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Explore Your Backyard

Do you know all the adventures that lie within your reach?

Florida’s Best Kept Secret: Amelia Island

This 13.1-mile stretch of land on the Atlantic is jam-packed with pristine beaches, unbeatable cuisine, and a historic cultural district. This small island is the perfect place to get a private getaway in your own backyard.

Amelia Island is well-known for its diverse wildlife. From morning turtle hatchings to mid-day dolphin jumping to sunset bird watching, this magical place has an animal spotting everyone will enjoy. Those wandering along the shoreline might even see wild horses roaming on the neighboring Cumberland Island.

No matter your age, I have listed the top 5 things all visitors should see or do in Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island.

  1. Take a ghost tour through the cemetery — If you are interested in paranormal activity, island history or legends this tour is for you. The tour is not meant to purposefully scare anyone, but rather it is an educational experience.

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    View of the cemetery behind St. Peters Episcopal Church in Historic Downtown Fernandina Beach. Photo by Allison Jones
  2. Visit Fort Clinch State Park – If you are a Civil War fanatic, visit during the first weekend of the month to see an interactive display of park rangers dressing as soldiers and demonstrating life in the 1860s. The soldiers even partake in a cannon firing demonstration.

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    Sunset view of the wall and cannons at the fort in Fort Clinch State Park. Photo by Allison Jones
  3. Go deep sea fishing— The Atlantic is home to a wide variety of delicious seafood. Typical catches can include bass, cobia, barracuda, grouper, flounder, hogfish and mackerel. An off-shore trip with a captain based  Amelia Island is a highlight for many visitors.
  4. Observe the lighthouse — Amelia Island is home to Florida’s oldest lighthouse, which was built in 1838. Tours run the first and third Wednesdays of every month. Unfortunately, climbing the stairs is prohibited.
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    View of the Amelia Island from Fort Clinch State Park. Photo by Allison Jones

    5.Walk around Big Talbot Island State Park –– If you enjoy shelling, bird watching or photography, take a trip to this magical island. The dead trees on Big Talbot Island’s beach make it such a unique spot for taking photos.

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Driftwood and dead trees found on Big Talbot Island State Park. Photo by Allison Jones

 


Difficulty of Exploration: 6/10

Items Required: transportation to Amelia Island, cash for endeavors including state park fees, swim suit (optional)

Travel Time from Gainesville:  2-hour drive from UF’s campus [dependent on traffic]

Contentment Level Post-Trip: 10/10

 

Fossils in GNV: Hunting Shark’s Teeth

Although Gainesville is not “the shark’s tooth capital of the world”, it is home to a wide variety of fossils found in sandy creeks and river beds.  One of the most well-known spots for finding shark’s teeth is Alfred A. Ring Park, which is Gainesville’s first linear natural park.

Alfred A. Ring Park park opened in November of 1990, according to a Gainesville Sun article, and it is located at 1801 NW 23 Blvd. Many refer to this endeavor as a “mini-hike” because the travel time from the parking lot through the forest to Hogtown Creek takes about five to seven minutes via walking.

Hunting Tip: Pop the screen out from your window to sift through the sand.

Amazon also sells sifters made for shelling and shark’s teeth hunting. The average price of a sifter is about $15.

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University of Florida (UF) students, Brianna Keenan and Rachel Davila, sift through the sand to look for shark’s teeth in Hogtown Creek at Alfred A. Ring Park. Photo by Allison Jones

The clear water in Hogtown Creek makes it easier to find shark’s teeth. When sifting, look for triangular shaped objects. The coloring of a fossilized tooth can include an array of black, dark brown, grey or tan.

The UF students hunting on this particular Saturday afternoon found 25 shark’s teeth in about an hour spent searching through the sand.

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View of shark’s teeth found by UF students at Alfred A. Ring Park on Saturday, April 8, 2017. Photo by Allison Jones

Hunting for shark’s teeth is one of my favorite past times. This hobby is a great way to relax. Not to mention, leaving the park with a few souvenirs is very rewarding.

Shark’s Teeth Fun Facts, according to the Beach Chair Scientist:

  1. Shark’s teeth are not white because the sediment on top of them creates a lack of oxygen and bacteria.
  2. A shark’s tooth takes approximately 10,000 years to fossilize.
  3. A human tooth and a shark’s tooth are equally as hard!

