North Central/NE Florida
Back Roads of North Central/Northeast Florida
Welcome to the North Central region of Florida! An area bursting with unique natural geography, history, and culture, we are appreciating all the area has to offer. There are so many activities: camping, hiking, fishing, shopping, antiquing, boating, golf, museums, botanical gardens, preserves, zoos, and fine dining. We‘re going to sample some of them.
Today we visited Payne’s Prairie and Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, two places with beautiful and distinctive features. Payne’s Prairie State Park is a natural prairie about 18 miles south of Gainesville on I-75. It differs from the northern prairies in that it is a marsh. Many fish, water birds, reptiles, and amphibians call the marshes home. It is likely for visitors to see Sandhill cranes, herons, anhingas, alligators, water moccasins, turtles, butterflies, dragonflies, bass, and bluegill on or in the prairie. In addition, herds of bison, cattle, and horses travel the prairie. Payne’s Prairie is a striking place, not what one expects to find in Florida! Hiking trails in a variety of environments offer opportunities to discover the “real Florida.” Prairie, hammock, and savanna have their own plant and animal life. On one hike, we discovered an old homestead, decaying, but still providing shelter for many animals and insects. Walking through the woods can be peaceful or exciting, depending on what the hiker sees. A Visitor’s Center is helpful in interpreting the natural and cultural history and it’s interesting. Two observation decks give great views! One is 50 feet tall! The park is restored to its pre-settler state, while still allowing animals brought by the Europeans to live there, too. Did you know bison were part of Florida’s landscape until the 1700’s? That the Spanish brought horses? The park offers diversity in its plants, animals, and history. Long before the Europeans, the Alachua Indians called the Gainesville area home. Admission to the park is $6 per carload. Allow 2-4 hours. Hours are 9 to 5. Hiking, camping, picnicking, bird watching, and biking are some possible activities. http://www.floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie/
Payne’s Prairie, 2010
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens are about 1 mile west of the I-75 exit. A variety of gardens kept us engaged! Palm, herb, rose, camellia and azalea, children’s and water gardens should keep everyone happy. There are rare vines, majestic palms, and a myriad of ginger plants. Kanapaha has the largest herb garden in the Southeast, and the largest bamboo collection in Florida! Since we are interested in herbs, we loved looking at the wide variety of oregano, mint, basil and chives. We were inspired to add to our herb garden! Gazebos abounded, for a chance to sit and rest, or observe, or reflect. Our faithful guide, Willow was with us. Who is Willow? She is the very pretty and charming cat who made us her friends and escorted us throughout a great portion of the walk. See our video featuring Willow. There is a labyrinth, too. The gardens cover 62 acres. There are picnic facilities. Allow about 2 -3 hours. Admission was $6 per person. We could have stayed longer, but the cabin was calling. http://kanapaha.org/
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
What cabin, you ask? The one we are calling home for the next 2 nights! It’s in Gold Head Branch State Park, just outside Keystone Heights, about an hour east northeast of Gainesville. For $65 a night, we have a delightful 2 room cabin with full kitchen and bathroom, electricity, heat, a stone fireplace, and screen porch. There is even a futon, should you want to bring the kids. We are happy campers! For a wallet friendly get away, this is one way to go. We bought our own groceries, and feasted on burgers tonight. The cabin is furnished, so no need to bring dishes, sheets, or towels. We found it helpful to have our own dishwashing liquid and paper towels. There is a very pretty lake view! Hiking, canoeing, fishing, and nature watching are a few outdoor activities we might try. There is no TV or internet, so if that is a concern, consider a DVD to watch on the computer, books, or games. Right now, we are listening to music from CDs playing on the laptop. We are looking forward to tomorrow’s adventures! http://www.floridastateparks.org/goldhead/default.cfm
A driving tour from Gold Head Branch to Green Cove Springs and Palatka was our adventure today. It was a rainy, breezy, chilly day. We had planned to canoe and hike in Gold Head Branch Park, but a key to off the trails travel is flexibility! We chose to explore a couple of historic towns. On the way out of the park, we saw a herd of five deer. They just looked at us without any fear! It was amazing!
