Friday, January 26, 2007

Sylvan Spring

Trail through the bottomland

While out looking at riverfront properties, along the bucolically sublime shores of Econofina Creek in northern Bay County, we stumbled upon a beautiful hiking trail through an old growth forest. It is a 2-mile loop that starts out in the densely wooded bottomlands of the Econfina floodplain where it passes under Florida Hwy. 20 at the Pitt Spring recreation area. From there the trail gradually climbs up onto an 80-foot bluff overlooking the winding creek below before descending back down to the swampy bottoms and eventually back to the Pitt Spring parking area.

Sylvan Spring

Along the way we encountered a most beautiful natural spring appropriately named Sylvan Spring, which opens up right in the middle of the woods adjacent to the trail. The main spring has two central vents which bubble up adjacent to a small rise of land with a conveniently placed wooden bench, where one can sit and enjoy the serene and highly scenic splendors of this magical spot.

Bubbling vent of water

The trail winds through a forest that contains many giant specimens of beech, oak and cypress, some of which towered almost 100 feet above us. We spotted a large crested woodpecker which we thought was a pileated but after giving a description to a birder friend of mine he suspected that we may have actually stumbled upon an ivory-billed. Such a discovery would make us famous celebrities in the naturalist world. I'm still quite sceptical but my friend has urged me to return and see if I can get another good look and maybe even a picture.

Clear water of Sylvan Spring merges with Econfina Creek

The last reported sighting of this supposedly extinct bird was in this very same part of Florida last year. In 2004 a team of Cornell University ornithologists claim to have made a positive sighting in the woody swamps of southern Arkansas and before that the last documented ivory-billed woodpecker recorded was in Louisiana in 1944.

Ivory-billed woodpecker

The trailhead is located at the Pitt Spring recreation pool located along Florida Hwy. 20 where it crosses Econfina Creek about 25 miles north of Panama City and eight miles east of U.S. Hwy. 231.

Sinkhole along the trail

Beaver lodge in Econfina Creek

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Lake Eaton Sinkhole

Lake Eaton Sinkhole

Located in the heart of the Ocala National Forest is a seldom visited geologic feature known as the Lake Eaton Sinkhole. It is the second largest dry sinkhole in the state, measuring 450 feet across and 80 feet deep.

Steep wall of the sinkhole as seen from the stairs

A sinkhole is a cavity in the ground, especially in limestone bedrock, that is caused by water erosion and provides a route for surface water to disappear underground. Florida, which is largely composed of limestone, has the most sinkholes in the country, followed by Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Down into the abyss

There are three trails that lead to the rim of the crater which has an observation deck and interpretive display that explains the unique geology of sinkhole formation. Wooden stairs lead to the bottom where the vegetation is similar to that of an oak hammock, featuring magnolias, live oak, dogwood, loblolly pine and the sabal palm.

The bottom of the sinkhole

The trailhead can be accessed from Florida Hwy. 314 and is located about 25 miles northeast of Ocala.

Golden silk spider (Nephila clavipes)

For more information contact:

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Silver River State Park

Silver River State Park is a 5,000 acre nature preserve located east of Ocala that contains the entire length of a most enchantingly beautiful waterway. The headsprings lie in the world famous Silver Springs theme park, located west of the park boundary, which is known for its glass bottom boat rides, fountain water shows and alligator and crocodile feedings.

Vintage postcard of the Silver Springs theme park

Silver Springs is the largest limestone artesian spring in the world. About a half a million gallons of water per day flow out of an underground cave into a large bowl 400 feet in diameter and 40 feet deep. From here the water flows for 5 miles through the state park which is essentially an undeveloped wilderness and on into the Ocklawaha River (Timucua Indian word meaning "dark water") which then empties into the St. Johns River and hence on to the Atlantic Ocean.

Silver River

The state park was set aside in 1996 to preserve ten distinct ecological communities that include sandhill, scrub, oak hammock, swamp and floodplain forests. According to the park brochure: "Deer, turkey, gopher tortoises and birds are abundant, while coyote, fox and bear are occasionally seen. Aquatic wildlife abounds with alligators, river turtles, otters and many species of wading and diving birds."

White ibis perch in a dead tree above the river

The Seminole Indians considered the springs to be sacred and there is abundant evidence that various Indian tribes have inhabited the headwaters of the Silver River for the past 12,000 years. In the 1820's a fledgling tourist trade began when curious visitors started to make their way to this area and pole their boats along this exotically scenic stretch of river. Before the War Between the States this area became a major plantation area growing vegetables, tobacco, and oranges.

Nature trail leading to the river

By the late 19th-century an enterprising young man placed a sheet of glass in the bottom of a rowboat and a new business sprang into being. The Silver River has been famous for over a hundred years for its glass-bottom boat tours which still attract visitors to this out of the way spot from all over the globe.

