Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge

Stop 124: Fun in Florida… Part Three: Gulf Coast

Alligator Creek Preserve

From Naples, we drove up to the Port Charlotte/Punta Gorda area, located on the Gulf Coast — about halfway between Sarasota and Fort Myers, and near the Peace and Myakka Rivers. Punta Gorda (Fat Point) is a city with a population of about 17,000 which has been on maps since at least 1851, referring to a point of land that juts into Charlotte Harbor, an estuary off the Gulf of Mexico. Nearby Port Charlotte has a population of about 54,000. The area has been named as one of the best places to retire in the U.S.

We started with a hike in the Alligator Creek Preserve, which is adjacent to the 30,000+acre Charlotte Harbor State Park Preserve and was established in 1987. Located about 5 miles south of town, this preserve offers several miles of trails. We hiked the Three Lakes Trail, which travels through a Coastal Hammock and leads out to the edge of several mangrove-lined lagoons, as well as the Flatwoods Trail, which goes through Pine Flatwoods dotted with cypress domes… for a total of about 3 miles. And while the gates to the main parking area lock after hours, you can park in a small lot outside the gates and hike into the preserve. Alligator Creek Preserve is part of the Charlotte Harbor Environmental Center, a private, non-profit corporation that provides “environmental education, recreation, environmental research, and conservation lands management services to the citizens and visitors of the greater Charlotte Harbor area.”

Cape Haze Pioneer Trail

Next up, we had a chance to get back on our bicycles and experience another fun rail-trail! We biked the Cape Haze Pioneer Trail on January 1 — a New Year Bike Ride — ending up completing about a 14-mile ride (which was almost a complete roundtrip on this fairly short trail).

The trail follows the route of the former Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad, which operated from the early 1900s until the 1970s — first servicing Florida’s early phosphate industry (in Mulberry) and then later moving people, livestock, and locally grown crops.

We jumped on at the northern end of the trail at the Dr. Robert D. and Ann Mercer Trailhead, located off Gasparilla Road, just south of State Road 776 (and about 13 miles southwest of Port Charlotte). This spot includes the
Placida Bunk House (shown in the second photo of the collage), which was built by the railroad to house its employees — and originally stood in Placida along the rail line. The building is an example of Florida Frame Vernacular architecture.

The ride itself is somewhat straight and boring, but we had some amazing animal sitings while on the trail — including several birds (herons, pelicans), turtles, and, most amazingly… several river otters, one of which actually crossed the trail near the bridge at Coral Creek.

If you want to extend your bike ride, you could continue biking south for about 3.5 miles along the roadway (and across the Boca Grande Causeway) before connecting to the Boca Grande Bike Path (which runs along the island portion of the railroad corridor), a 6.5-mile trail on Gasparilla Island.

Hillsborough River State Park

We then continued our trek northward toward the Tampa/Clearwater area, staying in a decent RV park in Wesley Chapel (though we hate campgrounds that have push-button, one-temperature-for-all showers). On the plus side, the clubhouse had a ping-pong table and we got in quite a lot of run practice!

Even though the weather got fairly hot and steamy, we headed over to
Hillsborough River State Park, which opened in 1938, and is located 20 miles northeast of Tampa along US-301.

We were excited to explore this 3,000-acre park, but became even more excited when we learned that it was originally discovered and developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1936 — designed to protect one of the only Class II rapids in the state. (The rapids are from the river flowing over outcroppings of Suwannee limestone.) The picture in the bottom left of the collage is the original entry building to the park; today, it is a small interpretative center, mostly focused on the Seminole Wars (which occurred in the early- to mid-1800s). But it also includes information on the CCC and its impact in Florida… they developed the first eight state parks, planted 18.9 million trees, built 3,620 miles of trails and roads, and constructed 2,736 bridges. At Hillsborough River State Park, the CCC constructed roads, pavilions and buildings (including the visitor center/interpretative center), and a suspension bridge over the river that is still in use today.

The park offers swimming, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, camping, birding, hiking, picnicking, and more. You can rent boats and bicycles from the park store — and we saw numerous groups kayaking down the river as we hiked. While there are miles of trails, our goal was to hike mostly along the river — and we did so by starting at Parking Lot 2 and hiking the Rapids Trail to the Baynard Trail to the Seminole Trail — and back — for a total of about 4 miles.

