With Halloween around the corner, it's fitting that this week's destination has a bit of the devil in its history.
Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park (floridastateparks.org/devilsmillhopper), just a few miles northwest of Gainesville, is a 120-foot deep sinkhole that has attracted visitors since the late 19th Century. Its colorful name, a stroke of marketing genius in the sinkhole promotion game, was inspired by old folk tales concocted to explain its origin.
In the most popular legend, the shape of the hole, which tapers inward from its 500-foot opening, was likened to a grain hopper. The layer of fossilized animal bones at the bottom were discarded remains of creatures on the way to meet the devil.
In another account, the devil kidnapped an Indian princess and created the sinkhole as a trap for those who pursued her. When men tried to climb out of the hole, they were turned to stones that forever cried tears for her.
In reality, the water that trickles through the lush vegetation on the limestone walls comes from 12 springs that feed the shallow pools at the bottom. Talk to someone who visited the park in the early 1970s and they likely will recall climbing down the sides of the sinkhole wall.
Fortunately, there's now a pedestrian-friendly wooden boardwalk, built after the state bought the land in 1974. It's a cooling, scenic walk, accented by mulberry and birch trees and the soothing sound of gurgling spring-fed streams. Keep in mind that the 236 steps seem longer on the way up.
Devil's Millhopper is only about 15 miles north of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park (floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie), with 22,000 acres of unspoiled hiking trails, picnic areas and a 50-foot observation tower for possibly glimpsing wild buffalo or horses.
On my visit, I was able to watch a few wild horses on the run in the distance. At least that's what two friendly women atop the tower told me. None of us had thought to bring binoculars, which might have made the horses look like more than shapeless, shadowy blobs on the horizon.
There were plenty of sights on the Wacahoota Trail, a very manageable path that takes less than a mile to loop from the tower to the air-conditioned visitor center.
No need for AC in the fall, when temperatures outside are perfect for strolling Florida's unspoiled wilderness.
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