by Craig Pittman | July 1, 2024

Sinkholes, Springs and Everything In Between: Explore Florida’s 175 State Parks

The legends, lore and politics behind Florida's 175 state parks, from devilish sinkholes in the north to coral reef havens in the south.

Scramble over driftwood and bluffs at Big Talbot Island State Park. Photography by Josh Letchworth.

On a heavenly Saturday morning in early March, I entered an odd Florida State Park with a hellish name.

Many of Florida’s 175 state parks are located well away from the developed parts of the state, but not Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park. It’s smack dab in the suburbs of Gainesville. To reach the entrance, I drove past a grocery store, a hospital and an elementary school. But once I pulled through the gates, I was in another world. 

Devil’s Millhopper may be the most unusual park in Florida’s award-winning state park system. It’s basically a massive hole in the ground—a sinkhole, that is. It’s 120 feet deep and 500 feet wide, and it has sprouted an ecosystem that’s very different from what’s on the level ground up above.

There’s a half-mile nature trail around the top of the sinkhole, but the real attraction is what’s visible from a 132-step boardwalk that leads down the side of the chasm. I joined a small tour group, and we began our slow descent.

Florida’s state park campgrounds, like this one at Anastasia State Park, are considered among the best of any state park service. Photography by Josh Letchworth.

Natural Splendor and Quirky Kitsch

Florida’s state park system is one of the most wonderful and improbable glories of this place we call home. It’s full of beaches, swamps, forests, rivers and springs, many of which offer views of what the state looked like before urban development.

“They’re an oasis in a desert of urban sprawl,” said Clay Henderson, author of “Forces of Nature: A History of Florida Land Conservation.” “They’re relics of what Florida used to be.”

You can choose from parks, trails and historic sites spanning nearly 800,000 acres. You can camp, hike, bike, canoe, kayak or simply gaze in open-mouthed awe. At Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, you can even spelunk, should you so desire.

And people visit them all, flocking to the parks in droves. More than 28 million visitors hit the parks every year, generating $3.6 billion (that’s billion with a B) in direct economic benefits to the surrounding local communities.

“We’re setting attendance records every year or coming pretty close,” said Tim Linafelt of the Florida State Parks Foundation, a coalition of nonprofit philanthropic park partners and volunteer groups. “The last couple of years, because of the COVID pandemic, attendance ticked up because everybody wanted to be outdoors.” (His most frequently visited park was Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, which is home to one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world.)

No matter what kind of outdoor experience you’re looking for, there’s a state park in Florida offering an adventure that will satisfy you (with the exception of mountain climbing, of course).

“The beaches are the No. 1 attraction, and the camps are considered the best campgrounds of any state park service,” said Eric Draper, a Florida native who served as director of the Florida Park Service from 2017 to 2021. “The other thing people said they liked was the variety of parks—springs, beaches, rivers, historical sites and culturally important places.”

Indeed, there’s an abundance of inspiring natural splendor—the soaring dunes of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park near Santa Rosa Beach, for instance, or the calming waters of Manatee Springs State Park near Chiefland. 

Draper’s favorite: Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park near Copeland, made famous by Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief.” It contains one of the largest and most diverse concentrations of native orchids in North America, including the elusive ghost orchid.

Florida’s parks also feature plenty of quirky kitsch. What other state can claim to have a park that employs professional mermaids like Weeki Wachee Springs State Park? 

Many of the parks have their own history and culture. Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park near Miami was on the southern leg of the Underground Railroad and served as a departure point for escaped slaves to travel to the Bahamas. Bulow Plantation Ruins Historic State Park in Flagler Beach marks the former location of a sugar plantation that was wiped out in 1836 during the Second Seminole War.

And then, there’s Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a one-time roadside attraction that’s still the home of Lu the hippo, who was declared an official Florida citizen by a former governor. It’s also home to manatees and panthers.

Many of Florida’s state parks include pristine beaches, like this one at Little Talbot Island State Park. Photography by Josh Letchworth.

The park system has won the National Gold Medal Award four times, which is three more times than any other state.

Yet most of the Florida State Park system isn’t even 100 years old yet, notes Henderson.

The oldest unit in the park system is at Olustee, the site of Florida’s largest Civil War battle. In 1899, the Florida Legislature approved the erection of a monument there. (It was supposed to honor the dead from both sides, but the United Daughters of the Confederacy refused to acknowledge the Union casualties.)

However, the first state parks that were built to preserve natural sites date back to the 1930s. They were not created out of some grand vision to attract tourists by highlighting Florida’s spectacular environment, Henderson pointed out. They were make-work projects for the Civilian Conservation Corps. 

