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The Rolling Hills of Brooksville

11 Dec

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Heading north on SR 41, rolling hills appear on the horizon. Chinsegut Hill is one of Florida’s highest points at 269 feet.  Only a couple of locations along The Lake Wales Ridge in central Polk County boast greater heights. There are so many picturesque places in Florida to explore, yet so few that match the charm of a 5 square mile town nestled in the hills of eastern Hernando County. This is Brooksville, a place where you may forget you are still in Florida.  The rolling hills of Brooksville are a special destination on an otherwise sprawling coast.dsc06259

As a child, I remember the old-fashioned Sunday afternoon drives with my family. Everyone would pile in the car, and we would take off to nowhere in particular. My brother and I usually ended up asleep in the back seat. I can’t think of a better Sunday drive than veering onto one of the narrow back roads and driving through the eastern Hernando alpine prairie.

Forest-covered limestone and ancient sand dunes define this part of the state. The historic city of Brooksville lies twelve miles southeast of Florida’s geographic center. Even its location has a unique story. Hernando County was once triple the size of what it is today. In 1877, the state separated it into three counties, Pasco to the south and Citrus to the north. Back in 1856, four families established the city of Brooksville; the Howells to the north, the Mays to the east, the Hales in the west, and the Parsons to the south. Named after, Preston Brooks, a South Carolina congressman,  their new town of Brooksville was a consolidation of two communities established in the 1840s, Melendez and Pierceville.

During the period, the land surrounding Melendez and Pierceville was essential to trade along the west coast of Florida. Ft. Desoto (no relation to the Ft. Desoto in Pinellas County) served as not only a stop for the Concord Stage Line that ran from Palatka to Tampa, but also as a trading post and as protection for settlers from Seminole Indians. The abandonment of the fort is what actually gave rise to city of Brooksville. While the high terrain made the Fort location attractive, it was constructed on a bed of limestone which made obtaining water difficult. The settlers eventually abandoned the location and moved just to the southwest. Their new settlement became Brooksville. A private residence now sits on the landmark location where the old fort once was with no evidence of its existence to be found except what is written in history.

dsc06248While the nation fought the Civil War in the 1860s, eastern Hernando County supplied Confederate soldiers with cotton and lumber. In 1864, Union troops attacked the Confederate-held city of Brooksville to destroy the supply line. Despite a valiant attempt to protect the city, the Confederate troops were defeated in what is now known as the Brooksville Raid. The event is re-enacted each January near Weeki Wachee.

Today, Brooksville is known for historic southern homes lining cobblestone streets reminiscent of those you might find in Savannah, Georgia or Charleston, South Carolina. Take a walking tour through the downtown where buildings and businesses date back to the early 1900s. A stop at Roger’s Christmas House is a must for holiday enthusiasts even in the heat of summer where an array of themed buildings contain antique and artistic Christmas decor along with household accessories sure to fit any style. Grab lunch or afternoon tea at The Tilted Teacup. Then, visit the May-Stinger House Museum, check out a train depot from the late 1800s or a one room school-house still standing, all within walking distance from one another. It’s easy to spend an entire day exploring this quaint American town.

The area around Brooksville, known locally as The Nature Coast, is an outdoor lover’s dream! Once home to settlers and Seminoles, it’s bordered to the east and west by the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Areas. The Withlacoochee State Forest provides the anchor. One of the most attractive areas to outdoor enthusiasts is the Croom Wildlife Tract near Ridge Manor, a 20,000-acre wildlife area featuring dozens of miles of hiking, horseback riding, bicycling and motorcycle trails. The hilly terrain makes it great for getting into shape to do longer more strenuous hikes in the mountains or an

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Croom is a great hiking destination

ywhere else you may find yourself exploring in the future. Silver Lake is ideal for hunting or camping. Fish or kayak the 13 miles of the Withlacoochee River that cuts through the Croom Tract. The Florida National Cemetery rests along the east border. Interstate 75 provides easy access to everything.

When someone says Florida, the images that first comes to mind are usually those of
beaches and palm trees. However, there are some parts of Florida that get so little attention, they are practically unknown.  These treasures don’t fit the ideal portrait of sun and sand. They’re not advertised all over the world as a top tourist destination. Some who have lived here all their lives know as much about them as someone who lives a thousand miles away. Brooksville may be called a sleepy town. It may be thought of as dull. The lifestyle may be considered slow. The beauty of a gem is that on the surface it looks like a rock. It’s not until you look deeper that the beauty within the crusty shell is revealed. Only those trained with that special eye appreciate its rough appearance. Brooksville is the gem of the Nature Coast.

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So, the next time you are sitting in the living room with that urge to get out and do something new, think of how it was a century ago. Automobiles changed the world. They gave rise to the afternoon drive allowing entire families to get out and explore their surroundings. They loaded the car and drove into the untamed countryside for a picnic or maybe to a neighboring town to see old friends or family. The automobile brought people together and they put towns on the map. The automobile made it possible for sleep old towns like Brooksville to shed its outer crust and expose the extraordinary within. The world may have changed. Technology may have evolved. But people will always have that desire to explore, to get out on the open road and find something hidden, something extraordinary! And there is nothing more extraordinary than those rolling hills of Brooksville?

The Hillsborough River-A Capsule of Time

10 Oct

It’s a steamy summer morning in Florida. The morning easterlies distribute moisture from the tropical Atlantic across the peninsula. The land begins to heat with the dawning light. Hot air rises high into the atmosphere. An afternoon breeze moves cooler air in from the Gulf of Mexico to replace the vanquished heat. The air masses collide setting the stage for a thunderous battle while the evening sun smiles admiring the mayhem.

