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.