Four Days on Florida’s Adventure Coast
You usually wouldn’t catch me looking for a hike on a sultry summer morning. Yet that’s exactly what happened as summer was waning last September. John was on a group paddle on the Bayport-Linda Pedersen Paddling Trail. Having summoned up enough courage -- I am not a strong paddler -- to take on the Weeki Wachee River the day before, I knew going into the coastal estuary would be over my head, literally and skills-wise. So we each took off on our own to do a little adventuring.
We don’t do that often, but Florida’s Adventure Coast gave us plenty of places to pick from for outdoor recreation. With Brooksville the center of scheduled activities and workshops during our annual Florida Outdoor Writers Conference, we figured showing up a few days beforehand and staying a day after would give us lots of time to get to know the region better.
The whispers were that the Good Neighbor Trail -- a crucial new link in the Florida Coast to Coast Trail -- might be open in time for our arrival, so we loaded up the bikes for this trip, along with our daypacks, hiking poles, and PFDs. On our way to our hotel, we confirmed that the Good Neighbor Trail had a trailhead at the 1885 Train Depot Museum on Russell Street, so we returned the next morning to give it a spin.
John wrote a nice article on our ride. It took 10.1 miles of pedaling -- uphill both ways, as I joked, unaccustomed to rolling hills on our side of the state -- to reach its intersection with the Withlacoochee State Trail. After a long rest on a bench near the trail junction, I was ready for the return trip. By the time we returned to the depot, we’d tallied 20.2 miles, my longest ride to date.
Since the historic depot had opened while we were out on the trail, we took the time to tour it on our return. That’s where we found a map of the “Brooksville Short,” a train line built to haul timber out of Croom. It showed exactly the route we’d just cycled. Biking is still not my strong suit, so I appreciated having a dedicated bike path to do those miles on, especially since there were a limited number of road crossings to tangle with.
The one in town at US 98 was the toughest, since motorists pay no attention to cyclists wanting to cross. But standing there as long as we did, I noticed the Coney Island Drive Inn hot dog stand and suggested we make that our lunch stop. I knew it had been a local landmark since I was a kid, but I sure didn’t expect to come face-to-face with a velvet Elvis in the ladies room!
Spring Hill Serenity
Under a tightly-knit canopy of the gnarled branches of sand live oaks, the winding walkways led us this way and that. First they showcased bromeliads, then an Oriental Tea Garden with giant stands of bamboo, and eventually led to native plantings. With dense understory plantings, each garden within the greater gardens stood apart, and yet melded together. This was our introduction to the Nature Coast Botanical Gardens, an oasis of green and blooms amid the sea of subdivisions that is Spring Hill.
What surprised me is that it went on and on, the outer fences cleverly hidden by plantings. When I registered a mile of walking beneath the trees and the gardens, it was a testament to the amount of twists and turns and loops planned across the planted four-plus acres that the Spring Hill Garden Club has maintained since 1994.
Circling back into the Fantasy Garden, I marveled at the intricate mosaic work hidden within. Volunteers had taken great care to place it among the plantings -- the Hernando Computer Club circa 2012 -- their names inscribed on one of the many ceramic leaves that made up the “forest floor.”
We peeked across the plantings at the nursery, which wouldn’t open for another day or two. I regretted it wasn’t the weekend, since not only was the nursery closed, but the garden train wouldn’t run until then. It was my Dad’s dream to have his own garden train in a garden in the yard. I wondered if he’d ever seen this one, wound around the waterfall as it was.
Waterful, Wonderful Weeki Wachee
Family memories run deep through the crystalline waters of Weeki Wachee Springs. I toddled down the pathways the first time my parents took me there, amid the fuss and bother about a brand-new movie, The Incredible Mr. Limpet, that premiered in the underwater theater and featured one of their favorite actors, Don Knotts. We returned many times over the years as our family grew, so it was a relief to me when the State of Florida stepped in and turned this classic attraction into a state park.
Our group enjoyed our own dinner and a show with the mermaids the night before, just in time to watch dusk settle over the spring-fed river. This morning, it was time to take up a paddle and kayak down the river.
After several spills with paddling partners, I’ve become somewhat nervous about kayaking. But I knew the Weeki Wachee to be spring-fed and shallow, and I hoped I’d find sandbars along the way where I could stop and rest. All of this turned out to be true.
John grew up on the water, so he paddled circles around us all to get some great photos of the trip. He also had the strength and dexterity to paddle back upstream when a friend fell in and needed assistance. He decided to swap kayaks with another paddler and propel our friend downstream, since she wasn’t confident on the water. I wasn’t either, but after a while, swinging back and forth through the many sinuous curves, I found my paddling pace.
When the river became residential on its northern bank, it widened and deepened, which meant I had to pay more attention to where I was going. Signs pointed the way to Rogers Park, the take-out point along Shoal Line Road.