This was an agency that was a key part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to beat the Great Depression. The CCC put 50,000 unemployed Floridians to work on government construction projects. If it hadn’t been for the Depression, those first Florida parks might never have been built. One of them, Highlands Hammock State Park near Sebring, even has a CCC museum to commemorate their accomplishments.

“Then Pearl Harbor came along, and they all put on different uniforms,” he said.

To plan out those first parks, Florida officials consulted with the top experts in the nation, Henderson said. That’s why they turned out so well. Highlands Hammock, Myakka River, Fort Clinch, Torreya, Hillsborough River and Mike Roess Gold Head Branch state parks “were all designed by the National Park Service,” he said.

Right now, the biggest threat to our public lands is all the development around them.
—Marianne Gengebach

Those parks were such a success that, in 1949, the state Legislature, at the behest of a young state senator named Thomas LeRoy Collins, created a Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials. The first chairman was a Miami newspaperman named John Pennekamp, who famously helped establish Everglades National Park by winning a poker game with some influential state legislators. 

As parks board chair, Pennekamp successfully pushed for a 75-square-mile section of offshore Florida to become a permanent preserve. Collins, by now the governor, announced that this unusual underwater state park would be named for Pennekamp and officially became the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

The park system mushroomed when the state launched environmental land-buying programs such as the Land Acquisition Trust Fund, Conservation and Recreational Lands and Preservation 2000, adding new parks all over the state.

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in Santa Rosa Beach is known for its meandering boardwalk. Photography courtesy of Florida State Parks.

At times, there have been outright fights over the parks. In 2011, a pair of state legislators proposed allowing Jack Nicklaus to design and build golf courses in five of the parks, along with hotels to accommodate the eager golfers. Many people heaped scorn on the idea of the “Jack Nicklaus Golf Trail,” including Arnold Palmer, and they withdrew the proposal.

Then, in 2015, the secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said he wanted the park system to start paying for itself. As a result, staffers proposed adding activities that previously had been banned, such as hunting, cattle grazing and timber harvesting. A backlash quickly forced a reconsideration.

Nevertheless, the pace of new park creation has slowed in recent years as the state has switched to buying the land-development rights to environmentally sensitive lands instead of buying the ownership of the land, said Henderson. Still, those purchases help protect the current state parks.

“Right now, the biggest threat to our public lands is all the development around them,” said Marianne Gengenbach, a former employee of the Florida DEP’s Division of State Lands who’s now an analyst for the Florida House of Representatives. (She likes Dr. Julian G. Bruce St. George Island State Park near Apalachicola for its beaches, and Myakka River State Park near Sarasota for its Old Florida vibe.)

For people who want to do more than just visit the parks, Linafelt said, there are 81 parks that have citizen support groups. Usually they have names like “Friends of the Such-and-So Park.” 

“There are people who really care about these places,” he said.

For proof, look at what happened at Honeymoon Island State Park.

Honeymoon Island State Park was spared further development by local residents and remains a quiet preserve. Photography courtesy of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater.

If the Honeymoon Is Over, I Want a Divorce.

Honeymoon Island State Park near Dunedin has long been the most popular park in the Florida system, drawing more than one million people a year. They come to search for shells along the beach, catch fish from the gulf, hike through the slash pines and spot birds soaring overhead.

Prior to 1921, it was known as Hog Island, so named because it was owned by a man who supposedly raised them there—although there were rumors he was actually a rumrunner. 

Then, in the 1930s, an entrepreneur named Clinton Washburn bought it and built 50 honeymoon cottages, along with a recreational hall with a dance pavilion, a chapel, a water tower and a community house with toilets, showers and lavatories. He’s the one who came up with the park’s current name.

Only 164 honeymooning couples launched their marriages there, though, because love soon gave way to World War II. After that, only defense contractors used the place—one of them to test an amphibious vehicle for the war. Afterward, the romantic getaway was in shambles.

In the 1960s, a developer envisioned turning the island into a dredge-and-fill subdivision with housing for 16,000. Fortunately, his dredge plans ran into practical difficulties, his permit expired and in 1974, Florida began buying up the property and eventually opened the park in 1981.

Despite Honeymoon Island’s popularity as a park, it was only occupied during the day. When the sun went down, everyone had to leave. There was no overnight camping.

Thirteen years ago, Florida park officials proposed changing that. They wouldn’t just allow tent camping. They wanted to hire a private contractor to design, build and operate an RV camping facility. That would include new roads for the RVs, new bathrooms and other facilities.

The idea came from a desire by DEP officials to help with then-Gov. Rick Scott’s promise to create 700,000 jobs in seven years, but they worked to make it sound like a wholesome development.

“Camping and state parks go together,” said the Florida State Parks director at the time, “like graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows.”