Difficulty of Exploration: 3/10

Items Required: transportation to Alfred A. Ring Park, waterproof sandals (such as Crocs, Chacos or Tevas) and a sifter (optional)

Travel Time from Gainesville: approximate 5-minute drive from UF’s campus [Travel time can vary depending on traffic]

Contentment Level Post-Trip: 10/10 [dependent on your hunting luck]

High Springs Hot Spot: O’Leno State Park

O’Leno State Park is unique because it is one of Florida’s first state parks, and it offers something for every type of nature lover. Activities include hiking, canoeing, fishing, swimming, camping, picnicking, geo-seeking and bird watching.

When I first visited the park it was rather difficult to find, but once I arrived I was taken aback by the beauty that I found inside. Just off South U.S. Highway 441, O’Leno State Park is located at 410 SE O’Leno Park Road.

The park is notable for its long history starting in 1934, which is prominently exalted by park signs.

 

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Aside from the hiking through the palmettos, one of my favorite locations at this park is the large bridge that spans over the Santa Fe River called the “Swinging Bridge”.

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Park visitor, Julie Davila, peeking over the edge of the O’Leno State Park “Swinging Bridge”, Photo by Allison Jones

Aside from the “Swinging Bridge”, you will find hundreds of acres of trails to cover and a notable “River Sink”, where the Santa Fe River disappeared into an underground sinkhole for 3-miles.

For more information check out video 39 of 53, on the Firsthand Florida Fun YouTube site, featured below for an inside peek at what to expect for your adventure to O’Leno State Park.


Difficulty of Exploration: 6/10

Items Required: transportation to High Springs, hat, sunscreen, bathing suit (optional), hiking boots or sneakers and a packed picnic

Travel Time from Gainesville: Approximately 30 to 45 minutes drive from UF’s campus [dependent on traffic]

Contentment Level Post-Trip: 10/10

Switching Cities: Top 5 Spots to Visit in Sarasota

Sarasota is nestled on Florida’s west coast about an hour south of Tampa and north of Fort Myers. The two and a half hour drive from Gainesville is worth it. This city may be infamous for old people and Amish cooking, but there is more to Sarasota than what those who perpetuate stereotypes may want you to believe.

With such an eclectic culture and diverse range of activities to partake in, it was hard to pick my top five favorite spots to visit in my hometown. Luckily, I managed to shrink down my list. The spots are listed below in no particular order.

#1 Celery Fields

Roam through the recently restored and renovated Celery Fields. If you are looking for a place to take a walk, partake in bird watching or watch the sunset far away from tourist ridden beaches this spot is for you. The Sarasota Audubon society has a nature center located next to the parking lot on Palmer Boulevard. The society has recorded over 215 different species of birds here since 2001.

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Celery Fields in Sarasota, Florida, Photo by Allison Jones

#2  Siesta Key Beach

A trip to Sarasota would not be complete without a visit to the number one beach in the world, according to Trip Advisor Travelers’ Choice Award 2017Siesta Key Beach is world famous for its soft, white sand and stunning sunsets. While at Siesta Key, I enjoy playing beach volleyball, building sandcastles and wading in warm Gulf of Mexico water.

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Storm approaching the yellow lifeguard stand at Siesta Key Beach in Sarasota, Florida, Photo by Allison Jones

 

#3 Big Edward Island

I would consider this a place a secret spot where locals commonly flock. I enjoy kayaking out to the island and bringing a picnic lunch. Tourists usually reach the island as passengers via a Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium Eco-Boat Tour. Luckily, the tour does not stay for long.

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View from Big Edward Island in the Sarasota Bay, Photo by Allison Jones

#4  John Ringling Causeway Bridge

The John Ringling Causeway Bridge serves as a beautiful spot for a morning run or an evening stroll with friends. The bridge straddles over Sarasota Bay and links Sarasota to St. Armands Key. Underneath it, there are some great places to fish and there is a kid’s play park, too.

 

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Sidewalk view from the John Ringing Causeway Bridge in Sarasota, Florida, Photo by Allison Jones

#5  St. Armands Circle

This circle is home to many of Sarasota’s top restaurants including Shore Diner, Crab and Fin and Cafe L’Europe. My personal favorite meal on St. Armands Circle is the “1905” Salad paired with the signature black bean soup from Columbia Restaurant. After an early dinner, walk less than a half mile to Lido Beach to watch the sunset. Afterward, treat yourself to a delicious scoop of ice cream from Kilwins or Ben & Jerry’s.

