Thursday, August 2, 2012

Florida's State Parks - The Northwest Region


Florida is blessed with one of the most extensive state park systems in the country. And, despite the presence of a criminal presently residing in the Governor’s mansion, it’s state parks are among the best managed nationally.
On moving to Florida in March 2008 I discovered that just like the National Park Service system, the Florida state parks system maintains a passport stamp program. Each state park has a stamp unique to it and if you slog your way through all of the parks in the system (currently 152 of them) and obtain a stamp for each one, you receive a complimentary front license place from the parks agency
Not all parks are able to maintain an active onsite staff (another of Governor Rick Scott’s many accomplishments) however passport stamps for those parks can be obtained at larger nearby parks.  For instance, the stamp for unmanned Cedar Key Scrub Preserve is obtained at nearby Cedar Key Museum.
The first state park I visited in Florida was Collier-Seminole in Collier County. There I purchased my first passport stamp book and after traveling around the state for a year I finished obtaining stamps for all of the parks at Big Lagoon State Park in Escambia County Not satisfied to leave it there, I purchased another passport stamp book and completed the second round of visits at Fort Zachary Taylor in Key West – at the exact opposite end of the state from Big Lagoon.
Not many people have completed one circuit of the state park system let alone two times. That day at Fort Zach I purchased a third passport stamp book and in June 2011 finished filling it out at Torreya State Park in the Panhandle.  Currently I am working on a fourth round of visits to each state park. When that’s completed I’ll do it a fifth time
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Because you can obtain stamps for the unmanned parks without actually visiting them, I decided during my third round of visits that I would go one step further in obtaining documentation of my visits.
This time around I began photographing the entrance sign for each of them.  Doing so turned into a challenge because places like unmanned Mound Key Archeological Site and St. Lucie Inlet Preserve require a boat ride or a kayak paddle to physically visit the site and obtain a photo. Likewise, Yellow Bluff Fort in Jacksonville doesn’t actually have an entrance sign – just a plaque on a slab of concrete announcing the presence of the park.
Not long ago I had obtained photographs for all but two of Florida’s 152 actively managed state parks (there are 14 others that do not have a passport stamp or public access or both)
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The two missing photos were for Egmont Key State Preserve at the mouth of Tampa Bay and Anclote Key State Park offshore from Tarpon Springs.  I attempted to get a picture of Anclote in February 2012 but the ferry system used put me on South Anclote Bar where there were no signs.
On July 28, 2012 I took the ferry from Fort De Soto Park in Pinellas County over to Egmont Key. I had last been on this island in the mid-1990s when I accompanied the National Wildlife Refuge manager there.
All of Egmont is a National Wildlife Refuge but part of it is managed as a state park through a cooperative agreement. On this trip I wanted to visit the state managed area to see and photograph the sign.
That was accomplished easily on a brilliantly hot and bright July weekend afternoon
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Leaving Egmont Key for the mainland I was one park short of my goal – a picture of Anclote Key’s sign.
Before making the 90 minute drive to Tarpon Springs where I planned to hire a boat for half a day to run out to the main island, I called Anclote Key to confirm the presence and location of a sign.
Imagine my surprise when I was informed that there is no sign for Anclote Key!
Thus when I took the picture of the Egmont Key sign I had completed my quest and now have a photograph for all the actively managed parks that possess a sign (although the signs for Terra Ceia and Cockroach Bay are marginal in their acceptance as a park entrance sign).
To commemorate this accomplishment I am going to post my picture of each of the State Park signs.
With the picture comes a small blurb about the park – something unique or some experience I have had there in each of my visits.  I am going to begin with the Northwest Region (Panhandle) and work my way through the rest of the state in four subsequent posts.
NORTHWEST REGION


Alfred B. Maclay Gardens – Located at the edge of Tallahassee this beautiful collection of botanical specimens is set in an excellent area for woodland bird watching.


Bald Point State Park – Located off US Highway 98 in Alligator Point, Bald Point is mainly a light recreational area that comes complete with a spectacular view of the upper Gulf of Mexico. 


Big Lagoon State Park – This, the westernmost manned State Park in the system is located in the suburbs of Pensacola.  My first time there I saw a massive snake whose identity eluded me.  You can watch US Navy jets doing their final approach to the Pensacola Naval Air Station from this beautiful gem of land.


Blackwater River State Park – Set on the Blackwater River (duh!) north of Milton, this park appears to be heavily used by kayakers and tubers.  My second visit there, June 4, 2010, was greeted by a funnel cloud hanging ominously from the base of a rotating wall cloud.  Thankfully the funnel didn’t come any lower to the ground.


Camp Helen – in western Bay County not far from Panama City Beach, Camp Helen protects some prehistoric middens believed to be more than 4,000 years old.


  Constitution Convention Museum – All residents of Florida should spend some time in this little museum in Port St. Joe where they can learn about the work of 56 delegates who hammered out Florida’s first constitution in 1838. 



Deer Lake State Park – This gorgeous example of what Florida should look like contains some spectacular beach front habitat for critters like beach mice who were here long before the first condo developer arrived on the scene.


Econfina River State Park – Located at the end of a long narrow road in Taylor County, this is another Panhandle gem that abounds with wild habitat.


