On the northern edge of Gainesville, Devil’s Millhopper Geologic State Park showcases a geologic formation known to generations of visitors to the area. You’d think you were in the Amazon, or Hawaii, when you hear and see the tumbling cascades behind a screen of dense vegetation. But the ephemeral waterfalls that occur at Devil’s Millhopper are just one of the delights to be found in this small but intriguing state park.
It takes 232 steps to walk to the bottom of this 500-foot-wide, 120-foot-deep sinkhole. Each landing reveals a new layer of forest, each crack and crevice a bounty of botanical wonders. No matter what time of year you visit, the creek tumbles down into the abyss through a succession of rock outcroppings, but the best time to visit is after a heavy rain, when tall waterfalls gush down the sides of the sinkhole. A 0.9-mile trail rings the top of the sinkhole, leading you through habitats very different than what you’ll find below.
Length: 0.9 mile
Lat-Long: 29.705809, -82.394255
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: moderate to challenging
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
Open 8 AM to 5 PM. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays.
There is a visitor center with an orientation film and restrooms, plus picnic benches out at the parking area. Be cautious of poison ivy, which is prevalent along the sides of the footpath. Except in winter, mosquitoes are always intense here.
From I-75, take Gainesville exit 390 and head east into Gainesville on SR 222 for 3.4 miles, passing Santa Fe Community College. Turn left at the traffic light for NW 43rd Street. Drive 1 mile to NW 53rd Ave (Millhopper Road) and turn left. The park is on the right within 0.3 mile.
From the parking area, follow the paved path past the ranger station and around the interpretive center, where several exhibits provide interpretation of the geology and cultural history of the Devils Millhopper. A short film is offered in an open-air theater. The paved trail becomes a hard-packed sand path under the hickory and loblolly pine. When you reach the T intersection, turn right—my personal preference, so the plunge down the sinkhole is the last part of the hike.
If the water table is high, you’ll hear the sound of running water, a good indicator that you’ll see waterfalls later in this walk. The hardwood forest is heavy on oaks and hickories, so when the leaves are on the trees, you can’t see the sinkhole for the forest. But you can certainly feel its presence, off to the left, where fencing discourages drawing close to the edge. The trail winds past a communications tower and into a scrub forest, where silk bay and rusty lyonia are among the larger shrubs in the understory. There are frequent benches along this topside nature trail, so it’s not a challenge for folks with limited mobility.
After a half mile, you reach a bridge over a ravine that wouldn’t look out of place in the Great Smoky Mountains. It carries a creek steeply downhill towards the sinkhole. A few moments later, you’re at the top of the landing for the climb down into Devil’s Millhopper. If you feel up to the 232-step challenge – and there are many landings along the way to rest – go for it! You’ll be glad you did. The staircase begins by paralleling the creek, which tumbles down a series of rock outcroppings.
As you drop deeper into the sinkhole, the landings afford better panoramas of the inside of this unique world. Listen for the sound of water and look towards it to be rewarded with views of the various tall cascades that pour out of the water table when water is plentiful. They tumble down the rocky sides of the sinkhole behind the lush plants and trees. Look closely at plants on the ledges. Some of the more unusual species found down here are wakerobin, a variety of trillium that blooms in late winter, and needle palms, which are more frequently found along humid spring runs.
At the very bottom, the boardwalk jogs to the left and passes a cascade on the left. To the right, there’s a sweeping view of the sinkhole’s bottom, with its willow marsh. Water vanishes into a crack in the earth beyond. One final rise in the boardwalk provides access to a bench with a view.
There’s no other way to go but up, so after a bit of exploring and enjoying, start your way back up the staircase. At the top, turn left to finish off the nature trail loop; you’ll encounter the exit on your right.
For more information, visit the Devils’s Millhopper website