Archive for July, 2012

Trail Tuesday: Kayaking Juniper Run in the Ocala National Forest

Happy Trail Tuesday, friends! The weather is perfect for a morning kayak trip, and I've got just the place for you to explore – Juniper Run in the Ocala National Forest.

If you haven't paddled Juniper Run before, this is the real deal. It's one of my favorite places to paddle in the state, with gin-clear water and incredible scenery that makes you feel like you've traveled back in time. The upper portion of the run is narrow, with twists and turns, and gradually widens as you make your way downstream. 

Juniper run is about seven miles in length. You'll launch from Juniper Springs Recreation Area – make sure to factor in some time after your paddle trip to swim and explore the nature trails. Don't miss walking out to Fern Hammock Springs, one of the most beautiful springs in Florida. If you don't have your own boat, you can rent canoes at Juniper Springs. If you are bringing your own canoe or kayak, a shuttle service is provided back to the parking area for a small fee. 

Juniper Springs Recreation Area opens at 8 a.m., and I'd recommend you get there as early as possible. You'll be one of the first boats on the run (it's generally not too crowded, though) and can get off the water before noon. For more information and directions, check out www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/ocala

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From St. Augustine to Amelia Island on Scenic A1A

One of the hundreds of reasons I love living in Florida is that I can hit the road any time of the year. When I have a desire to ride a remote two-lane that blazes through a tunnel of trees, I go. If I want to scale the rolling hills in Ocala horse country, they’re waiting. Then there’s A1A, the road that favors Florida’s Atlantic Coast. This would be a short 65-mile journey between St. Augustine and Amelia Island and so, for convenience, I started at Point A.

The Ancient City

You’d think at more than 400 years old, St. Augustine would show signs of slowing down, but America’s oldest city looks like it’s just getting started.
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For the best overview of the city, the sightseeing trains (Ripley’s or Old Town Trolley) will pique your interest with the history and layout of St. Augustine as you note places to return. The historic district, where most visitors spend their time, is accented by dozens of beauty marks that create one of the loveliest cities in America. Stroll the promenade along the broad waters of Matanzas Bay, hear the steady hoofbeats of horse and carriage, explore sturdy Castillo de San Marcos, and peruse the shops of St. George Street, the extremely popular pedestrian mall that is lined with gift shops, art boutiques and restaurants. That evening, walk to the marina where gleaming yachts from around the world sparkle under starlight.

En Route

Between St. Augustine and Amelia Island, A1A sticks to the Atlantic Ocean for a fair share of the way. On the north end of America’s Oldest City, leap over the Vilano Causeway to reach the waterfront community of Vilano Beach then simply follow A1A north along the shoreline, either resisting or giving in to the temptation to stop along the way and enjoy the solitude of this quiet shoreline.

Mile after mile, you can ride or drive and enjoy the sight that draws people from around the world to Florida, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the sands of the Sunshine State. Approximately seven miles north of Vilano Beach, Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve is a 73,000-acre sanctuary for hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, canoeing and birdwatching among the hammock, scrub and flatwoods, with convenient parking areas on the west side of A1A providing access to the ocean across the street. For many miles opposite the reserve, you’ll find beach houses, some ostentatiously grand and hidden behind walls of foliage, others small and rustic and open.

Too soon, A1A leads away from the ocean, becoming a wide commercial avenue through planned communities and business districts. If you have time and curiosity, at the intersection of A1A and Mickler Road turn right to reach Ponte Vedra Boulevard, followed by Duval Drive and Ocean Drive, which do their best to keep you close to the shore although rows of homes and hedges may limit your view. If you choose to follow these roads less traveled, you'll be able to stick close to the ocean past Jacksonville and Neptune and Atlantic beaches (see the Jacksonville Beach Pier) while staying within easy reach of A1A.

Either way you go, there’s a payoff ahead. When you arrive in Mayport, a sign tells you the village was established in May of ’62.

That’s 1562.

In addition to longevity, Mayport’s known for a most interesting feature: the St. Johns River Ferry that carries pedestrians ($1), motorcycles ($3), and cars and trucks ($5) on a five-minute journey across the waters. On the opposite bank, turn right and Amelia Island is only 10 miles away and the island’s only city, Fernandina Beach, 17 miles distant. With wide swaths of open marshland spreading east and west, the surrounding scenery places you in the middle of a Florida Highwaymen painting, offering a sense of the state’s magnificence and a gathering place for migratory fowl that follow the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail. Through Little Talbot Island State Park, one of the few remaining undeveloped barrier islands in northeast Florida, and Big Talbot Island State Park, A1A consistently delivers incredible views.

