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Venturing Off the Beaten Path in Florida’s State Parks

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Florida’s state parks are as varied as they are numerous – 161 of them scattered throughout the Sunshine State. Studying the map as my husband, Guy, and I drove Interstate 10 west from Jacksonville to Pensacola, we noted a host of state parks positioned within easy reach of the highway. We visited as many of the parks as we could fit into our itinerary, though we weren’t able to see all of the parks along the interstate.

Larry Arrant, park services specialist at Suwannee River State Park, said, “We call our parks ‘the real Florida'” – where visitors can hike, bike, camp, canoe, fish, birdwatch and enjoy some history. On our quest, we were able to do a little of all of that, and more.

Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park Leaving behind the modern metropolis of Jacksonville, we drove, on the interstate, into a seemingly remote world of tall pines, ferns and palmettos. This is the setting for three-acre Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, the state’s first designated historic site. Here, where Union forces were defeated trying to cut the supply lines between Florida and the Confederate Army, is a small but first-rate interpretive center that tells the story.

Through a variety of exhibits, including dioramas, artifacts and early photos, visitors learn that Florida was one of the Southern army’s main sources of cotton, beef, pork, timber, salt and turpentine. A 40-minute video, Battle of Olustee, with a cast of 2,000 re-enactors, explains the Federal army’s 1864 attempt to bring Florida back into the Union and end the war. The Battle of Olustee was Florida’s largest Civil War battle. Today, a one-mile-long trail circles the battlefield and signs explain the fight and troop positions. There is also a monument erected by the Florida Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy located at the site. An annual re-enactment of the battle is held the third weekend in February.

Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center State Park The 850-acre Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center State Park, named for the composer of “Old Folks at Home (aka Swanee River),” Florida’s state song, was next on our route west. Foster never actually saw the river, which glides slowly past the park. He simply chose the name “for its lilt.” Drive the park’s loop road to the Stephen Foster Museum, built to resemble an antebellum plantation home. Here, among other exhibits, dioramas set into the walls depict scenes from many of Foster’s most popular songs such as “Camptown Races” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Also here is 250-foot tall Carillon Tower with a 97-bell carillon, the world’s largest tubular bell instruments, which plays Foster songs throughout the day. Nearby at Craft Square, artisans demonstrate the handiwork of early Florida settlers: quilting, pottery, candle making, blacksmithing and more. The Cousin Thelma Boltin Craft and Gift Shop sells a variety of regional foods, crafts and Foster memorabilia. The park offers 45 oak-shaded campground sites, a six-mile hiking/biking trail with dramatic overlooks of the river, and, near the south entrance, White Sulfur Springs, known for its curative powers. Annual events include an Antique Tractor and Engine Show the first weekend in April, and a three-day Florida Folk Festival during Memorial Day weekend. Suwannee River State Park Continuing west, we stopped at 1,800-acre Suwannee River State Park in a lovely, more primitive setting at the confluence of the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers. Four hiking trails, totaling 13 miles, wind through the park and along the rivers, where boating and canoeing are popular. From the boat ramp we watched the Suwannee glide past, red-brown with tannic acid, gurgling around knobby cypress knees, and there met Dale and Teresa Goss, from Lake City, Florida, who were returning from a day of fishing. Dale had a cooler full of red-belly sunfish, and told us that nearly three dozen other types of fish inhabit the Suwannee – among them channel cat, largemouth bass and bluegill. The park’s campground has 30 sites, all with electricity, water and picnic tables.

Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park Next, we drove on to Tallahassee and the spectacular 1,184-acre Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park. The rolling red hills, lavish with camellias, azaleas, dogwoods, redbuds and dozens of others, were purchased by New York financier Alfred Maclay and his wife, Louise, in 1923. Here, at the family’s Southern retreat, Maclay designed 28 acres of magnificent formal gardens overlooking placid Lake Hall. Blooming season is January through April. Paths lead visitors past a walled garden, a secret garden, ponds and a reflection pool. This day-use park also includes Lake Overstreet, rimmed by a hiking/biking trail; one-and-a-half miles of nature trails; and the Maclay home, now a museum.

Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park Lake Jackson Mounds Archaeological State Park, considered one of the most important archaeological sites in Florida, is a short drive west, also in Tallahassee. The 170-acre site was once an important religious and social complex of the Southern Cult, a prehistoric Native American culture, which flourished around A.D. 1200. The complex is made up of six earthen temple mounds – two available for public viewing – where numerous artifacts have been found: shell bead necklaces, bracelets, pottery, stone tools and copper breastplates. Researchers believe that Lake Jackson Indians may have traded with tribes as far north as Tennessee and as far west as Oklahoma. A half-mile-long loop trail leads through a wooded area of pines, oaks and wildflowers, and past remnants of Florida’s territorial period and early statehood, 1825-1860, when the site was part of a plantation owned by Col. Robert Butler, the state’s first surveyor general. Guided tours are available with two weeks’ advance notice; an interpretive kiosk offers information.

Torreya State Park We continued west to Torreya State Park, which has 13,000 acres, including bluffs along the Apalachicola River, laced with 16 miles of hiking trails through woods that are home to more than 100 bird species. The torreya tree for which the park was named was decimated by a fungal blight in the late 1950s. However, a few small trees still stand in the ravines and hills of the park. Restoration efforts to re-establish the torreya tree are underway. During the Civil War, Confederate cannons guarded against Union gunboats from atop the bluff. The gun pits remain, and the once-grand Gregory House, built in 1849 by plantation owner Jason Gregory, is nearby, moved from across the river by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) when the park was established in 1935. Guided tours are available, and an annual candlelight house tour is held the first Saturday in February. The park’s campground has 30 sites with electric and water hookups.

Florida Caverns State Park Florida Caverns State Park, a 1,300-acre sanctuary webbed with six miles of hiking/biking/horse trails, is ahead. Wildflowers – red and gold columbines, trillium, white bloodroot, May apples and others – are at their finest here, and the Chipola River, which bisects the park, is immensely popular for canoeing and fishing. The park offers 38 campsites with partial hookups, but the main reason to visit this park is for the caverns, which began forming some 38 million years ago, and are a showplace of speleothems: caramel-rich stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, soda straws, draperies and other formations. Guided tours are available (on trails built by the CCC 70 years ago).

Falling Waters State Park Falling Waters State Park lives up to its name – though probably not how you might expect. Instead of cascades of water pouring over craggy bluffs, what you see here is an enormous sinkhole, 100 feet deep and 20 feet across, where the water “falls.” A slender stream pours over the lip and disappears into the ground nearly 70 feet below. An observation platform provides a view deep into the straight-sided hole. This sinkhole, and the 173-acre park’s many other smaller ones, was created by surface water, acidic with rotted plant matter, seeping through the limestone bedrock, dissolving it into “karst” systems, or caves. Hiking trails totaling one mile wind among the sinkholes and to a two-acre lake where you can swim and fish. There’s also a campground with two dozen sites, all of which offer partial hookups.

Ponce de Leon Springs State Park At 403-acre Ponce de Leon Springs State Park, some 14 million gallons of fresh water flow daily from an underwater cavern into a mirror-smooth pool, which may have been what the explorer hoped was the “fountain of youth.” Bald cypresses stand along its edges, and a curved stone and concrete wall rimming it includes stairs descending into the crystal-clear water, which even on the hottest summer afternoon stays at 68?F. The 350-foot spring run empties into Sandy Creek, then into the Choctawhatchee River, which flows, not too many miles south, into the Gulf of Mexico. Swimming and fishing are popular here, as are picnicking and hiking on one mile of trails.

Blackwater River State Park The last state park we visited was Blackwater River State Park, which spans 590 acres and includes a mile of pristine riverfront. The river, which begins 45 miles north in Alabama’s Conecuh National Forest, is perfect for swimming, wading and canoeing. From the park the Blackwater, stained the color of strong tea by tannin from tree bark and other plants, meanders another 13 miles south, emptying into Blackwater Bay and from there the Gulf.

The river’s color is misleading: it’s considered one of the purest black water rivers in the country. Chain of Lakes, a one-and-a-half-mile trail, parallels the river and passes several small oxbows. Once, the oxbows were part of the meandering river, but as its course changed, the small arcs of river were sealed off to become lovely tree-shaded lakes. A network of boardwalks spans swampy areas linking picnic pavilions; there’s a playground, and also a campground with 30 sites for RVs.

With the Blackwater, our three-day tour of Florida’s I-10 state parks came to an end – though not before we discovered places we’d like to visit again, as well as parks to visit that we missed this time around. I read somewhere that “folks who don’t have time to stop and smell the roses drive the interstates.” This trip proves you can do both.

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