This state park and national natural landmark is quite small, only 71 acres, but hosts three distinct ecological environments. It’s located in northern Gainesville, and offers two small hiking trails that total less than two miles, a guided ranger tour on Saturdays at 10 am, and a picnic area near the visitor’s center. Dogs are allowed so long as they’re on a leash. The gates are open from 9 am to 5 pm Wednesday through Sunday, and admittance is $2 per person, or $4 per carload.
On a Sunday afternoon, a good number of the visitors are locals who come out to exercise. The nature trail that runs the perimeter of the sinkhole the park is named for is a nice enough walk, but the boardwalk that leads down to the bottom is the real reason to come.
While the Devil’s Millhopper has been a visited curiosity since the 1880’s, the first trail to bottom was completed in the 1930’s the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was built into the walls of the sinkhole itself, but due to erosion from so much foot traffic the trail needed constant maintenance. So in 1976 a boardwalk was constructed that was anchored in the walls but didn’t touch them.
It’s comprised almost entirely of steps, nearly 250 of them, and some people go up and down the stairs several times during my visit. It looks like a very difficult workout, maybe it’s the beautiful scenery that inspires them to tackle such a challenge.
The sinkhole is 120 feet deep, 500 feet across, and classified as a mini rainforest. Even though it’s still winter in northern Florida and a lot of the vegetation has died back, you can still see that the plant life is visibly different than the surrounding area. Ferns grow along the edges of the 12 springs of water that appear from the sides where limestone meets bedrock. There is a wide variety of hardwoods and shrubs growing along the walls which make it a hammock ecosystem, compared to the mostly pine forest around the depression, which is classified as a sandhill environment.
Birdsong fills the air around the constant sound of running water. At the bottom of the sinkhole, a shallow pool has formed and the ground is saturated. The plant life growing at the bottom is indicative of a swamp. In the summer, the canopy of leaves and the change in elevation mean that the bottom is noticeably cooler than the top is, but on a day like today I felt little difference in temperature.
While this isn’t the kind of park you’d spend a full day at, if you’re going to be in the Gainesville area anyway it’s definitely worth a stop for an hour or two to walk the two trails and peek at the visitor’s center. It has a short video and some displays about how the sinkhole was formed in two different stages, a little about how the sinkhole got it’s name, and numerous fossils that were recovered from the bottom.
We didn’t see any fossils at the bottom ourselves, but after a good sit to enjoy the sunny day and soak up that beautiful scenery, Julie and I have a go at joining the exercisers in jogging back to the top. Well, by jog I really mean more of a power walk. And by power walk, I mean we manage a walking pace back up to the top without rests, and once we get to the top we’re definitely short of breath. But still, we made it back to the top and that’s a success in my book.
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And one last thing, since the last post I have gotten one more set of videos up on the Videos tab, still a bit slow going with all the driving to and from Atlanta.