.

The entrance to Grayton Beach State Park is along the Timpoochee Trail.

Draper Lake, another coastal dune lake along the Timpoochee Trail.

Stop at Dune Allen Beach along the Timpoochee Trail.

Today we will be saying good-bye to Topsail Hill and, most likely, saying good-bye to Florida. The plan is to head west and if we head west from this part of Florida, there is very little of Florida left. Pensacola is about an hour from here and after that is Alabama. It has been a great two months in Florida and there are a lot of good memories that we take with us.

Gopher Tortoise Alley

If the Everglades Parkway (I-75) that cuts across the bottom of Florida can be called “Alligator Alley”, we decided that the Van Fleet Trail that we rode our bikes on this week should be called “Gopher Tortoise Alley.” We lost count of how many gopher tortoises we spotted the first day on the trail.

Gopher tortoise along Van Fleet Trail

At first it seemed important to get a good picture of one of the critters. They live in holes dug into the sandy banks along the trail and you usually don’t see them until you are right next to them. Tortoises, being like turtles, are something that you think of as slow moving so we were sure we could stop our bikes, back up and snap a photo. Before long, though, we felt that we were playing a silly hide and seek game. Tortoises are much smarter and faster than they look. We would be as quiet and sneaky as we could but just as soon as we had our cameras pointed at one it would vanish in a flash back into its hole.

One of the gopher tortoise holes.

Lee trying to sneak up on a tortoise.

Finally, when we decided it was time to quit stopping every time we saw a tortoise, we began to see one or two that had ventured a bit further away from its hole. That allowed us to catch a photo before they disappeared.

And then we came upon a situation where we really got up close and personal. Here was a poor tortoise that had somehow ended up stranded on its back. A second tortoise stood next to it looking sympathetic and just as helpless.

Lee played good samaritan, got a stick and pushed the stranded tortoise back over on its feet. The other tortoise quickly scampered off, while the rescued one seemed to pause a minute to get its bearings before it, too, quickly disappeared. Makes you wonder how they get stranded on their backs and if there isn’t a human around to rescue them how do they get out of their predicament?

Speaking of predicaments, the first hour of this planned trip on the Van Fleet Trail found us in a predicament. The trail is 29 miles long, starting at the Mabel Trailhead near Claremont and ending at the Polk City Trailhead. Our friends, the Clendenin’s, who spend the winter in their RV at a park in Polk City, had kindly offered us overnight accommodations in an outside apartment on their lot. Our plan was to bike the 29 miles from the Mabel Trailhead to Polk City, spend the night, and then bike back the next day.

It took some additional planning and packing because of the threatened rain and the fact that this was an overnighter where we had to think of things we usually don’t need to carry on our bikes. We ignored the dark clouds and few sprinkles of rain and crossed our fingers that we had all we needed as we set off down the trail.

But what is this sign here as we left the parking area and crossed the boundary that begins the official trail? Is this really an official sign? Is the trail really closed? We decided to ignore the sign and see for ourselves what was up ahead, since no one else was around that we could ask.

After pedaling 5-1/2 miles we saw that the trail ahead was fenced off, there was no one around, and here was another hand painted sign.

We could peer around the fence and see up the trail to where there was a second fence but there was nothing that we could see that looked like construction on the trail. There was a footpath around the edge of the fence and since I couldn’t stand the thought of having to turn around not knowing if there really was no way around this thing, I pushed my bike around the fence and pedaled up to the next fence.

Oops, I guess the signs were right. We weren’t going to be getting through this swamp.

We had to pedal back to the car, load up the bikes again, and drive down to the next trailhead. So much for all our planning. Lesson learned is to always check a website for trail conditions before setting off on a trip. Later that day we did see some official signs about the construction project, but had failed to see the one inside the kiosk before we started our trip at the Mabel Trailhead.

After the initial frustration the rest of the trip was quite enjoyable.

We especially appreciated the hospitality of the Clendenin’s that enabled us to enjoy a relaxing evening in Polk City and a good rest before pedaling back the next day.