Soon, manicured landscaping lets you know that elaborate resorts are somewhere along the waterfront, but as you cross the bridge onto Amelia Island the destination’s true character is seen in produce stands and canopy roads that open to a row of homes fronting the broad ocean. It is all part of a most extraordinary place.

The Isle of Eight Flags

You could search from Key West to Anchorage, but you’ll never find a place like Amelia Island, which, in its history, has been ruled under eight flags. In its 450 years, Amelia Island was controlled by the French (1562-1565), the Spanish (1565-1763), the English (1763-1783), the Spanish again (1783-1821) with interruptions by the "Patriots" (1812), Green Cross of Florida (1817), Mexican Rebels (1817), United States (1821) and the Confederacy (1861).

Things have calmed down since, and if you’re not relaxing on the waterfront, you’ll likely be exploring Centre Street, which is the island’s most active commercial district with antique shops, art galleries, bookstores and gift shops. Downtown, the old train depot is now the community visitor center and the historic Palace Saloon, which opened its doors in 1903, is still welcoming visitors despite a fierce fire in 1999.

Take time to explore. A few miles east of the shopping village, turn left on 14th Street and you’ll find Bosque Bella, a cemetery established by Spanish settlers in 1798. A short distance beyond, Old Town was platted in 1811 as the island’s original town. Now more than 200 years old, a small number of homes are still here, perched on a small rise above the Amelia River.

It may only be a short distance between St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach, but when you add in 450 years of history, 65 miles of scenic Florida and the charm of A1A and other oceanfront roads, this is a journey of historic proportions.

Gary McKechnie is VISIT FLORIDA’s Off the Beaten Path Insider. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Natural Escapes Near Pensacola

On your way to Pensacola? Lucky you. Since you are here in the Outdoors and Nature section of VISITFLORIDA.com, there's a chance you're headed that way with lots of outdoorsy gear in tow. You might have even found room in your vehicle to squeeze in a few family members as well, and I imagine they would like to get out at some point at use some of that gear. All of these are good things.

Pensacola is one of those places that I just don't get to visit often enough. I love the history – Native American, British, Spanish – there is so much to see and do. If Florida history or architecture is your thing, you owe it to yourself to check out Pensacola. The same goes for nature lovers. Get a good dose of the outdoors at these five places:

Tarkiln Bayou State Park – Spend a few hours exploring the Perdido Bay Trail (7 miles) and the boardwalk leading out to Perdido Bay. On the way, make sure to check out the rare White-topped pitcher plants in the prairie. Bring your camera, binoculars, and bug spray. www.floridastateparks.org/tarkilnbayou

Big Lagoon State Park – This is my spot for camping in the Pensacola area. Yes, it's famous for the size and quantity of mosquitoes – there's even a "Blood Donor" sticker available at the park for purchase. Seriously, this is a must-stop for nature lovers of all types. Get up early and watch the sunrise at the observation tower – you won't be sorry. www.floridastateparks.org/biglagoon

Gulf Island National Seashore – Fort Pickens area –  This section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore is incredible. History buffs will go crazy over the massive World War II gun batteries and Fort Pickens, which was built in the 1800's. For hikers, the northern terminus for the Florida National Scenic Trail is at Fort Pickens – take a walk for a few miles, or over a thousand miles. It's your choice. www.nps.gov/guis

Adventures Unlimited – Heading north and away from the coast, this is the spot for canoeing, kayaking, and tubing. Choose from several trips on the Blackwater River or Coldwater Creek, or see things from the treetops on the zipline course. Cabins and tent sites are also available. www.adventuresunlimited.com

Garcon Point Trail – While you are in Milton, don't miss a quick stop in at the Garcon Point Water Management Area and hike for about three miles. It's a combination spur and loop trail maintainted by the Florida Trail Association. Like Tarkiln Bayou State Park, this is another great spot to see White-topped pitcher plants. www.floridahikes.com/garconpoint

Got a favorite place to visit in the Pensacola area? Share it with me on the VISIT FLORIDA Outdoors and Nature Facebook page


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Cedar Key: Funky Charm, Nature Lover's Paradise

As brilliant as a Technicolor sunset, a flock of roseate spoonbills take flight just ahead of us, filling the horizon with splashes of fuchsia and tangerine and a soundtrack of low, guttural grunts.

It was a breathtaking sight. These shore birds, known for their four-foot wingspan and oddly shaped bill, were once hunted almost to extinction. Hunters wanted them for their pink plumage and their wings, which were sold as souvenir fans to 19th-century tourists.

Now legally protected, the number of birds are growing, with an estimated 1,100 spoonbill pairs in Florida, according to Audubon Florida. We counted at least seven of the beautiful birds, seven more reasons to fall in love with Cedar Key, a nature lover's paradise that manages to stay off the beaten track without losing a hint of its funky charm.