After the paddle, our group regrouped at Mary’s Fish Camp, a quiet retreat towards Bayport. Established in 1946, Mary’s usually doesn’t have food on hand, but the Florida Cracker Kitchen catered a meal for us, served up along water’s edge. While John sat down to chat with friends, I tagged along on a mini-tour of the campground and cabins, delighted to see such outdoorsy accommodations along another spring-fed waterway, the Mud River.
A Tale of Two Tastings
As our bus kept heading down the ever-narrowing dirt road through Chassahowitzka WMA, splashing through puddles along the way, I started looking at maps on my phone. Where on earth could we be going? I finally felt like I needed to pipe up and mention that we were headed for a locked gate on the south edge of the refuge. And I almost did. But we turned and tunneled even deeper into the wild, coming to a gate. A sign said NJoy Spirits, which was not at all what I expected. Yes, I knew we were headed for a distillery. But inside Chassahowitzka?
Makers of Wild Buck Whiskey, Mermaid Rum, and Ryes in Shine, Natalie Joy and Kevin Goff are running this family operation on an inholding in the refuge, an old hunt camp. It’s a “grain to glass” distillery, as the couple pointed out. “We grow and harvest our own grains, all by hand,” said Kevin, who proceeded to show us around what looked like a stable but housed the key components for distilling, including a copper pot from Portugal, an open-top cypress fermenter, and a milk tank used as a cooler.
Wild Buck Whiskey goes into the barrels -- which come from a Kentucky cooperage -- at 100 proof. They sit at 140 degrees inside shipping containers until they’re ready. The recipe for the rye mash that the whisky is made from came from Natalie’s father -- “it’s not so much a recipe as that we used his temperatures,” Kevin said. “Low and slow is the best way to make whiskey.”
In the other room, Natalie set up some pre-mixed cocktails for us to try. While neither John nor I are drinkers, we’ve learned that when you’re in the presence of hand-crafted spirits, you give them their due. I had a definite preference for the rum. The sugar cane grown here came from St. Croix. Natalie and Kevin use rainwater -- run through reverse osmosis -- to blend with the cane juice, pressed through a 1938 crusher. Once in the barrel, at 102 proof or so, it sits for a good year, wafting off the angel’s share before it is ready. Their moonshine was a bit too strong for me, but John enjoyed it all. Like the rest of our tour group -- and yes, you do need to visit the distillery with a group or during one of their events -- we laid out some cash for a bottle of each to take home to share with friends.
After the bus found its way back out of Chassahowitzka, it was time for tasting part two: a visit to Marker 48 Brewing. The only craft brewer in the region, they focus on beer. We started with a tour of the brewery, which brought back a lot of memories -- I spent several years working for the Pittsburgh Brewing Company. Show up on a Saturday afternoon and the brewmaster will walk you through the production facility and storage cellar, which patrons can peek into if they look under the long tables of the tasting room.
Sour beer is a new concept since I was into the beer scene, so I duly marked one on my list for the tasting flight, along with a stout called Mermaid’s Milk. Having been a regular member of the Iron City taste test team -- a young female employee who didn’t smoke -- my taste buds recollected distinguishing hoppy flavors and bitter flavors. Sour was a new taste entirely, and it didn’t sit as well with me as the stout, which I finished.
While I was tasting, John -- who never drinks beer, but tried the sangria -- was photographing. He may have been the only one in our group who discovered the massive beer garden outside.
Now that I knew about the distillery in Chassahowitzka WMA, revisiting the two hiking loops there -- the Cypress Circle and Wild Turkey Trace -- was at the top of my list. After all, what a fun new fact to slip into a hiking trail writeup!
But when I arrived at the gate, there was a flurry of activity, and a man dressed in orange at the Hunt Check station. I knew what that meant. It was Saturday morning. Still, I stepped out of the car and asked. Deer hunting season had gotten underway this morning, a good two weeks before I’d expected. I had no orange clothing with me, so it was time to head on to my Plan B hike.
Centralia figured heavily into the region’s past, being a place where timber was milled into lumber. There isn’t much left of it now except the name, so east on Centralia Road I headed to find Annutteliga Hammock. It turns out there are two pieces of public land that both have this name, and this wasn’t the one I had on my hit list. Managed by Southwest Florida Water Management District, the Annutteliga Hammock Conservation Area in Centralia had trails optimized for equestrian use. I walked in about a mile, turning around when I ran into water across the trail.
Next stop was Fickett Hammock Preserve, also along Centralia Road. I’d been unable to find a map of it, so I had no idea how long the hike might be, and it was starting to get hot. Summer, remember? So I started along the blazes I found at the parking area. It didn’t take long to be immersed in a forest of very tall trees, providing deep shade. I added mosquito repellent and kept walking.