In a thick marsh, a drop of water lands on a fern. Then another and another. Within minutes the rain falls faster and harder. A lightning bolt streaks across the sky followed by a rumble. The ground shakes as the storm grows stronger. The already saturated marsh can’t contain the onslaught. Our drop of water trickles into a pool. The pool becomes a swamp and the swamp gives birth to a river. The river winds its way to a bay, the bay to an ocean. Finally, in a salty current the drop of water rests. But not for long. The cycle that has been going on for 27,000 years is about to begin again. Such is the price of eternity.

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The Hillsborough River begins its journey to Tampa Bay in extreme northwestern Polk county on a 560,000-acre plateau called The Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve. The headwaters are narrow, mainly small streams that merge from heavy Florida rains, growing wider and wider until it they become the river. Cypress swamps, oak hammocks and flatwoods allow a 50,000-acre area known as The Green Swamp Wildlife Management Area to be a haven for nesting birds and many native species of plants and animals. The Florida National Scenic Trail also runs through the preserve. Visitors can get there fill of hiking, biking, camping, fishing, kayaking and horseback riding. Water levels vary so it’s best to check ahead before visiting anywhere in the Green Swamp.

From The Green Swamp, the river runs 54 miles south into Pasco and northern Hillsborough counties before spilling into Tampa Bay near Davis Island. It’s divided into three sections, the upper river, middle river, and lower river. A 34-mile Kayak and canoe trail begins in the upper river at Hillsborough River State Park. Each section of the river has a uniqueness to it that can transport you back in time and show you the future all in one trip.

About 12,000 years ago humans settled the area now known as the Hillsborough River watershed. The river provided the resources they needed for survival. It remained in a pristine state until the turn of the 20th century when logging took a toll on the old growth. Some of the ancient oaks can still be seen along the river banks, but for the most part the tree lined banks and forests surrounding the river today are less than a century old. The river, however, remains vital to lives of millions of plants, animals and especially people living along its banks. If not for the river, Tampa, may not even exist.

The Upper River

The upper river can best be defined by the wildlife that call it home. Deer, bobcat, hogs, and alligators thrive here. By far the most pristine part of the river, it begins in the narrow streams of The Green Swamp and ends just north of Tampa. It’s best explored from the water where herons, ibis, spoonbills, hawks, eagles, and owls are common. Mighty alligators glide across the gentle currents searching for their favorite snack, turtles, who in turn take refuge from the insensitive beasts by sunning themselves on fallen logs and muddy banks.

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River Trail Bridge

If an encounter with a gator is too much to stomach, there are other options for those that choose to explore the river or surrounding forests by foot. The most popular is Hillsborough River State Park. This 3,900-acre preserve is home to one of the only stretches of the river containing rapids. Though nothing a novice couldn’t handle they do offer a soothing sound not common to most Florida rivers. Rent a kayak, cycle, Segway or hike the park’s seven miles of nature trails. There are two picturesque foot bridges that cross the river, one of which is a suspension bridge. Both primitive and modern camp grounds make the park ideal for camping. In the summertime, cool off in the park’s ½- acre swimming pool. History lovers can explore a replica from the Seminole War, Fort Foster, or check out centuries-old artifacts from the people who once inhabited the upper river.

U.S. 301 and Morris Bridge Road are the best ways to reach the upper river. Other than Hillsborough River State Park, many small parks and preserves can be accessed right off of the highway. Sergeant Park off of U.S. 301 south of the state park is home to Canoe Escape where you can rent kayaks or canoes for self-guided trips down the river. They have different packages to choose from depending on your preferred level of adventure.

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Canoe Escape Trip Packages

 

Following the river’s course either by land or water, other parks provide great escapes for an afternoon stroll, picnic or a just a break. The Oak Ridge Equestrian Area off Morris Bridge Road contains 18 miles of horse and hiking trails that run through pockets of historic orchards reclaimed by the surrounding forest. Morris Bridge Park has a boardwalk that winds through a cypress swamp along with picnic shelters, a boat launch, and access to the river for fishing. Morrioak-ridge-equestrian-wilderness-area-037s Bridge Park is part of the Wilderness Park Off Road Trail which also includes Trout Creek Park, located a little further down river. Trout Creek Park plays an interesting role in what happens to the river as it nears the Tampa City Limits.

While a river brings splendor and nourishment to ecosystems that depend on it, the river can also bring devastation. Following flooding from Hurricane Donna in the late 1960s, the City of Tampa constructed the Tampa Bypass Canal to deviate swollen flood waters from the upper river around the cities of Temple Terrace and Tampa. The canal runs south from Trout Creek along U.S. 301 until it reaches Palmetto where it bends west emptying into McKay Bay. While at first just a means of flood control, the canal’s importance has grown. Today, it’s a primary source of drinking water for Tampa along with a natural habitat for thousands of birds and wildlife.

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Barred Owl

Past Trout Creek Park on the main river is Lettuce Lake Park. This 240-acre park is just on the north side of the Tampa city limits near the University of South Florida. It can be accessed off Fletcher Ave. Lettuce Lake is one of the a popular recreational park in Tampa. Here families picnic and play in many open spaces and shelters for rent. An extensive boardwalk follows the river for ideal wildlife viewing. There are playgrounds, nearby canoe or kayak rentals and a lookout tower. From the top of the tower the transformation of the river from the north to south could not be more apparent. On the north end of the park the river resembles something one might find in the Amazon.  It’s narrow and dark. Wildlife abounds. As it winds past the park, banks widen and the river looks something more like a scene from Huckleberry Finn where a river boat might feel right at home. Beyond is the middle river. Venturing there is taking a step forward in time.

The Middle River

The middle river is marked by affluence. The wide clear banks are home to the larger homes of some of the more wealthy Temple Terrace neighborhoods like Riverhills. As the rivers winds historic Florida and modern architecture mix with grandfather oaks nestled among golf courses, egrets and alligators. Rowlett Park is a popular destination with a playground and wide trails. It’s also the where the river levels are controlled. The dam near the University of South Florida regulates the amount of water allowed into the Tampa Bypass Canal from Trout Creek.