Cedar Key, population upwards of 900 until the Canadian snowbirds descend, represents a slice of Old Florida. You won't discover it, unless you turn your back on the main road and head west. To get to Cedar Key, follow route 24 west until you think you're lost. It's located about 50 miles southwest of Gainesville in what's fittingly called the Nature Coast. Cross a bridge about 20 miles from the mainland, along a two-lane road dotted with mom-and-pop motels, produce stands and family-owned eateries. On the other side sits a friendly town that is sweet without a hint of preciousness.

Shambling bait shacks keep company with live oak trees. And a slightly raggedy downtown channels Mayberry after a bender.  Along with a handful of vacant storefronts, the wonderful old Marina Hardware provides the place to go for waders, fishing advice, bug spray and copper tubing. A few boutiques, including the Deja Vu Consignment Shop, Dilly Dally Gally (get your Yankee Candles here!) and the Keyhole Artist Co-Op, showcase an impressive array of leather, pottery, art-to-wear and jewelry.

With the downtown quiet on a warm day in May, that was reason enough to duck into the cool dark confines of the historic Island Hotel. Friendly locals gather there and jaw about everything – from what fish are biting to their most recent costume choice for New Orleans' Krewe du Vieux Mardi Gras parade. That's the revelry that takes place 538 miles and light-years to the west of sleepy Cedar Key.

A string of waterfront bars and eateries, including the entertainingly named Pickled Pelican, sit out on a pier facing the vast Gulf. No doubt raucous doings occur when the town's population quadruples. We preferred heading out route 24 a spell to eat at Annie's, a ramshackle former juke joint. The restaurant's fans move the air and an army of strong women sling hash, usually in the form of fried seafood for lunch and tasty breakfast fare in the morning. The Blue Desert Café offers a leisurely option for dinner if you're not in a hurry. It serves such dishes as shrimp Alfredo and vegetarian lasagna made to order with fresh seasonal ingredients by chef/owner Therese Cavagnaro. She even comes out to chat with guests in between orders.

Once a bustling railroad and lumbering town with a thriving commercial fishing trade, Cedar Key still attracts those who fish. They cast from the town pier with dead serious focus. The laid-back key, a favorite haunt of Jimmy Buffet's back in the '80s, now claims clam farming as its main industry (largest clam farm in Florida!). If you're lucky, you can get 100 sweet littlenecks from Sandy's Produce for $15. It's a feast of tender bivalve goodness you won't soon forget. 

Most folks stay in condos or cottages. These rentals provide kitchens so you can cook breakfast and fresh seafood and get comfortable. There are also a few B&Bs, the hotel downtown (historic, but with Wi-Fi) and some motels along the highway.

But do yourself a favor: Stay somewhere with a view. We could see the Gulf from our third-story condo. Our back view provided the most enchanting scene, with its boardwalk jutting out over tidal pools and mangroves, scrubby pines and mudflats revealed by the waning tide. That's when the birds would descend, the spoonbills and herons, snowy egrets, ibis and pelicans. Every morning and every night, we'd walk out to hear the tree frogs and cicadas and look at the stars. 

Cedar Key is all about getting close to nature. You can kayak through tidal creeks and along the coastline dotted with picturesque wooded islands. Or bike through swaths of wilderness found in the Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park and the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge just outside of town.

If it's beach time you crave, there is a small town beach. But it's not much to speak of, certainly not in the same league as what you'll find heading northwest to Destin or Fort Walton Beach. Florida is home 825 miles of beautiful beaches, offering more time to tan than most of us have opportunity. But here, in Cedar Key, tides and tidal marshes rule time. Wildlife wins out over beach volleyball and surfing. 

For some of us, that's just the way we like it.

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Visit the Deering Estate at Cutler During Three Fee-Free P.L.A.Y. Days

On July 21, August 8, and September 15, 2012, take a trip to the Deering Estate at Cutler during P.L.A.Y. Days, which were created to honor the estate's parter organizations and the community. P.L.A.Y. Days represents Preservation, Learning, Adventure, and Year-Round – and believe me, Deering Estate always has something great going on whenever you visit.

Enjoy guided tours of the historic Deering Estate, a walk through the Artist Village, or spend some time exploring over 400 acres of globally endangered habitiat which serves as a home to a wide variety of native flora and fauna. While at Deering Estate, make sure to take a self-guided tour of the Mangrove Boardwalk and kayak rentals are also available to those wanting to explore the coastal areas of Biscayne Bay.

For more information on P.L.A.Y. Days at Deering Estate, visit www.deeringestate.org. Have fun!

