Our best kept secrets

This is something I wrote some time back. But since we’re getting into summer and some of us may still be restricting our travel post-Covid, here are a few suggestions for short day/weekend Florida trips.

Pssst! Wanna know a secret?

Suwannee River State Park.

Only, listen, whatever you do, don’t keep it under your hat.

I’ve never fathomed why it should be so, but I’ve always thought Suwannee River State Park to be one of Florida’s best-kept secrets.
I say that because I’ve been there countless times over more than four decades. And most times, the place is practically deserted.

If you’ve made the trip from Gainesville to Tallahassee on Interstate 10, you passed right by it and maybe never knew it was there. It’s only about an hour’s drive or so northwest of here. Just 13 miles west of Live Oak, on U.S. 90.

If you see the agricultural inspection station that means you passed it. But if you don’t miss it, you’ll discover something truly amazing on the other side of the park’s gateway.

Old Florida. Natural Florida. Historic Florida. Two awesome rivers meeting. Woods to stroll through and water to hike around that might have seduced Thoreau away from his beloved, cold Walden Pond.
And did I mention a sense of solitude?

Once you get away from the parking lot, the boat ramp and the small campground, you can walk for miles through stands of majestic oaks and piney woods, past sinkholes and along the Spanish moss-draped river bank — and rarely happen upon another soul.

There’s a place where you sit on a swinging bench atop a high bluff and watch the Suwannee and Withlacoochee come together.

Follow the Suwannee from there for a couple hundred yards and you’ll find the old Confederate earthworks, where no doubt stir-crazy Rebs waited to ambush Union gunboats that never showed.

On the way you’ll pass the rusting remains of a paddlewheel shaft from a 19th century steamboat. And not far off is one of Florida’s oldest cemeteries.

But if you go, remember — it’s a secret. So by all means, blab it to everybody you know.

I only bring this up because, well, we’re getting into summer. And with Covid still hanging in there – more or less – chances are you probably aren’t going to be doing a lot of long-distance traveling any time soon.

So here’s an idea.

Ravine Gardens State Park.

If you can’t make the Grand Canyon this summer, why not pop over to the Ravine Gardens State Park in Palatka? Or Gold Head Branch, near Keystone Heights?

Gold Head Branch State Park.

Granted, they are nary as deep nor as wide nor as majestic as the Grand Canyon. But over time (and we’re talking geological time here), determined little springs and streams managed to sculpt some pretty impressive landscapes into the packed sand hill ridges of those parks.

OK, so you can’t make Yosemite this summer. Then try Torreya, hard up against the Apalachicola River. Local legend says it was the site of the original Garden of Eden.

Torreya State Park.

And not too far from there, you can visit Florida’s only waterfall — I kid you not, it’s a creek that suddenly decides to duck for cover — at Falling Waters State Park.

Falling Waters State Park.

And not far from there, you can explore the state’s most extensive cavern system at — where else? — Florida Caverns State Park.
Talk about best-kept secrets.

Florida Caverns State Park.

Florida’s got 175 state parks. Altogether they encompass more than 700,000 acres, including 100 miles of beaches. You can check ‘em all out here.

Some of them are tucked away in the most remote nooks and crannies of this Mickey Mouse peninsula you can imagine.

Listen, I’ve been crisscrossing this state for most of my life. And even I haven’t found them all.

You’ve got to meet the faux Union soldiers manning the ramparts at Fort Clinch State Park. Try to talk to them about current events and they’ll tell you about the sneak attack on Fort Sumter, just up the coast a ways.

Ft. Clinch State Park.

Or camp at Anastasia State Park, in St. Augustine, and go to sleep to the soothing sound of Atlantic surf.

Anastasia State Park.

Or immerse yourself in the clear, bracing waters of Ichetucknee Springs or Manatee Springs state parks.

Ichetucknee Springs State Park.

Or put on a mask and snorkel and dive our only underwater park, Key Largo’s John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

John Pennekamp State Park.

Or take a boat ride at Wakulla State Park and see where they filmed “The Creature From the Black Lagoon.” (Great flick by the way. Loved the fin-guy. I highly recommend it. I think he could have taken Tarzan, who also filmed on location there.)

Wakulla Springs State Park.
He ain’t afraid of Tarzan., who also filmed at Wakulla Springs.

And if you haven’t seen Little Talbot Island yet, you have no idea what Florida beaches looked like before they invented resort hotels, condos, surf shops, ticky-tacky souvenir stands and seafood restaurants.

Little Talbot Island.

Listen, I’d like to see Yellowstone this summer too. But these are still weird times to be ranging too far afield.

So why not take this summer to rediscover our state parks? They’re closer to home. Cheaper. And pretty darned impressive in their natural beauty and variety.

But, seriously folks, take the bug spray.

This is a Florida summer, after all.

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