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Passing the Rogers Park Golf Course along the river signals Tampa’s historic Sulphur Springs is just ahead. A giant white tower appears on the horizon. The Sulphur Spring’s water tower is all that remains of a community that thrived in the 1920s through the 1960s. A first of its kind indoor mall, hotel, swimming hole (fed by the spring), water slide, and a drive-in theater all drew tourists to the area.  Today, only ghosts inhabit the old gazebo next to the landmark tower off of Bird Street.

Just on the other side of Sulphur Springs sits another historic Tampa neighborhood, Seminole Heights. While middle class homes line the bank, Seminole Heights is home to another Tampa landmark, Lowry Park and the Lowry Park Zoo. Originally, homlowry-park-zoo-043e to carnival rides and caged animal enclosures that resembled something that might be found in the back lot of a circus, the zoo has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past 20 years just like the shores of the river around it. The zoo is now a leader in animal education and rehabilitation as well as a major Tampa tourist attraction.

The Lower River

The Hillsborough River straightens out from Lowry Park on its descent into downtown Tampa. Rivercrest Park lies along the path. Hundreds of homes, apartments, condominiums, restaurants and schools that have stood for decades guide the river on the last leg of its journey. One last sharp bend reveals the modern linear lines of Tampa’s downtown skyscrapers. It means that the river mouth is near. That’s not to say the river goes out with a whimper. Here the river has come full circle. The lower river is where history meets the future.

The popular Tampa Riverwalk007 follows the river through downtown to its ultimate destination. It passes under the historic Lafayette Street railroad bridge on its way home to the sea. The tall buildings look down on the river knowing it is the only reason they exist at all. The historic University of Tampa columns at sunset rival any beach sunset you will ever see. The river witnessed the replacement of Curtis Hixon Hall with the Straz Center for the Performing Arts as Tampa’s home for Broadway. To pay respects to the old theater, the city created an outdoor space for weekend events and music, Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. 54 winding miles from the Green Swamp, the spectacular Tampa Convention Center sees the river spill its contents into Tampa Bay. The river has come home. Like our drop of water, it mixes with the currents of the bay waiting for the sunrise and the call to return to its place of origin where the journey will begin again and again and again.

The Hillsborough RIver flows southwest through three counties. It supplies the nourishment needed for the life of millions. It’s witness to the ever-changing state of our environment. It’s a sanctuary and a hazard. It’s pristine and yet it is modern. The Hillsborough River watershed in west-central Florida is truly a capsule of time.

The Winding Weeki Wachee

11 Jan

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The Florida Nature Coast extends from Pasco county, just north of Tampa Bay, up though the Big Bend to Wakula county in the panhandle. Known for its pristine forests and waterways, this coastline has been gaining international attention over recent years for one of the largest and most unique annual manatee gathering events in the world. Many of the rivers here originate as springs flowing up from the Florida aquifer deep underground. The rivers snake their way from these springs to the Gulf of Mexico maintaining a constant 74 degree temperature year around. The water is as clear as bath water and 98 percent pure, as pure as the spring water you buy in the grocery store. During the winter, thousands of manatees migrate to these rivers to escape the chilly Gulf of Mexico waters. Along with them, nature lovers from around the world congregate to witness the spectacle, kayak, and even swim with the gentle giants. Though not the most notorious thanks to media coverage of hot spots for wildlife viewing like Crystal Springs, the winding Weeki Wachee River may be one of the most beautiful waterways not just in Florida, but perhaps in all of the United States.

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The Main Spring

The river is fed by a large spring near the busy intersection of US Hwy 19 and SR 50 (Cortez Blvd) in Hernando County’s Spring Hill. There is a park entrance for Weeki Wachee Springs on the south side of the intersection. 117 million gallons of water flows from the main spring daily. Such and enormous amount of water has to go somewhere so it forms a shallow crystal clear bay locals call Buccaneer Bay. The entrance to the park is $13 for adults and $8 for kids. It may seem expensive compared to other state parks, but Weeki Wachee Springs is more than an ordinary state park. Buccaneer Bay is a popular swimming and picnicking spot complete with tube rentals, water slides, a snack concession and even a traditional bar. Access to Buccaneer Bay is included with the park admission, but tube rentals and lockers are extra. The main spring is on the south side of the bay. It’s fenced off so no swimming is allowed in the main spring unless you’re a mermaid.

You read that correctly, a mermaid! Weeki Wachee Springs is home to the famous live Florida Mermaid Show that goes back long before Walt Disney transformed the central Florida tourism industry. The name Weeki Wachee can be attributed to the Seminole Indians meaning “little spring” or “winding river.” Interestingly, there is nothing little about the spring. The bottom has never been found to this day. The original Weeki Wachee theme park was established in 1947 by a local businessman named Newton Perry. Intended as a roadside attraction, it grew into a popular tourist destination thanks to the mermaid show. It reached the height of it’s popularity in the 1970s. As the park fell into decay over recent years, the state stepped in to transform  it into a very unique state park. They kept the mermaid attraction which is included with the park admission. Also remaining is a 30 minute boat ride down the Weeki Wachee River from Buccaneer Bay. Ghostly remnants of the old theme park are evident just about everywhere as you stroll through the 538 acre property.

While the main spring and bay that the spring forms may be a haven for the tourists, the real draw for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts lies further downstream. Rent a kayak from one of many local rental venues to really experience life on river. From Buccaneer Bay, the river flows steadily toward the Gulf of Mexico for about 12 miles. Though the spring may be bottomless, the Weeki Wachee is a shallow river, less than 2 feet deep in some parts. It’s also a misleading because of it’s clarity. You may hop in to cool off expecting the water to be waist deep and shockingly realize it’s twice that depth. I mentioned the water is always 74 degrees! If you forget before you jump it, you’ll remember quickly. Though it may look like nice bath water, it’s cold bath water!

