By Kerrie Hoening
Take a drive through Florida and you might discover there is much more to this state than sandy white beaches or popular theme parks. Off the ‘beaten path’ and interstate system, you can find back roads and highways that weave you through a plethora of quaint small towns, rolling hills, unique discoveries and even designated ‘scenic highways.’
You can live in Florida your whole life and not realize all that it offers. In addition to hidden gems found by exploring outside the high-trafficked roadways, you’ll discover that the Florida Park Service is one of the largest in the country with 175 state parks, trails and historic sites spanning nearly 800,000 acres, according to the Florida Division of Recreation and Parks. In addition, Florida is home to 11 national parks and monuments.
Florida’s parks offer a plethora of rich history, including forts, sugar plantations, lighthouses and homesteads. It also brings a unique and distinct flavor of landscape and scenery with its palmetto brush and swampy landscapes, as well as its prairies and estuaries. Two such unique places near Gainesville are the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park.
Paynes Prairie tells a story of settlers crossing over the swampy waters to establish small communities and bring goods to new towns — now historic — such as Micanopy, celebrating 200 years in 2023. And like our friends in Wyoming, Paynes Prairie can boast a family of wild Spanish horses and a herd of buffalo that roam free in the 21,000-acre savanna.
Devil’s Millhopper, a lesser-known park in the state, is home to a 120-foot-deep sinkhole that developed centuries ago. It is believed that bodies were fed to the devil there because fossilized bones have been found in the sink. Despite its name, you can access by way of a lush, wooded area and an easily accessible 132-step boardwalk staircase, and you’ll feel as if you are transported to the mountains in one of our northern states.
These are but two small examples of what you can find on your next adventure. Take a detour off the highway and embrace the true culture that makes up this state and its citizens. For more information on Florida’s State Parks, visit www.floridastateparks.org.