Green Cove Springs has a natural spring, temperature about 78 degrees F. At one time, it was a popular resort for people seeking cures for headaches, rheumatism, depression and a variety of other ailments. It was the 19th century. The town is part of Florida’s Heritage Trail. http://www.greencovesprings.com/
Our first stop was the 1894 Clay County Jailhouse. There is also the old train depot and a museum on the grounds. The depot and museum are closed on Tuesdays, and this is Tuesday! We found a real gem in the jailhouse! We chatted with the Clay County Archivist, Claude Bass, a charming and knowledgeable man! According to Claude, the original jail had two cells on the second floor. Later there was an addition, and then another. The jail was used until 1972! Today, there are mannequins wearing the classical black and white striped pajamas populating the old jail. They lounge in the bunks, stand in the doorways, and even sit on the toilet! Interestingly, they are the old models from the Old Jail in St. Augustine. Claude told us that paranormal activity has been reported and investigated. He has not witnessed anything, but others have. The jail was most interesting! An inmate is making his escape hanging from one of the windows. A real life bank robber, confined to the jail, made a key from a spoon, and let his fellow prisoners out of their cells. When the sheriff entered the building, they were all socializing. The outside door had an outside lock; otherwise, they would have all been gone! As the archivist, Claude has many artifacts from both sides of the law, including guns, photographs, and books. Did you know that one of the sheriffs was killed in a gunfight about the same time Wyatt Earp was a lawman in tombstone? Clay County’s Historical Triangle also includes the Clay County Historical Society Museum and the Teen Court of Clay County. Allow at least 15 minutes to visit the jail. There is no fee. firstname.lastname@example.org
The park has the original springs, funneled into the town swimming pool. Swimming in the spring is forbidden, but the pool has the same water, even green algae and the sulphur odor. For a treat, swim in chemical free, mineral-laden waters. A lovely park surrounds it, with picnic areas, gazebo, playground, parking and bathrooms. It’s right on the St. John’s River, which is fed by Green Cove Springs, a truly scenic spot.
Green Cove Springs
Onward to Palatka, a town which was built on timber and turpentine. We stopped for lunch at Angel’s, on Claude’s recommendation. Angel’s bills itself as the oldest diner in Florida, beginning in 1932! It is tiny, colorful, and the signs in the covered parking area instruct “Honk for service.” It was crowded when we walked in, but we found seats at the lunch counter. Greg ordered the cheeseburger with a side of fried green beans and a Coke. MaryJo had the pork chop sandwich and famous onion rings with a pusalow. What’s that? It’s chocolate milk with vanilla syrup and crushed ice – sort of a milkshake without the ice cream. Very good! It’s one of the specialties. Other items were the Blackbottom, a burger with scrambled egg and bacon, fried okra, grilled cheese, and western sandwich, a western omelet on a bun. Our total bill was less than $19. Thanks for the suggestion, Mr. Bass! Palatka has an attractive park on the St. John’s River with some striking veteran’s memorials. There is a historic district with beautiful old homes ranging from the antebellum style to the 1950’s ranch. We enjoyed the stroll! The Bronson-Mulholland House was built in the 1850s, but isn’t open on Tuesdays, so we were out of luck on seeing it! Judge Isaac Bronson is buried on the front lawn! Allow about an hour to see the historic district. There is no fee. http://www.co.putnam.fl.us/palatka/
Ravine Gardens State Park is a state park surrounded by the town of Palatka! It was built in the 1930s to spur economic growth. There are formal and informal gardens, a water garden, amphitheater, suspension bridges, and terraces. The road is 1.8 miles and can be walked, although we chose to drive and park at some of the many parking spots, and hike or just take in the scenery. The azaleas were beginning to bloom. It will be breathtaking in a few weeks! The Springs Trail was very nice! A word of caution: some of the fences are in need of repair, so be careful. Admission was $5 per car. Allow about 2 hours. http://www.floridastateparks.org/ravinegardens/default.cfm
Palatka, FL & Ravine Gardens State Park
Time to head back to our little cabin, via State Route 100. Past tiny hamlets, swamps, pine forests, and pastures. A discovery on the way led us to Tangled Oak Vineyard, where Marianne hosted a tasting. We bought the oh-so-good Holiday Cheer. A gift shop with artwork, glassware, jams, and so on gave us a perfect gift for a birthday girl. http://tangledoaksvineyard.com/
Back home again, we cooked our chicken on the grill. Wonderfully delicious! A walk along the lake offered nice scenery and a pleasant wind down time. A blazing fire in the fireplace and a glass of wine are the perfect end to the day!