Several years ago, Boy Scout Troop 71 from Brooksville built a bridge along the trail, which I found near a fork in the footpath. I took the inner loop, figuring it would be shorter. The trail paralleled the stream. Rampant with summer growth, it was tricky to follow in places, but eventually offered some nice views down into the gully eroded by the waterway. When I found my way back out, I discovered another trail coming in from the right. An outer loop, perhaps?
After that hour in the woods, I thought I’d make one more stop, dependent on water levels. It had rained a lot lately, and so I saw swamps nosing up to the edge of back roads and threatening to spill across them. No such worry along Chinsegut Hill, some of the highest elevations in the county. Since it was Saturday morning and the nature center was open -- it’s only open on Friday and Saturday mornings -- I made use of its parking area to go exploring. John and I had been here the year before while working on our 50 Hikes in Central Florida research, but my last visit to the nature center was with my parents nearly a decade before.
Walking down to May’s Prairie -- my favorite spot in Chinsegut WEA -- I found orange blazes! I knew that the Florida Trail had finally, officially been blazed along the route we’d suggested in the Florida Trail App. But this was a new trail. It led towards the southwest corner of the preserve, so naturally, I had to check it out. Score a surprise trail relocation to add to the app. This diagonal trail up to Snow Hill Rd cuts off a half mile of roadwalk that once led hikers out past the nature center, through the back gate, and up the road.
When I was almost to May’s Prairie, I heard the distinctive “grunk grunk” of a baby alligator. I moved slowly down the boardwalk. It took some careful searching, but I was able to find the little ones camoflaged against the backdrop of roots and logs and bark in the swamp. I was grateful for the boardwalk, as I never did figure out where Mama Gator was hiding.
A Parting Ride
Our last afternoon at the conference kept us busy with group activities, so we opted to stay an extra night. We wanted to squeeze in one more bike ride on our way home, this time on the Withlacoochee State Trail. Since more than 30 miles of this paved bike path slice through the region, we had a tough time deciding which trailhead to choose until I pointed out that it would be worth riding up to the Good Neighbor Trail intersection from a direction I was unfamiliar with, Nobleton. Nearly 20 years before, I hiked the then-brand-new Western Corridor of the Florida Trail through this region, and at the time, it directed hikers up the east side of the Withlacoochee River and met the Withlacoochee State Trail at Nobleton. The route has since changed and now goes where I hiked at Chinsegut the day before.
Since there were so many friends to chat with as we all had breakfast and checked out of the hotel, we got a late start. In Florida, in summer, that means it gets hot. Fortunately, when you’re riding a bike, that doesn’t matter as much. We make our own breeze.
On our way to Nobleton, we passed Dino Butt. For those of you who haven’t driven Lake Lindsay Road through Hernando County, there are two landmarks of note. At the corner with Snow Hill Road, the Lake Lindsay Mall’s slogan is “Coldest Beer in the Boondocks.” Pull yourself up a chair and sit outside.
On the edge of Nobleton, a rear end of a brontosaurus will catch your attention. Years ago, when I looked into why there was only half a dinosaur, I uncovered a story about a local sculptor by the name August Herwede, who lived right behind it. Seems he went to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City and, like myself, saw the Sinclair Dinoland exhibit there. He came home and started sculpting his own creatures in his yard. He injured himself while working on this one and never recovered.
The Withlacoochee State Trail slices right through Lake Townsen Preserve in Nobleton, and it, like a lot of other parks this summer, was soggy around the edges. We didn’t try to go down to the lake, but we did start heading south on the paved trail, which crosses CR 476 very quickly and continues down towards Croom. It’s a railroad corridor, so it starts out behind residences in Nobleton and parallels a road for a stretch. But once it was in the woods, a bench with a sign caught our interest. Time for a hike! The short walk was well worth the view across the Withlacoochee River.
The next stretch of trail offered some peeks out into river swamps and eventually became a long causeway flanked by swamps. When it reached the high, dry sandhills, we knew we’d gotten to Croom. Much more quickly than expected, 5.6 miles flew past. Today, the signs were up and the Good Neighbor Trail was officially open. Cyclists saw it and headed down it. Who doesn’t like to explore a new trail?
On the return trip, we found out the folly of a late start. The sky fell. I had a rain jacket with me, but it would be no match for the torrents coming down. I was dripping wet before I even thought of it, and we had nowhere to get out of the rain. Then the thunder and lightning began.
“What do we do?” I yelled to John, as I pedaled as fast as I could. I think I hit 18 MPH for a brief stretch.
“Ride!” he said, and kept on taking pictures.
When we got back to the car, the storm was over. Thankfully, we had our luggage with us, so spare dry clothes were at hand. We both changed out of our sodden shirts and pants before heading into Nobleton for lunch at Riverside Restaurant before we continued home.
Plan Your Journey
Discover the outdoors of Florida’s Adventure Coast with our guide to what’s where