Environmental groups objected to the damage that such a change would cause, but the loudest cries of outrage came from Dunedin residents. Hundreds showed up for a public hearing, waving signs and banners that said, “Save the Park,” “Don’t Pave Paradise” and “If the Honeymoon Is Over, I Want a Divorce.” 

Before the hearing started, the crowd began chanting, “Save our park!” During the hearing, not one speaker spoke in favor of what the DEP wanted to do. People cheered for one man who called for forming a human barricade against any RVs ever entering Honeymoon Island.

Scott, who had enthusiastically supported the DEP’s plans before the hearing, changed his tune and said no. Honeymoon remains closed to camping.

“The lesson for the DEP was the general public’s knowledge of their park resources and their desire to protect them,” Gengenbach, the former DEP official, said. “It was a sense of ownership: ‘We paid to protect this land for us and for future generations, so don’t mess it up.’”

The 132-step boardwalk at Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park overlooks the sinkhole. Photography courtesy of Visit Gainesville, Alachua County.

Tom Petty’s Paradise

At Devil’s Millhopper, the weekly tours are led by someone who cares so much about the parks they volunteer their services: retired biologist Mark Spiller.

On our tour, Spiller pointed out the wide variety of wildlife that frequents the park. A host of animal pawprints appeared in the mud at the bottom of the chasm, and a solitary turtle cruised back and forth. Meanwhile, he showed us where bobcats were building a den high up on one side, and he told us about encountering a bear near the top.

He also pointed out the small waterfalls that trickled down the sides of the sinkhole, and the stream that flows into a crevice at the bottom, meaning it runs into the aquifer.

When it comes to parks where you descend into wonder, Sandra Friend, who co-runs the “Florida Hikes!” website, said she much prefers the airy delights in Devil’s Millhopper to the darkness inside Florida Caverns State Park.

Early settlers gave the sinkhole its unusual name because they found bones and teeth—including shark’s teeth—scattered at the bottom. Back then, a hopper was something used to funnel grain to a gristmill. The settlers claimed the bones were proof that this was a place where bodies were fed to the devil.

The curious came to gaze upon this marvel for almost 100 years before it became a state park in 1974. Gainesville native Tom Petty once told MTV that when he was in high school, Devil’s Millhopper was a popular makeout spot for local teens. Some less savory activities occurred there, too.

“In the 1970s, this place became a popular place for long-haired hippies to hang out,” said Spiller who lives nearby. Then he added, “I have to confess I was one of them.”

Spiller, who visits the park every day, doesn’t miss those days. Back then people slid down the sides any way they could, causing further erosion to the walls. When they were ready to leave, they would claw their way back to the top, often damaging the plants that grew along the sides, he said.

Picnic, camp or take a break along the trails at Big Talbot Island State Park. Photography by Josh Letchworth.

Once it became a state park, the park staff built a wooden stairway for easier access, although the steps could be treacherous, especially when wet. Then Hurricane Irma hit, he said, dumping so much rain over the park that the water level rose at least 60 feet and wiped out the stairs. The staff rebuilt the stairs to be less steep and made them from a material that doesn’t rot and offers better traction.

However, the new staircase stops well short of reaching the bottom of the sinkhole. The reason? With the old stairs, people would jump the railing and pilfer fossils still visible in the mud, he said. Now, he pointed out, the stairs end at a platform that’s mostly surrounded by poison ivy, a natural deterrent for trespassers.

While leading his tour, Spiller always points out the more subtle aspects of the park, such as the fact that the sinkhole has its own thermal air currents that circle upward. They tend to attract migrating birds to circle overhead before continuing their journey.

He also tells his tour participants that gravity continues to exert its power. Spiller’s seen evidence that the ground beneath one of the observation decks built at the top of the stairs will, in a few years, start to slide down toward the bottom of the sinkhole.

The biggest problem facing Devil’s Millhopper, he said, is its neighbors. There are six other parks within walking distance, but there’s also lots of suburban growth creeping closer and closer.

“This used to be the epicenter for research on the dusky salamander,” he said. 

University of Florida biologists would come to Devil’s Millhopper to study them, and that went on for years. “Then the first neighborhood was built next door in 1978, and by 1980 the dusky salamander had disappeared from here. They haven’t been seen here since.”

Paddle past manatees at Manatee Springs State Park. Photography courtesy of Florida State Parks.

Gilchrist Opens the Gates

A 30-minute drive northwest from Devil’s Millhopper, about 5 miles outside the town of High Springs, is Florida’s newest park, the Ruth B. Kirby Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park

The park consists of a collection of remarkably clear springs and includes not just Gilchrist Blue Spring, which produces 44 million gallons of water per day, but also Little Blue Spring, Naked Spring, Kiefer Spring and Johnson Spring. 