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School of Mullet

You won’t be alone in the water either. The water is teaming with fish that are tolerant to both salt and fresh water such as mullet. Schools of large mullet are common well upstream. And yes, there are alligators, just not as common as you might find in other Florida waterways. It’s tough for gators to ambush prey when the water is so clear and cool. You’ll usually find them on the banks warming their body temperature. But even if you don’t see them they are likely lurking around somewhere.

In the summer, manatees migrate further off shore to the warmer gulf water, but in the winter, manatee sighting are common in the deeper parts of the river. You won’t see them near the main spring or Buccaneer Bay. You have to take a trip down river where the curious creatures may even swim up to greet you. Manatees are gentle mammals and they are vegetarians so enjoy the once in a lifetime experience. Take a lot of pictures to share the experience.

The river flows northwest once it leaves the spring through a sparsely populated stretch before turning west into the Weeki Wachee Gardens subdivision. From there, the river widens joining with the Mud River then spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. My dad told me stories of driving up to the Weeki Wachee as a teenager. He even told me they took me there when I was a kid. I don’t remember, but it shows that not much has changed. Sure the land area around it has grown and changed with the times, but the and area within has remained the same. Hats off to the parks department for keeping it that way. Though it may not appear on any national lists of top destinations and thankfully so due to it’s pristine nature, memories are still made here. From a child swimming in Buccaneer Bay to a Florida native taking in the solitude of one of the nature coasts many jewels or a tourist seeing a manatee up close for the very first time, everyone  must appreciate the Weeki Wachee river for being as winding and pure today as it was when the Seminoles roamed its banks.

 

 

Descend into the Devil’s Millhopper!

1 Mar

A hidden national landmark lies just to the northwest of the University of Florida campus near Gainesville. If you believe there are no natural waterfalls in Florida, think again because at Devil’s Millhopper State Park you will find a few. Granted, they are not the towering, roaring falls that you see up north, but it is a peaceful,  serene landscape thousands of years in the making. Here is the legend as quoted from an unknown source.

Devil's Millpond State Park 031Once upon a time, there a was a beautiful Indian princess who lived in a village near the location of the present day Devil’s Millhopper. The Devil wanted to marry the Indian princess, but she wanted nothing to do with him. So one day he decided to kidnap her. He grabbed the Indian princess and ran.

On hearing this, all the Indian braves were deeply saddened and began to chase the Devil and the Indian princess. As the braves began to get closer and closer, the Devil created a huge sinkhole for the Indians to fall into. This sinkhole is the Devil’s Millhopper you see today.

When the braves tried to climb out of the sinkhole to save the princess, the Devil turned them to stone. To this day, it’s said that the weeping of water from the stones along the slopes of the Devil’s Millhopper are the tears the Indian braves shed for the beautiful princess.

So, what exactly is a millhopper? Millhoppers are funnels used by farmers in the 1800s that held grain before it was fed down into grinders. Devil’s Millhopper is actually a giant sinkhole 120 feet deep and 500 feet wide. Over the centuries rain and spring water has flowed down the slopes to form a pond at the bottom. A layer of limestone and clay give the water a beautiful clear blue hue. The clay prevents the water from escaping so an ecosystem all its own has developed from the rim down to the water’s edge. The sinkhole was given its name because natives believed fossilized bones which rest at the bottom of the sink are a sign it is a place the Devil used to feed bodies down into his domain. Today, descending down the boardwalk from the rim, you can see signs of Florida’s ancient geologic history in the rocks.

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You enter the park off Millhopper Road on the north side of Gainesville. The park is only 62 acres. It’s the only geologic landmark in the Florida State Park system. The parking lot circles a tree covered picnic area. An information booth and restrooms mark the beginning of two trails. The rim trail runs the circumference of the sink. It’s well-marked and level which makes it a great place to walk or jog for exercise. Several scenic views of the sink can be found along the rim trail.

The real experience begins when you descend down a 232 step boardwalk to an observation platform at the bottom of the sink. You’ll see and hear the water flowing through and over the rocks serving as a backup vocalist to the native songbirds. Many species of ferns, gums and willows make the base of the sink more like a rain forest compared to the hardwood pines, oaks and grasses around the rim. Once you reach the observation platform, relax and enjoy the sounds of nature more comparable to something you would find in the Smoky Mountains rather than in Florida. Countless species of birds, reptiles and amphibians call the park home just like you would find in any rain forest. Gather your energy while taking it all in. You have the same 232 step climb to get out of the sink. AND keep your eyes open! No one knows who or what still lurks under the water at the lowest point of the sink!

Devil's Millpond State Park 034Devil's Millpond State Park 032 Devil's Millpond State Park 028Devil's Millpond State Park 024Devil's Millpond State Park 023Devil's Millpond State Park 006There aren’t many places throughout Florida where you can clearly see how the passage of time affects the land we hold so dear. Devil’s Millhopper State Park is one of those rare places you don’t really think of going out of your way to visit, but once you do you are really glad you did. It’s not a place where you will spend an entire day, but it’s definitely a must see if you are in the Gainesville area. When you think of a national landmark, you think of landmarks such as the Washington Monument, Mount Rushmore, the Grand Canyon or Old Faithful. Devil’s Millhopper is right there with these other amazing sights. It’s a Florida gem that many don’t know even exists.

 

 

 

Myakka – Gateway to the Everglades!

15 Jun

The most staggering part of exploring Florida is the diversity of the ecosystems throughout the state. Thick pine scrubs and high prairies dominate the northern peninsula highlighted by the Ocala National Forest. Here you’ll find forest dwellers like black bear, deer, fox and bob cat. Swamps and lakes cover the interior middle of the state from Tampa to Orlando and down the spine to Lake Okeechobee. These are the headwaters for the slow-moving Withlacoochee, Hillsborough and Kissimmee Rivers. Your more likely to run into deer, egrets, hawks, eagles, otter and alligators in this sub-tropical, swampy setting. Heading due south from Tampa Bay, the soil becomes much more sandy and shallow. Saw palmettos and palm trees stretch across a flat endless coastal landscape that eventually gives way to the marshy grasslands of the Everglades. To get to this sanctuary, you must traverse Myakka, a long river basin that stretches from west of Bradenton to Charlotte Harbor on the southwest Florida coast. It’s easily accessed from anywhere off I-75 through Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties.

