Friday, April 24, 2009

Florida State Parks: Oscar Scherer

A man named Oscar Scherer invented a leather-dyeing process in the 1870’s, and when his daughter passed away in 1955 she deeded the family’s southwest Florida ranch to the state. Today, Oscar Scherer State Park sits three miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico, encompassing the ranch property along with adjacent land acquired by the state.

Since I’m recommending Oscar Scherer as a place to visit, it probably seems strange for me to mention that much of it is covered by what I consider Florida’s least appealing kind of terrain: pine flatwoods and scrubby flatwoods. Indistinguishable to the untrained eye, each of these environments is flat as a pool table. Each has pale grass, and each has brush that looks like it belongs in the desert. Trees are so scattered in most flatwoods that you can forget about walking in the shade.

So how does Oscar Scherer make my list? Well, I have always loved seeing wild animals in their natural habitat, and this is an excellent place to do that. It is incredibly easy to spot species ranging from whitetail deer to gopher tortoise to indigo snake while walking through the flatwoods.

This park will always be known as a birdwatcher’s paradise. Bald eagles nest here in winter and sandhill cranes wander the fields. So many varieties of songbirds reside here that the early morning hours sound like a wild symphony when their voices converge.

On a trip earlier this month, my friend Denise took this picture of a pileated woodpecker getting ready to dig his lunch out of an oak:

However, the king of Oscar Scherer’s birds is the scrub jay, a handsome variety rarely seen elsewhere but commonly seen here. My manager at my last job once took a picture of his twelve-year-old son standing on a trail at Oscar Scherer with one of them sitting on his head.

And if you tend to get caught up in how the land looks, there are environments here other than flatwoods. For example, there is the dense, shady hardwood forest that follows South Creek’s gently wending route across the park.

When it comes to recreational opportunities, South Creek offers up fine fishing and paddling. Because it empties into the Gulf of Mexico not far away, it is heavily influenced by the tides and allows fisherman to reel in both freshwater and saltwater species. The park rents canoes for $5 per hour or $25 per day.

15 miles of trails for hiking and biking lace through Oscar Scherer. The flatness makes the hiking easy, but the sandy soil makes the biking a challenge and mountain bikes are recommended.

At the end of the park road is a small lake, with a beach, that’s good for swimming and snorkeling. Not far from that is an informative nature center and a playground the kids are sure to love.

And finally, stretched out along South Creeks’s southern bank in a long narrow loop, is a campground that is often cited as one of Florida’s best for families. Some of the sites are on the small side, but they more than make up for it with the high level of privacy they provide – a gift from the thick foliage of the riverside forest. A playground sits inside the loop near its eastern end.

We camped at Oscar Scherer with some friends in January 2007, and the highlight of that trip will forever be known as Raccoon Theater. Sitting in front of the campfire in a semi-circle, we heard rustling in the underbrush for several minutes, until a pair of raccoons came into view and walked right up to the other side of the fire like they wanted to join us – which they did as soon as they realized they weren’t going to get shooed. Raccoons are known for swiping food, and these were no exception: here’s one of them dining on one of our hot dog buns.

After the coons pilfered our buns, we tossed them marshmallows and smokies, which they gobbled down without a care in the world. Apparently that pair told their friends about our generosity, because the next night we were joined by six or seven of them and the whole scene played out again.

When you’re down this way, Oscar Scherer is a good place to experience Florida in its natural state.

Note: Other than the picture of the raccoon, all of the photographs on this post were taken by Denise (see above for the link to her blog).

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Florida State Parks: Hillsborough River

Writing about Hillsborough River State Park is not exactly like directing you to an undiscovered gem of which few people are aware.

One of Florida’s most visited state parks, it sits about a half-hour from downtown Tampa, within the shadow of a metropolitan area that has more than three million people. But its popularity is driven by much more than its closeness to a population center, for it is one of the most complete parks you will ever see.