Top 5 Spots In Review

My top picks for an adventurer taking refuge in Sarasota for a brief stay include the Celery Fields, Siesta Key Beach, Big Edward Island, the John Ringling Causeway Bridge and St. Armands Circle.

 


Difficulty of Exploration: 6/10

Items Required: transportation to Sarasota, hat, sunscreen, bathing suit, casual clothes,  water-resistant sandals, sneakers and cash for gas, food and (optional) boat or kayak rental

Travel Time from Gainesville: Approximately a 2.5-hour drive from UF’s campus [dependent on traffic]

Contentment Level Post-Trip: 10/10

 

Hidden Treasures: A Visual Tour of Sweetwater Wetlands Park

Easy to miss. Hard to find. Sweetwater Wetlands Park is a hidden gem in Gainesville, Florida. Just off SW Williston Road, this man-made wetlands park encompasses over 125 acres and its trails form the shape of an alligator head. The park is also popular for its Wednesday Bird Walks and free ranger-led tours. 

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Sweetwater Wetlands Park Trail Map

I call this park a hidden gem because many of my friends have gotten lost attempting to find it.  If you would rather leave the park hunting up to others, I have created a brief visual tour of what to expect when visiting Sweetwater Wetlands Park.

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Sweetwater Wetlands Park Sign, Photo by Allison Jones

 Drive down SW Williston Road and keep your eye out for the park sign.

There is a $2 entrance fee for pedestrians and bikers, and a $5 entrance fee for cars.

 

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Sweetwater Wetlands Park Community Stand and Information Center,  Photo by Allison Jones

 

 

 

 

Check out the daily list of wildlife sightings on your way into the park.

Over 215 species of birds have been spotted in the park.

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Crosswalk on the Sweetwater Preserve Wetlands asphalt road, Photo by Allison Jones

Take the gravel path that leads to an asphalt crosswalk.

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Boardwalk at the Sweetwater Preserve Wetlands Park, Photo by Allison Jones

 

 

 

Roam on the boardwalk.

 

 

 

Bring your binoculars and long-lens cameras because there is no shortage of animals to see.

This park has animals that beacon, buzz and chomp, of course.

Follow the winding boardwalks and gravel trails back to the asphalt pavement. Look for the crosswalk to exit the park.

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Dusk on the pavement at Sweetwater Preserve Wetlands Park, Photo by Allison Jones

When Should You Visit?

Visit the Sweetwater Preserve Wetlands Park anytime. This year-round park is the perfect place to relax and immerse yourself in nature. In my opinion, the ideal time to visit is right around sunrise or sunset. The park opens at 7 a.m. and closes at dusk every day.

 


Difficulty of Exploration: 2/10

Items Required: transportation to park, cash for entrance fee and (optional) a camera or binoculars

Travel Time from Gainesville: Approximately a 5-minute drive, or 1-hour walk, from UF’s campus [dependent on traffic and mode of transportation]

Contentment Level Post-Trip: 10/10

 

Gainesville’s Depot Park: From Playground to Pavement

In late 2016, Gainesville welcomed a big renovation to an old railroad transportation hub. Depot Park emerged as the “Central Park” of Gainesville. This signature park will “provide a space for outdoor public enjoyment unique to the city,” according to Depot Park website. From picnic pavilions to a general store to an epic playground, this park offers a wide variety of activities for all explorers.

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Depot Park Sign built upon old train tracks that greets park-goers. Photo by Allison Jones

Sticking to grounds of Depot Park is a great option for those looking for a milder exploration. Activities such as playing on the playground, splashing around in the Blue Grotto or lying out on the lawn does not take much planning or extra effort.

For the more experienced explorer, below is a typical day from an adventurous and experienced park-goer. Rachel Davila, 21, Gator Blader Club Member and Junior studying at the University of Florida, shared her routine when visiting Depot Park. She warned that this adventure may involve some high-speed rollerblading and sweet beverages.

First, I drive to Depot Park, park in one of the surrounding lots and pack my backpack.

“I always bring a backpack filled with lots of water and a small first-aid kit because I never know how far I plan on taking the trail,” said Davila.

Davila is referring to the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, which stretches 16-miles through Paynes Prairie and beyond to the city of Hawthorne. According to the Florida State Parks website, this recreational trail is intended for those cycling, horseback riding, walking, blading and running.

