The weather during my annual early March spring break is often cold in my home state of Tennessee. So my south Florida friend, Lynda Rehse, and I decided to meet in three state parks where we hoped the weather would be perfect. The ideal time to ride Florida is early spring to avoid heat and insects, and to enjoy wildflowers and budding trees. Our goal was to ride in the parks and a national wildlife refuge, plus fill in a few adventures along the route.
Ready to Ride
We trailered our Tennessee Walking Horses from our respective homes on a Friday, with plans to meet at the Coldwater Recreation Area in the Blackwater River State Forest near the towns of Milton and Munson. Coldwater has 72 stalls and 60 paddocks, plus 62 campsites with full amenities. The 190,000-acre forest occupies the western part of the Florida panhandle.
Lynda and her 6-year-old spotted Walking Horse gelding, Tonto, arrived before I did, with my 3-year-old palomino Walking Horse gelding, Ransom, in tow. By the time I got there, Lynda had picked out our campsite and stalls, and was ready to ride. The forest's clay and sand trails traverse the largest stand of long leaf pines in America. There are a number of sandy-bottom streams in the area; juniper and oak trees dot the forest.
We rode Saturday and Sunday in the Blackwater. On our last evening, as we were roasting hot dogs and marshmallows, a former resident of my hometown of Lynnville, Tennessee, pulled into our camp to invite us to her home for a trail ride and lunch on Monday.
Lindsey Burns had served as huntsman for the Mell's Foxhunt in Lynnville prior to relocating to the edge of Blackwater Forest. She led us on a super ride, pointing out blueberry bushes, pitcher plants, and a beaver dam. Lunch on her back deck consisted of 15-bean soup and homemade bread that filled the air with a wonderful aroma. We hated to say good-bye to Lindsey, but we needed to drive to the Florida Caverns State Park before dark.
Caves, Camping, and Wildlife
Florida Caverns is a small, scenic state park located near Mariana. We were the only people in the equestrian section on Monday evening. Riding is limited, with just eight miles of riding on the Upper Chipola trails, but quite beautiful. This is an area of sinkholes, abundant white lilies, and a swimming hole that's spring fed and perfectly clear. (No horses allowed.) You'll find a visitor's center and film for your camera, plus tours of the caverns.
Our next destination was O'Leno State Park near High Springs. O'Leno is difficult to access. To get to the equestrian campground, you need to pick up a key and a map at the main campground, then drive approximately four miles. But once inside, outstanding horse facilities await. You'll find spacious barn stalls and warm-water wash racks - and 30 miles of trails. Again, Lynda and I were the only inhabitants of the campground. Tonto and Ransom had the barn to themselves.
We chose to ride on the 16-mile outer loop that took us by the spot where the river that had disappeared underground a half-mile away suddenly pops up at the spot labeled "river rise." On this ride, we came eye-to-eye with a deer that stood nonchalantly by the trail, and detoured around an opossum that was "playing possum" right in our path.
Ranching and Roping
We had no definite destination for Wednesday, but we wanted to head north and west; we ended up on the Gulf of Mexico. Lynda made a few calls and lined up accommodations at the Wellborn Quarter Horse ranch in Wellborn, between Lake City and Live Oak. This was a fun stopover. We rode the trails on the ranch property, introducing our horses to longhorn steers, a Miniature Horse, a donkey, and a herd of miniature goats. We enjoyed putting our horses through the obstacle course and visiting with the proprietors Andrea and Tom Schomberg.
We wanted to spend our last two nights near the coast. We were fortunate to arrange stalls for our horses at the Taylor County Horseman's Association rodeo arena, thanks to board members Chris Olson and Ursula Brown. These two ladies graciously offered to lead us on a trail ride after they got off work that afternoon. On our way out of the town of Perry, we passed azaleas, dogwoods, and redbuds in full bloom, then hit the forest trail on the outskirts of town.
Later, after bedding down our geldings at the rodeo grounds, we were anxious to try the local specialty - blue crab claws at Poppa Jim's. They were delicious, as were the baked oysters and cheese grits. Then we checked into a local Perry motel, where the proprietor happily gave us permission to park our horse-trailer rigs on the lawn.
On Friday, we scheduled a day at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. We toured the lighthouse and visitor center, then hit the trails. For a late-afternoon meal, we trailered into the fishing village of St. Mark's. There, we enjoyed an open-air restaurant on pilings as we watched pelicans and river barges.
We ended our day's adventure with a walking tour of the nearby San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park's Spanish fort ruins. That evening, we attended a roping competition at the arena. Our Tennessee Walkers watched wide-eyed as the Quarter Horses raced by. It seemed that everyone in the county was a roper - youngsters, men, and women.
Sadly, our trip ended as we headed home the next morning. The motto of the Florida State Park system sums up what we experienced: "Florida State Parks...The Real Florida." Beautiful scenery, unusual natural features, abundant wildlife, and extremely friendly people of the "real Florida" made our trip memorable.
Contact information: Coldwater Recreation Area, (850) 482-9598, www.florida-outdoors.com/equine.htm; Florida Caverns State Park, (850) 482-9598, www.floridastateparks.org/floridacaverns/default.cfm;
O'Leno State Park, (386) 454-1853, www.floridastateparks.org/oleno/default.cfm; St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, (850) 925-6121, www.fws.gov/saintmarks; San Marcos State Park, (850) 925-6216, ww.floridastateparks.org/sanmarcos/default.cfm.