Today we explored Gold Head Branch Park. Do you know who built the park? If you are an offthetrails.com follower, you know the answer! They built 8 state parks in Florida, and many parks throughout the nation. It’s the CCC – Civilian Conservation Corps. The park was constructed between 1934 and 1941. There are 3 lakes within the park. Sheeler Lake is under restoration. Lake Johnson has shrunk and is more marshland than lake. Little Lake Johnson offers swimming, boating and fishing. This is the lake we are on. There are several hiking trails. We took five short ones. It was an excellent way to see the park and take in the flavor in a limited amount of time! The water tower was one of the first constructions of the park, so it has been there since the mid 1930s. We walked the very short distance from the road to the tower. Deer tracks were everywhere! Sheeler Lake has a nice hike down to the shore. It’s a lovely lake, ringed with grasses. It’s been damaged by tourists swimming, fishing, and boating, so it’s off limits to those activities. It is a tranquil spot. The walk down to the ravine and back was rather strenuous, but fun! There are many little springs that join together to form a fast flowing stream. The water is so clear! Stairs form part of the climb. The Mill Site hike took us to the site of a mill built in 1900. It’s no longer there, but the hike is a nice, easy stroll. Combining that with the Loblolly Trail completed our hiking for the day. The scenery was attractive, the woods were quiet, and the birds chirped. Tiny springs were everywhere. The sky was blue, and the air cool. We look forward to another hike. A picnic lunch in the park was a perfect end to our exploration.
Gold Head Branch State Park
Leaving Gold Head behind, we headed back to Gainesville detouring at Cross Creek and Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Homestead. She was the author of the classic tale The Yearling. It’s the story of a Florida boy and his pet deer in the 1930s, and based on Rawlings’s real life experience. The home was not open to visitors the day we were there, but we did look in the windows and see the barn and outbuildings. A flock of ducks and some chickens were in the yard. A self serve admission is $3. It’s based on honor, since nobody is checking you. The house is open Thursday through Sunday. Micanopy is a tiny village about 20 minutes south of Gainesville. It is full of antique and gift shops, and pretty homes. There is a museum detailing the local history from the Timucuans in the pre-Columbian times through the World Wars. Did you know that Micanopy is the oldest inland town in Florida? We didn’t either! We stopped at a café and enjoyed an old-fashioned ice cream soda, a real treat! http://welcometomicanopy.com/
Back here in Gainesville, the home of the Gators, is a Butterfly Rainforest, Devil’s Millhopper State Park, Spacewalk, and diverse downtown area. Gainesville is a unique blend of Florida Cracker and College Town, so it’s fun to explore.
The Butterfly Garden is part of the Museum of Natural History. It’s more than just a garden! There are labs where scientists are studying the butterfly, from the DNA to the life cycle. Thousands of mounted butterflies adorn the walls, divided into the continents where they are found. Once inside the habitat, hundreds of butterflies – fritillaries, zebra wings, and monarchs, among dozens of others – flit around, resting on flowers and shoulders, tasting the fruit set out. One of our favorites is the Blue Morpheus! Several finches are in the Butterfly Rainforest, too. Once the admission is paid, your hand is stamped, and you can come and go all day if you wish. Cards with pictures of many of the butterflies help keep track of what is flying or resting. Watch the walkway – the butterflies like the warm and sunny spots! It is a beautiful area! Admission is $9.50 per person.
An unusual and off the trails spot is the Space Walk. At 34th St. and 8th Ave. monuments to the planets of the solar system and Hailey’s Comet are arranged in scale. The walk along the street in 9/10 of a mile from the sun to the last planet, Pluto. Total distance is 1 8/10 miles. On each obelisk are factoids and quotes of famous people. What an entertaining way to learn!