The wide-rim walking path around Depot Park links right up to the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail.

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View from Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail while rollerblading. Photo by Allison Jones

 

Next, I typically rollerblade down to the Sweetwater Overlook from Depot Park.

The Sweetwater Overlook is approximately 2.4 miles from the Depot Park path. The overlook will be on the righthand side of the trail when coming from the park.

“The overlook provides a beautiful view of Paynes Prairie and it has a covered bench to take a water break,” said Davila.

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View from Sweetwater Overlook during a gloomy afternoon. Photo by Allison Jones

Last, I finish off my adventure with a cold beverage from the Pop-A-Top General Store.

With over the 50 types of sodas, the Pop-A-Top General Store is a soda-lovers dream. Not only do they have a myriad of soda choices they have a deli, snacks and ice cream options, too.

“I prefer a handcrafted root beer. Last time, I tried Maine Root’s Root Beer and it was delicious,” said Davila.

Overview of Depot Park

Depot Park is approximately a 20 to 25-minute walk from University of Florida’s campus. Over the past few months the popularity of this park has picked up as more and more Gainesville residents are finding out about the city’s hidden treasure.

“I try to avoid the park and the trail on the weekends because those are busiest times. The secret is to go on a weekday afternoon,” said Davila.


Difficulty of Exploration: 2/10

Items Required: transportation to park, activity-dependent item (i.e. roller blades, bicycle, Running Shoes), cash for general store, bag (backpack or fanny pack) and water

Travel Time from Gainesville: Generally 20-25 minutes if walking from UF’s campus [dependent on traffic and mode of transportation]

Contentment Level Post-Trip: 10/10

 

Explore the Beach of Florida’s Oldest City

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St. John’s County Ocean Pier || Photo Credit: Allison Jones

Backyard Explorations: St. Augustine Beach

The first of my backyard explorations can be categorized as a relaxing getaway. A one and a half hour drive from Gainesville to the east coast sits the nation’s oldest permanent city, St. Augustine. This historic city is the perfect place to explore with family, friends or a significant other. Every time I travel to St. Augustine I am immediately drawn to its sunny, dog-friendly beaches and incredible seaside cuisine.

Get Local Tips When Exploring

When visiting St. Augustine Beach this past weekend I was given a few tips. In my eyes, tips help a good exploration become great. Katie, 19, a local Flagler College student, shared with me her insights on how to best explore St. Augustine beach, especially on high traffic days like Saturday and Sunday.

Tip #1:  Park on a side street instead of the main public beach parking

Parking is always something to think about when heading to the beach. Katie told me to park on 16th Street, which is right off A1A Beach Blvd. I immediately found a spot to park despite the time being 1:30 p.m. on a Saturday.  16th Street is also the closest access to the pier, so I did not have to carry my belongings for too long.

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Beach Access|| Credit: localguidesa.com

Tip #2: Sit by the St. John’s County Ocean Pier

This pier is not only beautiful to look at, but also the area around the pier is a hub for surfing and fishing. The pier costs $1 to walk down as a sightseer and $3 to fish for non-residents of St. John’s County. If you would rather stand under the pier than on top of it, the pier also provides shade to get some relief from the Florida heat. Another great aspect of this beach outlet is the dog-friendly vibe. I saw about 20 different kinds of dogs in the few hours I spent at this access.

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Dog-Friendly St. Augustine Beach  || Photo Credit: Allison Jones

Tip #3: Take advantage of the seaside cuisine

After my long day at the beach, Katie suggested I take a trip to one of her favorite seaside restaurants called Salt Life Food Shack This restaurant’s open-air concept welcomes all people, no matter how salty or sandy, to dine with them. After ordering a cold local IPA brew and a cup of clam chowder, I was more than content. The late-lunch I was eating managed to get even better after I realized that this restaurant was dog-friendly, too.

St. Augustine Beach Exploration Recap

I will be sure to revisit this easy backyard exploration.  I learned that when heading to explore the east coast on a weekend, it is best to have a plan of action. Luckily, friendly locals are always open to sharing their tips to surviving the crowds, to dining and to exploring right.


Difficulty of Exploration: 4/10

Items Required: Vehicle for transportation, cash, swimsuit

Travel Time from Gainesville: About 1.5 hours drive [depending on traffic]

Contentment Level Post-Trip: 10/10

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