The Myakka River in Sarasota County

The Myakka River has been the life blood of this area for thousands of years. The river snakes it way southwest through the three counties toward Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico. The river was first discovered along with the Peace River by Ponce De Leon. The Spanish explorer did not give either river their current name, but historical records indicate he made port in Charlotte Harbor during his first visit to Florida in search of gold and the legendary Fountain of Youth. Some believe a spring near the City of North Port called Warm Mineral Springs might be the legend De Leon was searching for and that the Myakka River was the river that would have taken him to it. There is no evidence he ever visited the spring or even voyaged far enough up the river to have found it, but there is archaeological evidence ancient Paleo Indians buried their dead in the area of the spring some ten thousand years ago. Perhaps they believed the water had healing or rejuvenating powers and that’s how the legend began?

The term Myakka is believed to have come from the Seminole term Miarca which means big water. This should be no surprise! Those who live in southern Florida know the Myakka River is one of the first rivers to flood during periods of heavy rain.

MyakkaProbably the most popular place to access the river and explore the Myakka basin is to visit Myakka River State Park off SR 72 near Sarasota. I like to think of the 58 square miles of the park as a gateway from Central to South Florida. The Myakka River meanders southwest from its source in Manatee county through the park , but the real highlight is Lake Myakka on the northern boundary.Birdwalk into the Lake Myakka shallows

At dusk I’ve seen multiple deer crossing the road near the lake with not a care in the world about my presence. I watched a Bald Eagle through binoculars while standing on the Birdwalk. She emerged from the treetops on the opposing bank. At first I didn’t know what it was other than a really big bird. Soon enough her striking features became evident. I was in awe. She swiped a fish cleanly out of the lake on her first attempt, then soared gracefully over my head carrying her prize in her talons. It was like something right out of  a nature show. Armadillo and wild pigs have scurried across the hiking trails right in front of me. They never stopped to pay me homage. Of course, my heart stopped while I stood there frozen in astonishment.

There are miles of these hiking trails throughout the park including 39 miles of the Florida NationaMyakka River State Park air boat tourl Scenic Trail. If the hiking sounds a little too dramatic, rent a canoe or kayak from the Outpost. Take a boat or tram tour of the park. Grab a snack. There are plenty of picnic areas. Whether it be boating, fishing, horseback riding,  or camping, Myakka River State Park has it all for the adventurer who dares to pay the $6.00 per vehicle entrance fee. The one thing I would not recommend, however, is swimming. The park has a heavy population of alligators. Alligator resting in the Myakka RiverRemember, always be alert around any body of fresh water when exploring Florida. Obey signs that designate no fishing or swimming. They’re there for your safety. Above all, never feed the alligators. That’s for everyone else’s safety!

For a little more of a subdued pace especially if you’re a hiking enthusiast like me, head further south on I-75 to the Myakka State Forest near North Port. There is a parking lot off River Road where you can access two loop trails; the 6 mile north loop and 7.4 mile south loop. These are excellent easy hikes for introducing the kids to the hiking experience. Depending on your pace you can accomplish either loop in under three hours. The trails are wide. Most importantly, there are no roots to trip over as my son would say because the terrain is flat and open prairie dominated primarily by saw palmettos and long leaf pine. What I like most about the Myakka State forest is the way the sound of the wind cutting through the palm prongs creates a sense of isolation. I definitely recommend wearing a hat and sunscreen regardless of the time of year, though. With the terrain being so open, the trails are exposed to the elements. Both loops are part of the Florida Trailwalker Program.

Myakka State Forest North Loop Myakka State Forest Honey Bee Boxes

Florida is known for slow-moving winding rivers that traverse the state connecting lakes and tributaries that all end up in either the Gulf of Mexico or the Atlantic Ocean. It all culminates the further south you go with the ultimate slow-moving river, the Florida Everglades. Myakka is where these two worlds meet. Life flourishes here whether it’s a prehistoric alligator or a tiny sparrow. People have thrived in Myakka for ten thousand years. In many areas the land remains the way it has been for centuries, a portal in time if you will, a gateway to the watery wilderness of the Everglades. The big waters of Myakka play as big a role as any in the survival of such a treasured place. When the floods come, it’s just the voices of the past reminding us of that. It’s definitely worth the visit.

Welcome to Snook Haven The Menu Snook Haven Live Entertainment on the Myakka River

Visit Snook Haven for a quick bite, good music and all around good time just off I-75 near Venice right on the Myakka River!

Utopia – Fort De Soto State Park!

30 Dec

Waves crash along the shore sounding a harmonious hymn. A lone sea-gull cries a solo tune. A dozen others perched in the sand listen waiting for the cue that it’s their turn to chime in the chorus. A tern skips along the water’s edge adding a note or two of its own. This is nature’s symphony. The notes are not written. There is no maestro. It’s simple. It’s pure. You sit on the beach and listen. The sun gracefully bathes you with its warm rays. Your heart Great Blue Heron Patrols the Beachrate slows. You close your eyes. You are at peace.There are no high rises here, no tourist traps, surf shops, restaurants or bars. It’s just the ocean and the birds singing serenity’s song. Welcome to Fort De Soto Park, an island utopia surrounded by the waters of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Located just a few miles from St. Pete Beach, you get to Fort De Soto from I-275 or from Gulf Blvd by route of the Pinellas Bayway. It’s a .50 cent toll road that is well-tended. The park also has its own toll of .35 cents plus a $5.00 admission per vehicle. You’ll see some of the most affluent coastal living in all of Tampa Bay as you drive the five-mile causeway through the Tierra Verde community. You’ll pass Billy’s Stone Crabs which has been around for over forty years! It’s hit or miss with the food and service, but it’s on the water so that counts for something. The locals prefer The Good Times Continental just off the Bayway. It’s more home style and ranked number one in Tierra Verde.

