The word sinkhole is hardly pleasing to the ear, but those with good timing can create places of fathomless beauty: Mexico’s magnificent cenotes, for example, or Belize’s beautiful “Big Blue Hole.”
In Florida – the sinkhole capital of the United States – they are more often infamous, swallowing up real estate, and sometimes far worse, with little or no warning.
These are the holes that make the news, of course, but many others are boons not only for the scientists who learn much about the state’s geologic history in these chasms, but also outdoor enthusiasts.
"Sink" into serenity: the bowl-shaped cavity at Devil's Millhopper is 120 feet deep — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Florida’s sinks can be havens for swimmers and bold cave divers who find cool, often spring-fed oases in their turquoise depths. One of the state’s most famous sinks comes with its own 223-step staircase that leads Gainesville-area hikers down into the heart of what early settlers dubbed the "Devil’s Millhopper."
The park lies about two hours' ride from Orlando, but with a host of area parks and other attractions nearby – the amazing Florida Museum of Natural History is just one example – there's loads to make the ride worth the gas money.
A half-mile nature trail circles the vast rim of the sink – an ideal way for visitors with limited mobility to assess the Millhopper from on high. Yet most choose to make the descent, taking time to pause on the various landings as they go.
Lush ferns sprout from limestone outcroppings, and waterfalls trickle gently. They are the slow, steady architects of the sink; Florida’s steady rainfall seeped deep into the earth over vast periods of time, creating spaces in the geology that – in this and many other cases – eventually cave in.
Fossilized marine life and other animals from Florida’s prehistoric past were revealed in the chasm. And as its vaguely conical shape reminded locals of the hopper in a grist mill, its ominous name was conceived.
These days, the center of Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, it’s part nature-lover's curiosity, part athlete’s paradise; you’ll likely see several making multiple trips, getting in good cardio and lower-body work on the ascents, while the staid enjoy the serenity amid the flora and fauna of the pit.
The trail that encircles the maw of the Devil's Millhopper isn't strenuous, but it offers pretty places for a rest just the same — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
This area offers a host of trails, in fact. About 10 miles from the Devil’s Millhopper, those with a taste for more woodsy walking might seek out the winding paths of San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, a 7,000-plus-acre wilderness that supports all kinds of wildlife, including tens of migrating bird species that breed and raise their young here each year.
Its hiking trails range in length from roughly one to six miles, meandering over creek beds and fallen logs in some places, small boardwalks in others. Other trails are open to bikes and horses, as well.
Leashed dogs are welcome on the boots-only routes, which wend about through swampland, sandhills and ravines, as well as pinelands and flatwoods. Colored blazes clearly mark the routes, which are particularly beautiful in mid-winter, when northern Florida’s “autumn” changes the summer’s lush, heady green to a mélange of bare and/or colorfully adorned deciduous trees and cooler, drier weather abounds.
The two parks can be easily combined to take up either half- or closer to full-day explorations. With the many dining options around the University of Florida campus nearby, the makings of a great, active day are in order.