Devil’s Millhopper Park is a 120 feet deep sinkhole, with a diverse plant and animal population. The Indians have a legend that says the Devil kidnapped a beautiful princess, and caused the sinkhole to stop the braves from rescuing her. The shape of the sinkhole reminded early pioneers of the “hopper” on the top of the mill. The bottom of the sinkhole is reached by climbing down a 232 step stairs. At the bottom, ferns and moss grow. Snakes, frogs, birds, and other small animals live there. Water cascades from the top forming a small stream on the floor. The park is unique because it is the only geological site in the Florida park system. The park has a Visitor Center providing exhibits an explanations and picnic tables. A nature trail skirts the top of Devil’s Millhopper. We very much enjoyed our walk. Admission is $3 per carload, and is a self serve.
Because Gainesville is a college town, and a southern town, there is a wide variety of cultures, restaurants and shopping. Whether you feel like Indian, Vietnamese, Cuban, Barbeque, Japanese, or Mexican cuisine, it’s here. Pubs? Probably hundreds. Downtown has many boutiques, and Oaks Mall offers 140 stores. The University of Florida campus is large and worth exploring. Historic neighborhoods beckon. There are several fine museums, art galleries, theaters, and sports that will entertain! We found a great place to eat at The Swamp on University Ave. It’s a converted house, keeping the double garage doors. Very eclectic! We enjoyed our The Gator Ate ‘er specialty martini. Greg decided on Ahi Tuna over rice with a wasabi mustard drizzle. MaryJo opted for the Plantain Trout. Both were delectable! Jahanna, our server, was fun. Lots of young people were there enjoying themselves. Many places are open late if you’re in the mood to stay out for awhile.
The Museum of Natural History, Harn Art Museum, Pleasant Street Historical District and the Wine and Cheese Gallery’s restaurant Panache were our outings today.
The Museum of Natural History and Harn are next door to each other on Hull Rd. The Natural History Museum features permanent exhibits on Florida’s different habitats, Native Americans, and animal life. The changing exhibit now is American Quilts. Enter the landscapes to see animals and plants and hear sound effects. For examples, the cave features bats, the woodlands shows what is under fallen trees, and the seashore has the cries of the gulls. The Calusa were the most prominent people in this area. A leaders home, a midden, and life size dioramas are fascinating. Seminole and Miccosukee exhibits complete the picture of Native American culture in Florida. One hall has us under the sea in prehistoric times. Another has us reduced in size so even the shrimp seem large! Globes have the earth in different time periods, showing the changing shape and size of the continents. There are skeletons of prehistoric mammals, including a giant sloth. The quilt display featured both traditional and contemporary patters, and was most appealing. There is a well stocked gift shop and a café. Allow about 90 minutes. Admission is free. The Harn opens at 11. There are halls for African, Asian, modern and contemporary. There is an actual Monet! The changing exhibit in the rotunda is political and social graffiti. Certainly thought provoking! There are thousands of painting, sculptures, porcelain and other art forms. Admission is free. There is a small gift shop. Allow at least an hour.
Natural History and Harn Art Museum
The Panache, housed in the Wine and Cheese Gallery, afforded a late lunch. The Gallery itself has thousands of wines, a large beer selection, coffees, chocolates, and other gourmet foods to buy. The bustling restaurant has a varied menu of sandwiches and salads for reasonable prices. We had a table at the window for people watching. MaryJo’s apple, ham and cheese salad was delicious, as was Greg’s ham, cheese, and mushroom sandwich. Two imported beers brought our tab to $21.56. Other items included quiche for $4.50, soup for $3.50 and a cheeseboard with pate for $14.95.
Pleasant Street Historic District is a 20 block area of mostly pretty homes and churches. It is the first African American neighborhood to be given the status of National Register of Historic Places. There are many points of interest. The Institute of Black Culture on the campus of UF has African and Caribbean art.
We are at El Norteno for supper. The food was delicious and plentiful.
There is plenty to see and experience in the Gainesville area; we could continue our exploration for several more days. For a wallet friendly week end, we suggest the Museums, Devil’s Millhopper, Payne’s Prairie, the Space Walk, and Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, which are free or have a nominal fee. The Butterfly Garden is also recommended. Visitors can hike, bike, bird watch, photograph, or soak up the scenery. Taking in some of the historic districts and the campus of the University of Florida should provide interest. Food choices are diverse; Panache, El Noreno, and Napaltiona are some. There is always the picnic lunch, too!