“Redbreast and spotted sunfish, largemouth bass, bluegill and channel catfish can be observed in waters with unparalleled visibility,” the park’s website boasts.

Visitors flock to the park to go snorkeling and swimming, or to picnic and relax on the slopes that lead down to the main spring. On weekends the parking lot fills up fast, and when they reach capacity, the staff closes the gate for the day.

Canoeists and kayakers love to venture down the quarter-mile spring run, which connects to the Santa Fe River. Where they meet, the tea-dark river water merges with the crystal-clear blue spring water.

Most of the visitors have no idea who Ruth Kirby was or how her name wound up on this park. It’s quite a story.

In the 1950s, the spring belonged to a St. Petersburg business mogul named Ed C. Wright. He owned some 20,000 acres spread across 20 counties. A short and solid man, he called himself a “speculator.” He’d made a fortune investing in municipal bonds, railroad stock and radio stations.

Kirby was his secretary. Wright hired her from a secretarial pool for a day of filing papers. When he asked the young woman to take a letter, he was impressed by how quickly she worked and how meticulous she was. He hired her full time on the spot.

This place became a popular place for long-haired hippies to hang out. I was one of them.
—Mark Spiller

A reserved woman in a pageboy haircut, her duties included listening in on many of her boss’s phone calls and taking notes. Soon she was trading bonds and buying land as well. She did well enough that she kept a stable full of horses to ride and drove a gold Cadillac.

What few knew was that the pair were more than just boss and secretary. They were involved in a secret love affair.

According to Kirby’s family, Wright gave her the deed to Gilchrist Blue Springs as an engagement gift. Yet the couple never made it down the aisle. Every time they set a date, Wright got cold feet and found an excuse to avoid wedlock.

In 1969, a stumble on some stairs left Wright with a serious head injury. When he died, unmarried and childless at age 77, his will named her executor of his $50 million estate. She became one of Florida’s most powerful wheeler-dealers, negotiating land sales to major developers or to the state for property that she thought should be preserved. 

Meanwhile, though, she hung onto tranquil Gilchrist Blue Springs. She built a diving dock and boardwalk, then charged the public a dime for admission. Gilchrist Blue Springs quickly became popular. People loved to walk to the end of the dock and, in the words of artist Margaret Tolbert, “jump off into wonderland.”

Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park near Miami was on the southern leg of the Underground Railroad. Photography courtesy of Florida State Parks.

Kirby recruited her nephew to move his family there from Tampa and operate the attraction. After she died in 1989 at age 78, her family labored to keep the springs looking the way Great Aunt Ruth wanted them to, but when Kirby’s nephew and his wife both died, their children—who had worked there throughout their childhood—put the place up for sale. In 2017, Florida bought the 407-acre parcel for $5.25 million.

“Since then,” said Robert L. Knight of the Howard T. Odum Florida Springs Institute, “the park service people are doing everything they can to make the spring a nice natural resource.” They tore out the boardwalk and diving platform, which he said had become decrepit, and are now working on the landscape around the springs, too. 

Unfortunately, he said, consumption by a controversial water bottler is sucking lots of water from the same aquifer that supplies the springs. As a result, he said, “the springs have lost roughly a third of their flow.” Meanwhile, thanks to rampant fertilizer use in the region, “it has the highest nitrate level of any major spring on the Santa Fe River.”

Still, the park avoided a major disaster last year. A sinkhole (not unlike Devil’s Millhopper, but smaller) opened up under Gilchrist Blue Springs. Suddenly, the water level in the spring dropped about a foot and a half, and its treasured clarity disappeared.

“The whole spring went dirty, cloudy,” Knight said. “They didn’t know what was going on, and they chased all the people out of the water.” But it cleared up over the next 12 hours, and as a result, the volume of the spring rose to its normal level.

Knight, who has studied springs for decades, said, “We’ve never seen anything like that before.”

The institute is still keeping a close eye on Gilchrist Blue Springs, as is its sister organization, the Florida Springs Council. With the permission of a neighboring landowner and financial help from the council, nature photographer John Moran has posted a series of Burma Shave-style signs along the entrance road to the park. They bear slogans such as, “Less Water Used/At Home and Farm/Protects Our Springs/From Further Harm” and “Love Our Springs?/Then Let’s Be Wise/Resist the Urge/To Fertilize.”

Then, at the last turn before entering the parking lot, there’s a small billboard that says, “Seeks Caring Relationship with Responsible Adults –Florida.” You could apply that sentiment to any park in the state, even the devilish ones. 

Purchase our print collector’s edition of the Summer 2024 Adventure Issue for an exclusive Florida State Parks map by A.B. Newton and Company.