Red-shouldered hawk

The park has four excellent hiking trails and boasts a modern 59 site campground. Their are also modern cabins, an excellent museum, picnic grounds and a canoe/kayak launch.

Floodplain jungle

There is much to keep the visitor engaged and occupied at Silver River, so I'd suggest that folks dedicate two whole days to take it all in. This is one of Florida's newer state parks and it shows, with many modern amenities and up to date interpretive information. This is a park that I highly reccomend.

Mysterious cypress bottom

Jungle boy

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Juniper Springs

Juniper Springs is one of the more remarkable natural wonders in all of Florida. Located in the heart of the 450,000 acre Ocala National Forest it is a first magnitude spring that gushes forth some 15 million gallons of water per day into Juniper Creek. All of this water eventually flows northeastward into Lake George, the second largest body of water in the state after Lake Okeechobee. The water temperature of the spring is a constant 72 degrees making it a delightful place to swim year-round.

Crystal clear water of Juniper Creek

The highlight of the Juniper Springs recreation area is the three-quarter mile long nature trail that winds along the banks of Juniper Creek. This trail connects the head spring, which is the source of the creek, to its terminus at Fern Hammock Spring. For most of its length the trail is located on an elevated boardwalk that parallels the creek.

A look into the bottom of Juniper Spring

At the start of the nature trail is the Juniper Springs pool, site of an old mill that still has a working water wheel. There are stone walls and steps lining the perimeter of the spring that lead down into the pool itself. This infrastructure was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930's and was one of the first areas in Ocala National Forest developed for tourists.

Fern Hammock Spring

Canoeing is a popular activity along a seven-mile canoe run. There is also a campground with a small store and direct access to the Florida National Trail which runs through the southern part of this recreation area near the entrance gate along Florida Hwy. 40.

Water percolating up through the creek bottom is called a sand boil.

The species of lowland trees encountered at Juniper Springs include red maple, bay, pond pine, black gum and the rare needle palm. The National Forest Service brochure states that the semi-tropical scenery encountered here is not found in any other national forest in the continental United States. For this reason the area once attracted the interest of Hollywood producers and directors who utilized it for filming Tarzan movies and other such projects that required an exotic jungle-like atmosphere.

Bridge across Fern Hammock Spring

The Juniper Springs Recreation Area is truly a gem and I highly recommend that you go out of your way to make a visit. It is one of Florida's premier natural wonders. Y'all go visit, ya hear?

The author walking on the boardwalk along Juniper Creek.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Ichetucknee Springs State Park

This beautiful park is located in Columbia County just a few miles north and west of the small town of Fort White. The main attraction is the six-mile long, crystal clear spring-fed Ichetucknee River. This stream is protected for most of its length within the boundaries of the state park before it joins the waters of the Santa Fe River, which eventually flows into the Suwannee for the final leg of the journey to the Gulf of Mexico. Ichetucknee is an Indian word meaning "pond of the beaver".
Ichetucknee River from the Trestle Point Trail

The park has a northern and southern section, each with a separate entrance gate that helps facilitate a large number of tubers and rafters who float the river during the warmer months of the year. There are many private outfitters located nearby that supply all of the equipment and floation devices that are necessary for this fun adventure in the park.

The Florida State Park website states that: "The Ichetucknee River is the MOST pristine spring-fed river in the state of Florida. Two hundred and thirty three million gallons of fresh water flow daily from the springs within the 2,241-acre park."

You can see clear to the bottom!

The plant communities include hardwood hammocks with live oak and magnolia, as well as extensive wetlands and cypress swamps which line the banks of the river. There is also a pine upland ecosystem that is different than the rest of the forest cover in the park and hosts a large community of deer and wild turkey. A visitor is likely to encounter a wide range of birds such as herons, egrets, barred owls, and kestrels. Other critters in the park include raccoons, turtles, foxes and a wide range of fish in the river and the springs which feed it.

Trestle Point Trail

Again from the park website: "Look down into the clear waters and be amazed by the abundance of aquatic wildlife. Largemouth and Suwannee bass, catfish, red-bellies, bluegill, mullet, and gar are but a few of the many species of fish that are present in the Ichetucknee. Peer yet closer into the crystal waters and see snails, crayfish, small turtles, grass shrimp and more. The gopher tortoise, indigo snake, or fox squirrel may also be out among the pines."

A pair of turtles on a log in the river.

We visited twice in late December and were pleasantly surprised to be practically the only persons there. I am told that this park is heavily used by recreational floaters from the spring through late fall, so be aware of this fact if you are looking for a time when things are more calm and serene such as the winter months.

The Ichetucknee flowing through a cypress swamp.

The head spring which is the source of the river.

Tall timber abounds along the Trestle Point Trail.

Boardwalk on the Blue Hole Trail