After crossing a couple of bridges, the boat ramps and camp ground are off to the right upon entering the state park. If you’re a camper, make sure you make reservations well ahead of any planned camping trips. The wait at Fort De Soto can be up to a year! The boat ramps are maintained well and provide plenty of space for parking, but you’ll still want to arrive early for a day of relaxation or fishing on either the bay or the gulf. It’s one of the more popular places to launch in Southern Pinellas County so it will fill up fast especially on holidays.Sunshine Skyway Bridge

The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is only a short distance away by boat. It’s deep channels provide some top-notch fishing for species you  might think you have to go fifty miles into the Gulf of Mexico to catch. My father used to tell me stories of going to the Skyway in search of the giant grouper (or jewfish) when he was a kid. I haven’t heard any tales of the enormous, man-swallowing beasts lurking those waters today, but who knows what lies at the bottom of the shipping channels? Other species of grouper, tarpon, king mackerel and cobia are there though. Experienced Captains track them down depending on the time of year. If fishing is not your thing, you can take the short jaunt out the mouth of Tampa Bay to Egmont Key. Known at night for its lighthouse, Egmont Key served as a first lines of defense during the Spanish occupation of Florida and as a U.S. military reservation until the latter part of the twentieth century. Today, it’s a wildlife refuge and only accessible by private boat or ferry from the Bay Pier in the park.

Once you get past the park entrance the activity choices are practically unlimited. Fort De Soto Park is divided into the north side and the east side. The causeway from the mainland ends at the ranger station from where you have to go either left or right. The east beach is to the left where you can see picturesque views of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. The east side has plenty of fishing holes just off the road or places you can just poll over and relax. The east beach faces Tampa Bay. It’s marked by a large parking lot and restroom with showers. Just about everything else is on the north side of the island including two fishing piers, a gift shop, snack bar, bike rentals, canoe and kayak rentals, picnic areas, hiking trails, a pet playground and the highlight of the park, Fort De Soto itself!

Fort De SotoFort De Soto was a military installation built in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. It is free to tour. Some of the last mortar cannons of their kind that still exist in the United States have been placed in the fort. Fortunately, a shot has never been fired from Fort De Soto. Though it was not used in battle, the fort has served in many training exercises over Mortar Cannon the years iincluding bombing practice for Hiroshima during World War II. I’ve been visiting  Fort De Soto for 25 years. The view from the top of the western wall that looks over the park’s north beach with Egmont Key in the distance is one of my favorite places in all of Florida.

View from Atop Fort De Soto Looking Toward the Gulf Pier and Egmont Key

In the same parking area where you go to get to the fort, you’ll find the Gulf Fishing Pier and snack bar. This is one of the longer and wider fishing piers in the area where you’re always guaranteed to find good company. Access is free! Summertime brings in schools of spanish mackerel, jack, tarpon, and trout chasing bait fish that are so thick one drop of a bait net usually provides ample supply for a good day of fishing. Dolphin are common in the summer. They are bold, too. They tend to congregate around the pier. No catch is safe with these guys. They are not bashful about robbing a fisherman of his dinner before he can get it safely out of the water. Take it from an eye-witness. I’ve seen them come out of the water to snatch a catch off an unlucky tourists fishing line.

The seas are rougher and the wind is colder coming off the Gulf in the winter. Despite the chill there is a peacefulness to the Northerly unique to the park that far surpasses any bite the wind dishes. Sunsets from the Gulf Pier are spectacular regardless of the time of year. Following a summer thunderstorm, the sun drops from the base of the departing cirrus just above the horizon. As the sun sinks lower, the moisture from the dying storm paints an array of reds, yellows, oranges, and purples in the sky that can easily be compared to looking through a window into heaven from the Earth. It lasts only ten or fifteen minutes, but the impression lasts forever just like in a painting.Dusk from the North Beach

Fort De Soto Park harbors seven miles of paved trails that follow the shore and provide access to all the park’s amenities. You can travel within the park by foot, bicycle or car. Bike rentals are located at the north beach gift shop and concession stand. There are off-road hiking trails as well far to the north side of the island. The trails are convenient to the picnic areas so even on a cool winter day there is something to do to do if swimming or sunbathing is out of the question. The short hikes provide access to some pretty remote parts of the island so be sure to bring a camera! The palmetto scrubs quickly give way to coastal estuaries so the diversity of wildlife is pretty spectacular. From gopher tortoises and dozens of butterfly species to osprey and owl nests to the herons and egrets in the shallows, you are certain to find something worth shooting with a camera.

Fishermen in an Inlet Secluded Beach An old Jetty

The interior portion of the island is called Mullet Key. This is where you’ll want to grab a kayak or canoe to explore the shallow mangrove channels. You may run into dolphins or manatees. You’re sure to get up close and personal with local native species of egrets, herons, pelicans, or maybe a limpkin, spoonbill or ibis. You’re guaranteed to get acquainted with the serenity of the park’s back country where Tocobaga Indians once lived.Snow Egret

You can do all of this without ever stepping foot on what Fort De Soto Park is most known for…the beaches. Three miles of the seven mile coastline consist of white sandy beaches. Whether you park at the east beach parking area or you just pull off the road and take a short walk through the north side sea-grass to the shore, the park’s beaches offer relaxation at its finest. The beaches here are not as crowded as St. Pete, Treasure Island, or Clearwater. There no water slides or tiki bar bands to attract the masses. Two-time winner of the nation’s best beach, the stars of Fort De Soto Park are gentle breaking waves, long walks, first class shelling, wading birds pecking a snack from tide pools, pelicans skimming across the ocean surface, dolphins rolling in the distance, and the aerodynamic ballet of osprey fishing for their young. The park rangers regularly patrol the beaches so make sure to obey the rules. Most importantly don’t feed the sea-gulls or you will live to regret the company of some very undesired friends. The warm gulf waters bring many species of live shellfish near the shore during the summertime. The sand dollars can get so thick you practically kick them up with every step. You’re also likely to encounter sea stars, star fish and stingray so make sure to shuffle when you walk to avoid any unwanted encounters. Also keep in mind live shelling is prohibited so when you come across that starfish, resist the temptation to take him home. He’s happy where he’s at.