At the entry to the Rapids Trail is the beautiful Prayer of the Woods: “I am the heat of your hearth on the cold winter nights, the friendly shade screening you from the summer sun, and my fruit, are refreshing draughts quenching your thirst as you journey on. I am the beam that holds your house; the board of your table; the bed on which you lie, and the timber that builds your boat. I am the handle on your hoe; the door of your homestead; the wood of your cradle, and the wood of your coffin. I am the bread of your kindness, and the flower of beauty, Ye who pass by listen to my prayer: Harm me not.” (This prayer is from an older work, originally written in Portuguese, and first carved in wood in the gardens surrounding Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon.

While in the area, we also experienced two more of our joys of this trip — catching up with friends and getting in another Jazzercise class. We started with a wonderful reunion with Julie, who was one of Ran’s students (and his work-study assistant) from many years ago at Stetson. She brought her husband, and the four of us had a wonderful time catching up while enjoying a pleasant meal at Frenchy’s Outpost. Julie and Nick have two amazing sons — and we wish Julie and Nick all the best as they begin the process of the empty nest. We also met up with a friend of a friend — and her husband — for coffee when they came up to Wesley Chapel to spend time with us. (Sadly, we forgot to get a picture with Rachel and her husband Mike.)

We also got to dance and sweat at a great class at the Jazzercise Tampa-Lutz Fitness Center. Our instructor Deb is a firecracker — and even cooler, showing how small a world it is — she and Kenny, one of our favorite instructors in Oceanside, CA, are good friends. Jazzercise combines dance, strength, and resistance training with popular music for a full-body workout — which we love. Dancing, weights, and abs.

Hammock Park, Dunedin

We ended our time in the area with a short hike through Dunedin’s Hammock Park — a 90-acre natural area with five miles of trails, boardwalks, butterfly garden, disc golf course, picnic area, and playground. It sits adjacent to Cedar Creek.

The park’s trails can be a bit confusing, but we basically attempted a big loop around the entire park through mostly forested areas, but parts also were up on boardwalks — including parts of the Skinner Trail, Cline Trail, Palm Trail, Kettles Trail, Highland Trail, Grant Trail, and Osprey Trail.

We found the Tampa/Clearwater area nice, but the traffic almost insufferable…. tons of cars on clogged roads that make an 8-mile trip a 25-minute drive. The congestion definitely rivals SoCal, but what makes it worse is that Florida drivers are arguably the worst we have encountered… cutting and zipping between lanes, racing up to stopped traffic, and constantly braking.

Cedar Key, FL, sunset

Happily, our next stop was not only the opposite, but also one of our favorite places in all of Florida… the quiet and beautiful Cedar Keys area, named for the majestic Red Cedar Tree, located 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, and jutting out three miles into the Gulf of Mexico. You get there via Highway 24 as it crosses over salt marshes and channels on four small, low bridges. There are only about 800 permanent residents and the vibe screams laidback and relaxing. We had a blast here.

It’s a bit complicated (but not) in that there is a town named Cedar Key (located on Way Key) and a group of islands called the Cedar Keys… all of which have a fascinating history. The cluster of islands includes Way Key, Atsena Otie Key, Grassy Key, Snake Key, Seahorse Key, Deadman’s Key, and North Key. The area has a lot of history relating to military operations, navigation, and manufacturing… and a railroad. Today, it is known for producing the most (and they would say best) farm-raised clams in the United States (a very fortunate by-product of when the state banned the use of gill nets for fishing and the University of Florida helped many of the fishers transition to shellfish aquaculture). Since neither of us likes clams (or oysters), you will have to decide for yourself… but chances are, if you partake in eating clams, you have already had Cedar Key clams.

Cedar Keys kayaking

We started our learning and exploring of the area by getting into the water with an expert host. We rented kayaks from Cedar Keys Adventures (which also rents bikes and golf carts), located on A Street at the pier, and met up with Dr. Paul King, a Florida Coastal Master Naturalist. Dr. King — or Paul — offers these ecotours at no cost on several days of the week, depending on weather, tide, etc. (Donations are accepted at the end of the tour for the Cedar Key Discovery Center.)

After discussing safety rules, we got down to business discussing some of the history of Cedar Key, as well about some of the wildlife we expected to see. We spent a lot of time discussing the slowly rising tide and how much it influences where we could kayak because of so many oysters beds close to the surface of the waters in the bay.

We kayaked mostly in the channels and ponds (as Paul called them) around several of the small islands to the northeast of Cedar Key.

We passed several shipwrecks and broken down boats (some of which are shown in the collage).

When we departed from the docks, Paul discussed that Cedar Key has two types of pelicans. Brown Pelicans live here year-round; this species is ubiquitous to Florida’s coastal piers and docks and tends to be fine with people gawking at them. It is the smallest of the six different species of pelicans in the world, reaching a length of 48 inches, with a 7-foot wingspan. They hunt for their food by diving into the water to catch their prey. (And by waiting by the docks for the fish guts from fishing boats.)