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Volunteer for Florida Keys Hawkwatch During the 2012 Fall Migration

This is very cool – volunteers are neeeded in the Florida Keys between September 15 and November 13 to assist with counting raptors during this year's fall migration. If you are interested in birding (or the Florida Keys), you should check this out.

No expert raptor ID skills are required – so if you are a birder just starting out, this is a great way to really hone your skills. Training is provided, and you need to have your own set of binoculars. Spotting scopes are available, but if you have one make sure to bring it with you. Also, make sure to bring all the essentials for a long day of birding in one spot – a folding chair sunscreen, sunblock, and sunglasses are all things you should have with you.

You'll be volunteering at the FKH observation deck at Curry Hammock State Park, and dormitory-style housing will be provided at the Keys Marine Laboratory for registered volunteers. Of course, you are welcome to make your own housing arrangements in the area as well. 

For the full scoop on Hawkwatch, visit www.floridakeyshawkwatch.wordpress.com/volunteer. Have fun birding in the Florida Keys!

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Like to Play in the Dark? Sign Up Now For Pangea’s Luminescent AR

If it's too hot for you during the daytime to get out and play, don't worry – Pangea Adventure Racing has you covered. There is still some time left to register for the Luminescent AR, which takes place this year at River Breeze Park in Oak Hill.

This is a brand new venue for the Luminescent AR, so if you've competed at this event in the past, it's not a repeat. AR racer extraordinaire Ron Eaglin has designed this course, so you know it's going to be good. If things are just right, participants will be treated to something special – the bioluminescent glow in the waters of Mosquito Lagoon. 

The race happens on Sunday, July 22 with Elite racers (8 hours, whew) needing to be checked in before 11:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 21. Those participating in the Sport event can get a little bit more sleep before checking in at 12:00 a.m. on Sunday. If it's your first race, you might want to check out the 'AR 101' meeting at 12:30 a.m. on Sunday, too.

For more information, visit www.pangeaadventureracing.com. Have fun!

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Photo: Downtown Cedar Key

A trio of pelicans soak up the sunshine near the marina in Cedar Key on April 15, 2012. Cedar Key hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year, including an arts festival in April and a seafood festival in October. Cedar Key is popular for fishing, bird watching and boating. Aquaculture (farm raised clams) and tourism are two large industries in Cedar Key.

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July is Park and Recreation Month

Here in Florida, we love our parks. From incredible places that are a part of the Florida State Parks system to small urban greenspaces, there is always somewhere to explore – no matter where you are in the state. July is officially designated as Park and Recreation Month. To celebrate, here are six places to play:

Elinor Klapps-Phipps Park (Tallahassee) – Hiking, biking, and equestrian trails crisscross over 600 acres in the Red Hills area of town. The 4-mile Redbug trail is a favorite with area mountain bikers, while a few geocaches and excellent birding opportunities can be found on the hiking trails.

Flatwoods Wilderness Park (Tampa) – There are several areas that make up the Flatwoods Wilderness Park – Trout Creek, Morris Bridge, and John B. Sargeant Park. Each are well worth a visit, so plan on spending plenty of time exploring here. If you are kayaking, head to John. B. Sargeant Park or Morris Bridge. Mountain bikers, wheel over to Morris Bridge for some technical singletrack trails, or hit the trails at Trout Creek. Road bikers, runners, and inline skaters gravitate towards the 7-mile paved loop at the Flatwoods section.

Fort De Soto Park (St. Petersburg) – History, trails, camping, and award-winning beaches make Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County a wonderful summer destination. Rent kayaks at the park (or bring your own) and explore the mangrove-lined paddling trail. Better yet, book a campsite and make a weekend out of exploring Fort De Soto – don't forget to take the ferry and check out Egmont Key, too.

Myakkahatchee Creek Environmental Park (North Port) – Spend a day or just an hour or two exploring this park by kayak (Myakkahatchee Creek feeds into the Myakka River), bike, on horseback, or on foot. It's a great place for nature study, with plenty of Florida flora and fauna to check out in several different habitats.

Crandon Park (Miami) – Miami-Dade Parks has a unique Eco-Adventures program, with all sorts of scheduled outings going on throughout the year. At Crandon Park, the Visitors and Nature Center serves as a gateway to exploring Key Biscayne by bike, kayak, or on several different guided outings. Take part in the park's kayak and snorkel adventure and check out the coastal section of Bear Cut Preserve. Check the website for dates.

Founders Park (Islamorada) – Located at Mile Marker 87, this park features water sports rentals, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and a shallow water beach – just for starters. There are tennis and basketball courts as well as a skate park. It's also pet friendly, with a dog park providing plenty of space for exercise. 

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