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The Rolling Hills of Brooksville

11 Dec


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

Devil's Millpond State Park 036

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.




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