  
Eden Gardens – Located in Santa Rosa Beach the main attraction of Eden Gardens (other than the botanical treats) is Wesley House, a former resident of one of Florida’s early timber barons.

  
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park – Just south of Tallahassee, Wakulla Springs State Park protects a large area of natural spring and accompanying upland forest.  Parts of the park are heavily used for recreation (noisy kids swimming) but away from the main development area you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere as you explore the park’s environs.



Falling Waters State Park -  Located south of Chipley and set among gorgeous mesic deciduous forest, Falling Waters is one of my most favorite state parks because of the forest it protects. The only Copperhead I’ve ever seen alive and wild in Florida was coiled up and chilling out along a path to the springs one March day.


Florida Caverns State Park – Just north of Mariana Florida, this park is the only one in Florida that offers cave tours.  Unfortunately for me every time I’ve been there (four times) the cave tours have been sold out by the time I arrived.  “Next time” I’m getting there at 8:00 a.m. when the front gate opens.


Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park -  Not far outside of Niceville, Fred Gannon is not too appealing to someone who prefers wild lands and wild critters.  Fred’s park is more for noisy recreationists. 



Grayton Beach State Park – Spectacular isn’t a strong enough superlative to use in describing the beauty of the sand beaches at this park near Santa Rosa Beach, Florida


Henderson Beach State Park – In Destin, this park has sugar white beaches that have to be part of why Destin is so hugely popular with tourists.  Inside the park there are extensive areas of coastal dune habitat that are likely the last refuge for some unique wildlife like beach mice.



John Gorrie Museum -  Every resident of Florida should be thankful for John Gorrie.  He’s the man invented air conditioning and refrigeration.  This little museum in Apalachicola tells his story.



Lake Jackson Mounds – Only 2 miles north of the bowels of Tallahassee, Lake Jackson Mounds provides a pleasant escape from the rat race of all the rats trying to win their race in the state’s capital.


Lake Talquin – Just west of Tallahassee off State Road 20 this recreational area sits on the shore of a reservoir created by the damning of the Ochlockonee River.


Letchworth- Love Mounds – West of Tallahassee off US highway 90, Letchworth – Love Mounds protects several ceremonial mounds built by the original owners of Florida more than 2000 years ago.



Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park– Another park near Tallahassee, Natural Bridge tells the story of yet another Union loss during the War of Northern Aggression (as everyone in the south calls the Civil War).  A re-enactment of the battle here is made every March.  The Union still loses every year.  Rednecks and other people with Confederate flags in their rear window will love this park.



Ochlockonee River State Park – In Franklin County just south of Sopchoppy, this park provides some of the best kayaking in the Panhandle.



Orman House -  If you enjoy visiting plantation homes along the James River in Virginia (which I do) you will enjoy your visit to this beautiful house perched on a bluff overlooking the Apalachicola River.



Perdido Key – The word “Perdido” means “lost” in Spanish.  Unfortunately for the key and the resources on it, Perdido Key has been found. Condo developments defile the coast in areas where beach mice used to rule.  Luckily this park, the westernmost in the state park system, protects a bit of what once was.


Ponce de Leon Springs State Park – Not too far off Interstate 10, Ponce de Leon Springs protects a beautiful spring that is used extensively by swimmers in the blistering hot summer months.  Despite its name, this is not the fountain of youth that Ponce de Leon sought.



St. Andrews State Park – Just south of Panama City, St. Andrews provides some beautiful habitat at sunrise but given the deluge of people here the rest of the time its best passed over for some place that isn’t like a parking lot in the local mall.


St. George Island State Park – The phrase “quintessential Florida Gulf Coast island” was coined for this incredibly beautiful patch of island. Like most of Florida, St. George Island is being consumed by development.  Fortunately someone had the foresight long ago to set aside this state park so people 100 years from now can see sea oats in the wild rather than in some sea oats museum.



St. Joseph Peninsula State Park – Protecting the tip of St. Joseph Peninsula this park offers fantastic bird watching, especially in spring migration, set among some of the most beautiful beaches you’ll ever see.  I’ve seen Pygmy Rattlesnakes every time I’ve been here so keep an ear perked for their diminutive buzz.


San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park – Located in St. Marks, Wakulla County, this park is a perfect location to learn something about the very early history of Florida – in the days before sugar barons, railroads, and endless shopping malls.



Tarklin Bayou State Park – More than 4,000 acres of habitat for a species of pitcher plant is forever protected from developers – unless the Tea Baggers in the state legislature get their way and sell the state park to developers who could give a Rat’s Cheney about pitcher plants.


Three Rivers State Park – Just north of Sneads, this park could also be called Three-States State Park because it lies at the intersection of Alabama, Georgia and Florida.  There are lots of Summer Tanagers in the forests of this park.



Topsail Hill Preserve – Although protecting some beautiful beaches, this preserve seems to be more interested in catering to RV users than to resource protection.  Moving along now……


 Torreya State Park – Logistically one of the most confusing parks to find in Florida, once you track it down you will agree that it was worth the effort to get here.  Excellent forest birding can be had almost anywhere in this beautiful park.



Yellow River Marsh Preserve State Park – Four wetland communities are protected in this little patch of Santa Rosa County.

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