American White Pelicans are migratory birds that arrive in the fall and stay until late spring. Unlike the Brown Pelicans, White Pelicans are shyer and prefer more private and less (people) traveled environments, such as estuaries, lakes, and mangrove islands. White Pelicans have distinctive white with black wingtips, while their bill, legs, and toes are reddish-orange or pink — they are also one of North America’s largest birds, with an overall length of up to 70 inches and a 9-10 foot wingspan (the second largest after the California Condor).

Tidewater Tours, Cedar Key

We were lucky to see these massive White Pelicans twice — first, from a safe distance during our kayaking adventure, and later, during our boating adventure. One other fun fact about White Pelicans… like dolphins, they hunt for their fish together, corralling fish to one another in a circle — from the surface of the water.

During the kayaking, we also got to see a mix of Spoonbills, including the beautiful Roseate Spoonbill (which get their distinctive pink color from their diet, much like the American Flamingo). The long-legged wading birds seem to be okay together, though the Roseate Spoonbills are newer residents to Cedar Key according to Paul. We ended the adventure by completing a loop through the more choppy Gulf waters.

The next day we were back on the water — but this time on a larger boat captained by Tidewater Tours. The company is the only one in the area certified by the Coast Guard — and offers 2-hour Cedar Key Island Tours (including a sunset tour) and a 3-4-hour Suwanee River Tour, as well as special birding tours. While not advertised on their website, they also offer a Combo Tour that includes an hour on Atsena Otie Key in addition to the Island Tour.

We absolutely loved this tour; it was perhaps the most fun and best-narrated of any tour we have taken during these past two years on the road. We received all sorts of history about Cedar Key, as well as the other keys, and we saw White Pelicans, Commarants… and most happily, several dolphins (including two that swam right next to the boat for a short while).

Seahorse Key was interesting to us because it has a lighthouse — the oldest standing lighthouse on the west coast of Florida, which was completed and lit in 1854. Federal troops occupied Seahorse Key during the Civil War — and in 1862, used it as a prison for the duration of the war. The lighthouse was put back into service after the war ended — and remained in service until 1915. In 1929, Seahorse Key, including the lighthouse, became part of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. Odd, but fun fact: The University of Florida leases 3.2 acres of the wildlife refuge, including the lighthouse, for use as a marine laboratory. 

Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge

Atsena Otie Key is also very interesting — as it was the original town in Cedar Key. It too is now part of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, which consists of 13 islands; the refuge was established for the protection of the 200,000 birds that used the keys for raising their young. Today, the numbers are greatly reduced: only about 20,000 birds (including pelicans, ibis, egrets, herons, and cormorants) use the westernmost finger of Seahorse Key and Snake Key as rookeries. Both those islands, as well as North Key, are designated as wilderness areas.

In the 1840s, wealthy folks from Georiga and Florida had summer homes on Atsena Otie Key. The Florida Railroad reached the Cedar Keys in the 1860s. In that same decade, the Faber Pencil Company built a lumber mill on the island to mill cedar trees for its pencil factory in New Jersey. Oyster and fishing also took off, and the island population grew… until a hurricane in September 1896 destroyed the mill and most of the other buildings and houses. Since Faber had already harvested all the cedar trees on the island and nearby islands, it decided not to rebuild and the remaining houses were floated to Way Key (now the town of Cedar Key). When you walk the island, you can still see a few remnants of that time, including brick from the old pencil mill, as well as an old windmill and other miscellaneous items. Perhaps the most interesting relic on the island is the old cemetery located on the far end of the island; it was established in 1877 and marks the graves of many island inhabitants who apparently led very short lives — some by disease, some by the harsh life of the times.

Cedar Key Museum State Park

After the cruise, we decided we had to check out the Cedar Key Museum State Park. The 18-acre park includes a wonderful and short nature trail as well as a museum that contains exhibits depicting the Cedar Key’s colorful history. The park also includes the Whitman House (restored to reflect life in the 1920s);
Saint Clair Whitman was the founder of the first museum in Cedar Key.