One thing that is very impressive given its location is how much of a wilderness the park is. In some places it features riverine forests and cypress swamps, while in others it features spacious oak hammocks that look beautiful when dappled by the morning sun. It also has dry areas where longleaf pines rise above fields of palmetto. And running through the center of it all is the Hillsborough River itself, at one point coursing over limestone outcrops to create something rarely seen in Florida: rapids.

The Hillsborough is an excellent canoeing river downstream from the rapids. It flows steadily, yet seems laconic, perhaps because many of the things you see along it lend a tropical feel – things like wading ibis, basking turtles, or the occasional palm tree.

And then there are the alligators, which live along the Hillsborough in great numbers as if to emphasize its wildness. I have never paddled it without seeing at least one gator, nor has anyone else I know, and you can tell from this picture that I’m not talking about little ones.

Four hiking trails lace through the park, including a six-mile backpacking loop on which wild coffee can be seen growing at trailside. The 1.6-mile Wetlands Restoration Trail is recommended for bicycling.

The main day use area” has pavilions, picnic tables, and a playground. It also has a recreation hall that can be rented. Meanwhile, it has a suspension bridge for walking across the river and steps for walking down to it.

Plus, there’s an enormous swimming pool that covers a half-acre next to a cafe and store, with a fee of just $2 per day. This is very good if you bring the kids, especially if you’re bringing them to camp for a few days.

And speaking of camping, Hillsborough River’s two-loop campground has a very good reputation. I must admit I think it’s only average, because we have stayed in places where the individual campsites have much better foliage buffers between them, but don’t get me wrong – we’ve enjoyed camping here in the past and have plans to camp here again in November, so it’s definitely worth it. The park as a whole is so outstanding you won’t even care if your campsite is average.

Canoes and bikes can be rented while you’re here. Although rental rates are not posted on the park’s web site, I can tell you that when we were here last fall, canoes were $10 for one hour and $25 for four hours.

Meanwhile, history buffs will like to know that the park is home to Fort Foster, a replica of a fort that stood here during the Second Seminole War in the 1800’s. However, it is only open on Saturdays and Sundays. Guided tours of it are $2 for people 13 and over, and $1 for children ages 5 to 12.

This is a place where you get a lot of bang for a little buck. And if you want to read about our trip here last fall, this is where I wrote about it.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Florida State Parks: Anastasia

When it comes to location, visiting Anastasia State Park is like finding the mother lode.

Situated on the Atlantic Ocean, this park has two main landscapes that are markedly different: On the one hand it features a wide, undeveloped beach 4½ miles long, while on the other it features a lush maritime forest filled with evergreen hardwoods.

And in between these two landscapes, curving inland from the ocean, it has a lagoon where kayakers set out in their crafts and fishermen always seem to be reeling in the big ones. Kayaks, canoes and sailboards are available for rent, as are other recreational crafts.

However, the kicker is this: Though Anastasia gives a feeling of seclusion when you spend time here, its entrance is less than 10 minutes from downtown St. Augustine. Therefore, you can experience some quality outdoors time and some quality city time on the same trip without any inconvenience.

And when you factor in that Anastasia’s campground is one of the best anywhere – and that you can get a good campsite here for one-fifth the cost of an ordinary hotel room in many locales – you will see that this place provides the perfect ingredients for an eclectic vacation that won’t break the bank.

Speaking of the campground, it has seven loops. Other than the Coquina Loop, they are laid out in parallel, elongated ovals with all of the campsites positioned around the outside, and every two loops share a large, clean bathhouse that is situated between them. No matter which loop you are on, you will be surrounded by shade-giving oaks rising above an understory that is dense with yaupon, a type of holly. The majority of the campsites are both spacious and private – two qualities that are important but rarely co-exist. When reserving a site, keep in mind that the Coquina Loop is used almost exclusively by RV’ers, while the people camping on the other six are divided about evenly between tenters and RV’ers.