A Motorized Parasail Skirts the BeachRemember, your role is strictly an observer. Lose yourself in the opera before you. Let the stress of daily life melt away. Become one with the ocean’s symphony. Allow your heart and mind to synchronize with its melody. This small island utopia can belong to you for just a little while. Feel it! Treasure it! Protect and enjoy it! Nature’s song is what Fort De Soto Park is all about. All you have to do is listen.

An Osprey Rests in a Tree Monarch Butterfly Sea of Ferns

Little Big Econ – Walk In the Footsteps of Ponce de Leon

7 Dec

Horseback riders cross the Econlockhathcee River

The date is April 2, 1513. A prominent Spanish explorer, using his own money, sets out to find new islands of riches believed to be located somewhere northwest of Puerto Rico and Hispaniola. He arrives at a destination and gives it the name La Florida after the Festival of Flowers during Easter, Pascua Florida. Juan Ponce de Leon comes ashore somewhere between St. Augustine and Melbourne, spending five days on what he thinks is an island . He never ventures far from the coast or his ships, nor is he particularly welcomed by the Native Americans that inhabit the area.

Eventually he moves on, heading south along the coast. What were the thoughts running through the mind of this man as he left the beach to board his ship, the Santiago, on a clear spring night with billions of stars shining down on a black ocean? He had already seen many strange things in his lifetime, visited countless foreign lands, and skirmished with those that inhabited them. Most of all, what makes him return 8 years later to settle the land? His plans go terribly wrong. He is mortally wounded in an attack by the natives. He flees to Cuba where he dies. Were his final thoughts as he lay dying of this mysterious world of endless foliage? He envisioned a new beginning and instead met a violent end. We’ll never know his last thoughts, but we know he changed the world. The European conquest of the North American continent had begun.

Legend says he was in search of the Fountain of Youth, but that search rarely took him away from the coast. Often they were met by resistance so it was probably safer not to press inland. But what if he had? What if Ponce de Leon explored Florida enough to learn about the heart of the land. The natives knew it well. They loved it enough to fight for it and die for it. The Calusa and Mayaimi tribes understood what made the heart of Florida pump the rivers and streams south to the Everglades which in turn fed the rich waters of Florida Bay. The Seminoles were the last to protect it, but eventually they too gave in to conquest after engaging the Spanish and the Americans in three wars. 1845 saw it all end when Florida became part of the United States. Thick Cabbage Palms

Ponce de Leon really never knew La Florida. I often wonder what it would have been like to see the land through his eyes had he accomplished his last mission, settled the land and written about it. I found a place where I felt like I was doing just that. Little Big Econ State Forest is located in Seminole County just north of Orlando. You can access the forest in the small town of Oviedo off County Road 426 or along Snowhill Road. It’s a two-hour drive from Tampa, but only fifteen or twenty minutes from downtown Orlando. It helps to have a Sun Pass or bring plenty of change. If you’re not familiar with Orlando, the toll roads are the quickest way to get around and that is how the GPS will take you unless you set it to avoid tolls. This is a place where you truly feel like your stepping back in time so however you get here will soon be irrelevant.

The Florida National Scenic Trail and The Flagler Trail intersect here where the old-growth is memorizing.  The Econlockhatchee River bisects the forest and the trails stay close to the river. Small creeks spider out in different directions from the main river so the forest service helps Trailwalkers by strategically placing wooden foot bridges along the main trails. My son and I did a 4.7 mile loop called the Kolokee Trail Loop which runs from the parking area off Barr St and CR 426 along the river to The Flagler Trail, then into the pine and oak hammocks before looping back down to the river.

Amazing Sprawling Oak TreeThe size of and shapes of the trees made the biggest impression on me during this three-hour hike. I literally felt like a Spanish explorer making his way along the narrow path. From sprawling oak trees covered in mosses and ferns to cabbage palm tree patches that rival three-story buildings you can feel the hundred year old spirits guiding you with each step. Pine trees do their best impression of California Redwoods that any tree growing in our sandy soil can do.

The Florida Trail and the Flagler Trail meet at a bridge that crosses the Econlockhatchee which was formerly part of the Flagler Railroad System. The old trestles are still there. Standing over the gentle flowing current I imagined those that inhabited the banks fishing the plentiful waters while the children swam and played. Fish the size of my forearm swam right below my feet so I knew this was always a place of bounty. Up the trail a few hundred yards an alligator rested in a small pond. Turtles enjoyed unusual afternoon warmth for late fall. I even came across a small box tortoise scooting along the trail. This is a place that can never be changed because it never has been changed. I felt that this is a piece of Florida that must be very close to its heart. It had already become a part of my heart.Bridge where the railroad once crossed the Econlockhatchee River, now part of the Florida Trail

It began to rain during the  stretch back to the trail head. We walked in the rain for a good half an hour. Normally when you spend that amount of time in the rain you end up drenched. The trees were so thick in places with canopies of palms that we ended up more on the damp side than what I would consider wet. I could tell Little Big Econ is no stranger to rain. It’s only twenty to thirty miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean. There was zero chance of rain when we left Tampa, but a stiff northeast wind in early December had another forecast in mind for that part of the state. Other than some muddy shoes we ended our hike no worse for wear.

