We recently went camping with a small group of retired co-workers — some I have known for more than forty years. The group, organized about five years ago, mostly camp in Florida and always during the winter months. Grammi and I usually take our camping trips spring through fall — so up until now, we have not gone. We have often thought about joining this group’s camping adventures. Certainly, there are few things better than sitting around a campfire in the evening sharing stories, laughing, and enjoying the company of friends. So we decided to give it a go.
We left on a Sunday morning for a 5½ hour drive to Falling Waters State Park located in the Florida panhandle. A cold front was moving toward Florida and we hoped to find our site and get set up before the rains arrived. The campground is small with only 24 electric/water sites. There is only one road in the campground with a loop turnaround at the end. A dump station located between sites 3 and 4 is not nearly far enough away from the campsites. I would avoid those sites if possible. Nearly all the sites are shaded and they are somewhat close together. The bathhouse is clean and well maintained with tiled shower stalls. Overall, this campground consistently receives great reviews.
I neglected to take into account the hour gained when we passed the time zone line. If I had thought of it, I may have stopped for lunch. Nonetheless, our early arrival was not a problem. Check-in went smoothly. The lady at the gate was friendly and helpful. We were on site 7 which was one of the more spacious sites. We set up quickly. Unfolding the lawn chairs was the last chore before sitting down for a rest. One-by-one we waved and tipped our glass as the rest of the group arrived. After everyone was set up, we had about an hour for a meet and greet before the rains came.
We ran for our camper as the wind picked up. We made it inside just before the clouds let loose. It is concerning to be under the trees during a storm. We have seen first-hand what can happen. As it was, the wind shook the camper and some falling hickory nuts made it sound as if our roof was crashing in. I stayed alert and watched the weather radar app on my phone, waiting for the worst to pass before slipping into bed. The pitter-patter from rain hitting the camper was the last thing I remember hearing before dozing off.
In the morning I stepped outside and was met with a blast of cold air. An occasional gust of wind shook water droplets from the foliage above. Brrr! Damp and cold — not a good combination. At least the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. Things should improve a little by midday, but temperatures are expected to remain chilly.
Grammi and I donned our cold weather attire and set out for a walk. Let’s see who else braved the frigid morning. A trail from the campground meandered down a hill to a small two acre lake. We saw a sand beach with a roped off area for swimming, but it was much too cold for that. There were also some picnic tables, covered pavilions, a playground and restroom facility. One can only imagine this to be a great place to enjoy a summer afternoon.
What do you know. We were not the only folks out this morning. Gary was walking his two dogs and had stopped to talk to Brad and Dawn. Brad is retired from another fire department in another county but has hooked up with this group because of Gary. Gary organizes the group. He is the right person for that role. He is friendly and outgoing. The kind of person that has never met a stranger. I met Gary when he first joined the department way back when. We worked on different shifts and on opposite ends of the county so our paths seldom crossed. Nonetheless, when they did, he greeted me like a long lost brother.
We walked back up the hill to the campground. It was just enough exercise to get the heart pounding and the blood flowing. It was time for breakfast. Something quick. Something simple. Something to help warm the insides. A bowl of oats with blueberries did the trick. After breakfast I called Danny to invite him and his wife Dee to spend the day with us.
Danny, a Vietnam veteran, was one of the first to join the county fire department back when it was established. His badge number is not a single digit, but it is close. Danny was my first friend on the job. When I was a rookie firefighter, he took me under his wing. His tutorage and encouragement helped get my career started. That was in 1978. He has not changed. He is still the same kind and caring person that I knew then.
The main attraction at Falling Waters State Park is of course the falling water — a rare sight in the state of Florida. A boardwalk along Sink Hole Trail leads to a creek fed waterfall plummeting 73 feet into a 20-foot diameter cylindrical pit. It is the tallest waterfall in the state. An observation deck is close enough to see down into the pit where the water disappears into an underground cave. The creek had swelled from the overnight rains. Danny, Dee, Grammi and myself were fortunate to see a spectacular sight. Oh…it was not a river of water, but by Florida waterfall standards — it was a deluge.
Seeing a waterfall in Florida is certainly a strange sight, but that is not the only geological oddity nearby. What would you say if I told you that just thirty minutes away are some dry natural caves ready to explore? You might say I was crazy because Florida is flat and too close to sea level. The caves in Florida are flooded with water, right? So unless you are scuba certified and have a death wish, you will probably never explore a Florida cave. Well…here in the state’s panhandle where elevations can reach 300-feet above sea level, it is different. Dee, Danny, Grammi, and myself just had to go check out this rare Florida spelunking adventure.
Florida Cavern State Park offers guided cave tours five days a week from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. The cost for the tour is $10.75 for adults and $5.00 for children ages 3 to 12. That is in addition to the $5.00 per vehicle entrance fee into the park. The caverns are closed Tuesday, Wednesday, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Tickets can only be purchased in person at the Florida Caverns Gift Shop on a first-come, first-served basis.
As we entered the cave, the first thing we noticed was the temperature change. A consistent year-round 65-degrees is likely a cool refuge from the summer heat, but on this cold winter day we shed our jackets. Compared to the upper forty degrees outside, inside the cave actually felt warm. And the humidity — oh my! The limestone ceilings were dripping because of the earlier rain.
We passed through a dozen cave rooms where we would stop as the tour guild describe the formations and shared some fun facts. One room I remember was the Wedding Room where we saw a formation resembling a wedding cake. The tour guild said there have been weddings performed in the cave and it was available if anyone was interested.
Many of the passages between rooms had ceiling heights as low as 4½-feet. It was amusing to hear the groans from people as they duck-walked and limboed through the passage and then hit there head on a rock, even after being warned. Not surprisingly, I was one of them. To make matters worse, the floor was damp and slippery. Very slippery! How do I know? Let me just say I apologize for grabbing that stalagmite after several warnings not to. It was either that or slidding headfirst into it.
The tour lasted about 45-minutes. The cave was decorated with many interesting formations. The colorful lighting highlighted the cave beautifully. Despite the sore head we enjoyed this tour very much. It was worth the visit.
Florida Caverns State Park was devastated by hurricane Michael in October of 2018. More than 90% of the trees were destroyed and the parks infrastructure was severely damaged. The park was closed for months afterward and the campground didn’t reopen until three years later. Before leaving the park, we drove through the campground. Though the trees are gone, the sites are newly rebuilt. We have never camped here before, but always wanted to. It was good to see it open again. This is and alway has been a popular place to camp.
That night we all gathered around the group fire pit located in the center of the turnaround. We kept a large fire burning. It was cold and we tried our best to huddle around it, but it was hard to get close enough to stay warm with so many people trying to do the same thing. Some of the women brought blankets to curl up in. Still, stories were told, laughter ensued, and a good time was had by all. Soon however, we called it a night.
The next day we stayed inside the park. We went on a bike ride, we went on a hike. Grammi was shivering. She said she could not get herself warm, so I started a campfire at our campsite in the middle of the afternoon. Before you knew it, one-by-one, we had the whole group join us around the fire.
Falling Waters State Park and Florida Caverns State Park are two hidden gems located not far from Interstate 10. They have interesting features that are most certainly worth checking out. It was a fun three days. It was nice sharing good times with people we know and it is not over yet. In the morning, we all pull up stakes and head to another state park for three more days. That will be the subject of the next blog post.
So until then — Happy days and safe travels.