One more bike trip that we had on our bucket list before leaving this area was to pedal more of the Withlacoochee State Trail. A couple of weeks ago we had ridden with our friend, Jerry, on a 32-mile ride that was out-and-back from the Gulf Junction (northernmost) Trailhead, down to Inverness. That left 30 miles of trail from Inverness down to the southernmost trailhead at Trilby that we hadn’t yet seen.

Unlike our two days on the Van Fleet Trail with temperatures in the 80’s and wind from the south, today brought in a cold front with temperatures in the low 60’s and winds from the north. Our hope was to have headwinds in the morning and tailwinds in the afternoon so we started at the Ridge Manor trailhead and pedaled north for 17 miles to Floral City.

Wearing long sleeves and pants today, instead of shorts and T-shirts as we did the previous two days, but the winds weren’t too bad and the day was enjoyable.

A stop at Lake Townsen, near Nobleton.

That’s been quite a bit of pedaling the last 3 days and we will probably take a break tomorrow from bike riding. But no breaks from adventures because now its time to move on and who knows where we will be next and what fun awaits?

Camping in Ocala National Forest

We’re back to civilization after a wonderful camping trip in the Ocala National Forest. The campground where we stayed at Salt Springs was an interesting combination of two very different types of camping experience. We were in the “primitive” area for tent campers, which was only primitive in the sense that it didn’t have electrical hookups. The restrooms and hot showers and tent sites were some of the best we’ve seen. It was quiet and practically deserted.

It turns out that almost all of the people staying there were at the other end in the area for RV’s. We were amazed at how full that area was, but it was so well separated from our area that we didn’t realize until the second day how full it was.

The tent section was a short distance from the swimming area, which is a beautiful pool built around the spring.

February is still too cold for me to think about swimming but, supposedly the water in the spring stays at a constant 72 degrees. It bubbles up from 7 large and 2 small vents in the limestone base. Most of the pool is only 2 feet deep with clear blue water where you can watch the many fish swimming around. The water is deeper over the vents; some of the vents are reported to be up to 20 feet deep.

What we also liked about camping at Salt Springs was the easy accessibility to the many hiking trails within the National Forest. The Florida National Scenic Trail runs the length of the forest. Obviously, we couldn’t hike all of it in the short time we were there but we did do an out-and-back section of it one afternoon.

We walked through pine scrub and oak hammocks and then the trail opened up to a view overlooking Hopkins Prairie, a massive wet prairie basin. Of course, with the ongoing drought in Florida, a lot of it is now dried up.

We did enjoy watching 2 pairs of sand hill crane making their way across the prairie.

The St. Francis Trail that we hiked on the second day was a 7-mile circuit hike that led us down to the banks of the St. John’s River.

In the 1880’s there was a town called St. Francis at this site, but we were a bit disappointed to find no evidence of a past settlement anywhere at the site, not even a signpost to indicate where it had been.

On the way back we did cross an interesting bridge that went over an old levee. The levee had been built to flood an area for rice paddies in an unsuccessful venture to grow rice.

Today’s hike, on the Yearling Trail, was the most interesting from a historical perspective. It traverses an area called Pat’s Island, which is not an island in the usual sense. Settlers called these areas of wilderness islands because they were oases of fertile soil and moisture surrounded by a massive “sea” of pine scrub. Pat’s Island was abandoned by its residents in 1935, after less than 100 years of human occupation.

In 1933 the author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings stayed with the last two inhabitants of the island, Calvin and Mary Long. Calvin’s childhood story of nursing a deer from a fawn inspired Rawlings to write her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Yearling.” The novel was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman and filmed on location in the early 1940’s.
Residents of Pat’s Island used this sinkhole, which is now dry, as their source of water.

Remains of a cattle dip site.

The Long family cemetery.

Today’s hiking weather was some of the sunniest and pleasant we have had. We were very tempted to spend another day camping but decided to continue on with our plans to leave Ocala National Forest. This evening we are thankful that we made that decision. The first significant amount of rain has showed up here in the form of some heavy thunderstorms. I may have complained about the continued cloudiness and threat of rain last week in Gainesville, but, in actuality there was hardly any rain there during that time. It’s good to see some rain finally getting here and especially good to be in a nice, dry motel room while it’s raining!

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!