There is no traditional camping in the Little Big Econ State Forest, but there are miles of hiking trails, horseback riding trails and biking trails. You can canoe or fish as long as you have a state fishing license. It’s not the largest forest, but size does not equate to substance, and this forest has what you’re looking for if your into nature the way nature was meant to be seen; undisturbed and isolated. Walking in the Little Big Econ is truly like walking in the footsteps of Ponce de Leon.

Rest area where the Florida Trail and Flagler Trail intersect Alligator resting in a pond Ferns and mosses make an ecosystem of their own on the trunks of the huge oak trees

The Econlockhatchee River Footbridge along The Florida Trail Old Growth

Absorbing Tarpon Springs

24 Nov

The Sponge Docks of Tarpon SpringsTarpon Springs is what I consider the treasure of West Central Florida! Located on the northern Pinellas County coast just south of the Pasco County line, this is the place to go if your into shopping, fishing, great food, or simply strolling to take in what life might be like in a small Greek fishing village. I’m not talking about the part of Tarpon bisected by US Hwy 19. That’s not the real Tarpon Springs. To get the feel of what Tarpon Springs is, just head down to the docks…the famous Sponge Docks. 

Since I work in real estate, a highlight of visiting Tarpon Springs is taking a charter boat from the docks down the Anclote River to the Gulf of Mexico. The homes along the river banks are breath-taking. I’ve always thought it would be a great market to tap into. We haven’t because no one ever wants to leave once they move there I suppose. Anyway, I was describing the houses along the Anclote and all throughout the neighborhoods west of Alt Hwy 19 to one of our agents. He had a rather confused look on his face so I asked if he had ever been to Tarpon Springs. Most people associate the community with what they see along US Hwy 19 which is
Living in Tarpon Springs, FLpretty much a continuation of the same strip malls and chain restaurants you see along the entire stretch of the highway from the Skyway Bridge to the county line.

He said of course he had but he didn’t find it all that impressive. I asked him what part of Tarpon he was referring to? The Docks? The tiny historic downtown? The Meditteranean homes? He said he didn’t know what I was talking about because all he saw was a big lake! Of course, he was referring to Lake Tarpon which is a large lake and recreation area east of Tarpon Springs and west of Odessa. He thought that was the extent of Tarpon Springs so he never ventured any further. That’s why I consider it such a hidden treasure. Most people who aren’t from this area don’t even know its there.

Greek Dancing Downtown Tarpon Springs

Best known for its Greek Heritage extending back to the 1880s when Greek sponge fisherman arrived to call the area home, the Sponge Docks attract most people to Tarpon Springs. The Docks stretch the banks of the Anclote River from Alt Hwy 19 along Dodecanese Boulevard. Once the heart of commerce which was dominated by the abundant live sponge population in the Gulf waters, the docks are only a shadow of what they were at the turn of the century. Today they are more like a short version of Duval street in Key West, lined with shops bargaining for the tourist dollar, museums, art, an aquarium and relics of the sponge fishing industry. That’s not to say they still don’t harvest live sponges. They do, but not to the extent of days gone by. You can still see the working sponge fishing vessels parked along the river bank. Nearly everywhere you go, someone is selling sponges. These aren’t the ones from the super market. These are the real thing, right from the ocean (though maybe from another ocean than the Gulf) in nearly every shape and size imaginable.

Sponges aren’t the only sea life that draws people to Tarpon Springs. The adventurous can take a deep-sea fishing charter into to the Gulf of Mexico for either a full or half day. My friendsAboard the Ms. Milwaukee and I used to frequent the Ms. Milwaukee. Unfortunately, I believe she fell victim to the recession. Her rival, The Two Georges, is still there. Well, I guess they’re not rivals anymore. We gained quite a sense for the competitive nature between the captains of each vessel while they raced to see who could get out of port first and who came back with the most fish. We always told ourselves we won. I’m sure they told themselves the same thing. It really didn’t matter. It was always a great day!

If adventure isn’t your thing, a simple stroll up and down Dodecanese Boulevard is worth the trip . You don’t have to buy anything to spend a great afternoon at the Sponge Docks. But since you are there, it would be pointless not to try the authentic Greek cuisine. The bakeries are poison to anyone on a diet. But they are simply irresistible. Fresh Baklava is everywhere. Try the Spanokopita! It’s Fillo dough filled with spinach, feta, onion and egg. Yum! For dining, there are many places to choose from. You can’t go wrong with Hellas where I  had one of the best Greek salads I’ve ever had. Get the Saganaki (flamed cheese) for an appetizer. The pork-kabob entre was amazing! Even better, the atmosphere matched the food. It was one of the best dining experiences I’ve had in years. I won’t go to the docks without going to Hellas.

Boy holding the Epiphany Cross in front of the St. Nicholas Greek Othodox Church

If you have nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon and you want to get out to enjoy the gorgeous Florida weather we normally experience from November through April, I can’t think of a better place to spend time than at the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks. Whether it’s culture you’re looking for, a good drink to cap off the weekend or great food, you can’t go wrong. It’s fun. It’s romantic. It’s Florida and IT’S VERY GREEK!

Exploring Florida… and More!

19 Sep

Welcome to Exploring Florida and More. My name is RJ Prieto. I’m an avid writer and traveler. Born and raised in Tampa, my passion has always been traveling and sharing my experiences. What better way to share my travels and hear about yours than in a blog? I invite everyone to comment and detail their own experiences. Remember, traveling doesn’t necessarily mean driving all over the state. Sometimes walking right down the road is all you need to do to know what Florida is all about!

The goal is to inspire a fun, informative atmosphere where fellow travelers might discover a new destination or two off the beaten path (or even on it). This is not a blog about rating hotels or complaining about tourist traps.Experiences outside Florida are also welcome. Break out the suitcases or backpacks and LET’S GO!!

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