Though the campground sits in the forest, the beach is close enough that we have heard waves crashing while lying in our tent at night. I recommend rising early and walking to the beach to watch the sunrise, for in addition to seeing the fiery colors it flings across the sky, you will see lots of seabirds and may have the beach to yourself.

When you’ve had your fill of the oceanfront, you should check out Anastasia’s two hiking trails. One leads to an abandoned coquina quarry from centuries ago, and the other meanders through a hilly section of the forest. The hills were once barren sand dunes, back when the sea level was higher and the beach farther inland.

Then, when it’s time to venture outside of the park and explore downtown, you can rest assured you’ll have a good time. St. Augustine is the oldest city in America, its Old World architecture is endearing, and it has quite a few pubs that are worthy of a visit. My personal favorite is the Mill Top Tavern, which actually is what its name suggests.

From the Mill Top you can see the Castillo de San Marcos, a fort built by Spain in the 1600’s using coquina stone harvested from that abandoned quarry back in the park. It remained in military use until the early twentieth century, under different nations, without ever being taken in battle. Today it is a national monument and you can walk through it and stand on its walls for a fee of $6 (children under 16 are free).

Meanwhile, not far from downtown is San Sebastian Winery, where you can take a complimentary tour, enjoy a complimentary tasting, and visit the rooftop bar where live jazz and blues are played every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

And back by the park, within walking distance of its entrance, stands the St. Augustine Lighthouse. You can climb the 318-step circular stairway to its top, where you step out onto a red observation deck to soak in a tremendous view in each direction. If you want to make the climb, keep in mind that children must be at least 44 inches tall. Access to the lighthouse, plus the grounds, museum, and audio tour, is $9. However, senior citizens are $8 and children under 12 are $7.

I can’t think of a better way to experience the Sunshine State than staying at Anastasia and experiencing both it and the historic town it neighbors. Campground reservations can be made up to 11 months in advance, either by going here or calling 800-326-3521. For more information about the park, go here or call 904-461-2033.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Florida State Parks

Most people who love to travel suffer from The Grass Is Always Greener Syndrome, and I am no exception. I was born in Florida and have resided here most of my life – and spent much of that time struggling to understand why non-Floridians think it is so great.

Looking at this state, I usually see a flat, boring landscape sweltering in the kind of heat that kills people rather than nurtures them. While I daydream about soaring mountains, tall firs, and thundering surf, I find myself surrounded by sinkholes, stunted trees, and waves that are less than a foot tall when they break.

But despite this, I have always known that Florida’s state parks, more than 150 in all, comprise one of the best park systems in the world. Ranging from sprawling wilderness preserves to compact urban gardens, they literally have something for everyone. And since they are home to caves, islands, rolling hills, and steep ravines, they make me look like a fool for ever believing Florida’s landscape is uniform.

These parks provide access not only to bottle green seas, but also to massive freshwater springs, tea-colored rivers, and bass-rich lakes, so they are great for paddling and SCUBA diving and they obviously appeal to water lovers. At the same time, they are great for landlubbers because they contain thousands of miles of trails for hiking, horseback riding, even mountain biking!

Many of these parks have impeccable campgrounds and many of them have rental cabins, so you can make one of them your actual vacation destination. Or, if you’re planning on visiting Florida anyway and staying in a specific city or town, you can work state parks into your vacation by visiting some while you’re here.

I have spent time in many of them through the years, camping in most of those, and over the next week or so I will post reviews of three of my favorites. The reviews are not necessarily meant to represent the top three, nor are they intended to be in first-second-third order amongst themselves. They are simply my reviews of places that are worth experiencing.

Right now is a good time to visit, before summer’s heat and humidity turn the parks into furnaces. Later, when fall arrives and temperatures cool, it will be the beginning of what I consider the best time to visit and stay. When that time approaches I will probably write a new series about Florida’s state parks, featuring a greater number of them and with a greater focus on camping. Until then, enjoy what spring has to offer outdoors in the Sunshine State!