More fascinating to us — and what made us both want to make a beeline to the state park — is that John Muir… yes, the beloved naturalist John Muir… lived in Cedar Key for a few months in 1867/1868 — arriving in October, seven weeks after setting out from Indiana on a “thousand-mile walk to the Gulf.” Muir left Cedar Key in early 1968, eventually settling in California where he fell in love with the Yosemite Valley in California. His writings and activism helped lead the U.S. Congress to create Yosemite National Park in 1890. (Muir’s published writings were also instrumental in the creation of Grand Canyon and Sequoia National Parks.) He also was co-founder and president of the Sierra Club, advocating for the preservation and protection of wilderness. A plaque describing Muir’s time in Cedar Key stands in the park, near the museum.

Cedar Key Railroad Trestle Nature Trail

On our way out of town, we also had to hike the Cedar Key Railroad Trestle Nature Trail, a short (.6-mile RT) dirt trail that follows the path of the former Florida Railroad, which ran both freight and passengers from Fernandina Beach to Cedar Key from 1861 to 1932 — a major shipping route from the east coast of Florida to the Gulf Coast. (The Civil War did serious damage to the rail line, but it did continue operating afterward; a rival railroad to the larger port of Tampa also damaged the railroad.)

Along the trail, native plants and wildflowers are identified with markers and a bit of history — provided by the folks at the Florida Nature Coast Conservancy, a non-profit organization dedicated to preservation, conservation, and public recreation, which developed and maintains the trail.

When you reach the end of the trail, a few old trestle posts poke up through the shallow bay, remnants of a bridge that once carried trains across the water to where the line once connected with the main shipping dock. (When the trail was developed, a pedestrian bridge was proposed to reconnect the two, but the idea was met with significant objections from channel boaters, and it was never developed.)

Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve

We ended our visit to the area with two very different hikes. The first hike was in the Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve, a 5,000-acre park established in 1979 that protects and preserves 12 distinct natural communities — including one of the rarest in the state — Florida scrub (which occurs on sand ridges that were at one time coastal shorelines and dunes). These natural communities are home to a variety of wildlife including the Florida Scrub Jay (a threatened species), Florida mouse, gopher tortoise, and bald eagle. The park has more than 12 miles of trails in two sections, each with a trailhead. (The west side offers about 8 miles of trails, while the east section offers about 4 miles.) We hiked the eastern portion of the park, starting at the State Road 24 Trailhead, just a few minutes west of our campground. The state uses quite wide existing jeep trails for these multi-use trails (hiking, biking, and horseback-riding), which also serve as firebreaks. The trails were fine, but the only vistas we had were of the towering Longleaf Pine Trees.

Our last hikes in the area were in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, which was established in 1979 to protect one of the largest undeveloped river delta systems in the U.S. The refuge protects about 52,935 acres, including 20 miles of the Suwannee River estuary and 20 miles of coastline — with habitats consisting of cypress trees and floodplain hardwood forests; scrub oak plantations, and pine plantations.

Lower Suwanee National Wildlife Refuge

We hiked two trails in the most southern part of the refuge, located off of County Road 326: The Dennis Creek Trail and Shell Mound Trail.

The Dennis Creek Trail is a 1-mile loop trail that travels over a salt flat, through a maritime hammock, across a salt marsh, and near to a tidal pool and Dennis Creek. The area was one of several where the collection of turpentine occurred in Florida in the 1900s, wiping out vast pine forests. During the walk, we learned about some of the native wild bees (such as the Black Wild Bee, Metalic Greem Sweat Bee, and Mason Bee) that are more efficient pollinators than the non-native Hony Bee.

The Shell Mound Trail is a very educational .5-mile loop that examines an active archeological site — the location of a Native American village from about 400-650 A.D. Shell Mound is a semicircular ridge of shell and dirt that was built on the arm of an ancient sand dune. Much is still unknown about the Shell Mound, but scientists from the University of Florida believe part of it was an ancestral burial ground… and they have uncovered that ritual feasts took place here annually in late June for the Summer Solstice.

The Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge also offers a 9-mile nature drive on a well-maintained limerock road that passes through pine uplands, maritime hammocks, marshes, and swamps.

One final option of viewing and experiencing the Cedar Key is taking an airplane ride above the islands. The tours are only offered on weekends and selected weekdays, and we sadly missed another opportunity to fly… and this tour only costs $30 per person (for two or more people). It’s a deal we would have loved to have taken!

One other nature option we also did not have a chance to explore is the Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park, which spans more than 34,000 acres throughout the Cedar Key region. The preserve, which is only accessible via boat from Cedar Key and Yankeetown, includes more than 20 miles of shoreline tidal marsh habitats along Waccasassa Bay.

Cedar Key was one of the few places on this journey that we felt sad about leaving. We truly loved our time here — and loved the laidback vibe and low-traffic feel of the area.

Next up we finish our tour of Florida with several stops in the Panhandle.

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