A long hot summer in Florida had passed since we took the trip that changed our lives forever. So when the first hint of cooler weather set in we headed to one of the three National Forests in Florida to spend a night away from the city.
We chose to stay at Hopkins Prairie in the Ocala National Forest. This is a campground that we had scoped out on one of our recon missions during the summer.
The campground is primitive with no electric, pit toilets, and only a single source of non-potable water centrally located to most of the campsites. Shade is abound in this oak hammock, so a full day’s charge on your solar panels is highly questionable. But the view of the surrounding prairie is worth a little roughing it.
The surrounding prairie makes the campground feel like an “island” of moss covered oaks. There are 21 sites and only a few provide you with a tad bit of privacy. We chose a site alongside the prairie where we could enjoy views of the water and the sunset. My hope was to take some pictures of the prairie during the golden hour.
The Florida sandhill crane also calls Hopkins Prairie home. Their unique “velociraptorous” calls can be heard echoing across the grassland. If you’ve never heard a sandhill’s loud (almost prehistoric) call, check out this video:
Unlike the migratory greater sandhill, the Florida sandhill lives here year round. Their habitat is mostly prairies and wetlands, but as their numbers grow we have seen them everywhere; from city parks to forest lakesides. They feed on insects and amphibians, but also on plants and fruit. Sandhills mate for life – so where you see one sandhill expect to see another.
We kicked back in our chairs (coated in a liberal amount of Deet) and watched the sunset. The photos above are unaltered and as you can see we picked the perfect night for a spectacular display. (click on any photo to view a larger version)
I mentioned the Deet because not only are the mosquitos a nuisance but the ticks are thick in this area. With Lyme disease on the rise in Florida we try to take every precaution.
However, what we weren’t prepared for was the chiggers! We happened to hit this campground on it’s opening day. The grass in and around the campsites had been allowed to grow during the off season. Chiggers just love tall grass! It had been mowed prior to the day we arrived, but not soon enough to kill off the very healthy population of these little demons. Two days after returning from this trip we were both covered in hundreds of blistered red bites that itched and burned and plagued us for weeks.
When we woke in the morning the prairie was covered in a mystical and most beautiful layer of delicate fog. We waited in anticipation as the dawning light began to settle in.
And then behold! Those amber waves – Florida style. The color of the landscape became a hypnotic mix of auburns, fuchsias, amber and golds.
I raced around taking as many photographs as I could before that fleeting moment of perfect light could fade away.
When the golden hour ends there are still things to do. The campground is also an access point for the Florida Trail and a separate free parking area is provided for those who don’t wish to camp but prefer to day hike instead. From here you can head north toward Salt Springs or south toward Juniper Springs which is a very popular hike. These areas can be closed at times, so always check the website before heading out.
Fishing is also allowed, but I can’t speak to whether you’d be successful or not as the water levels in the area change drastically over the course of a year and we have not attempted fishing here. If you’ve had any experience fishing this area please leave a comment below.
When camping or hiking make note that this is a highly populated black bear area. We have seen bear scat in the campsites and one unlucky group at the rear of the campground learned this at dusk when they were approached by a bear during dinner. After yelling and banging for a few minutes they were able to scare the bear off, but I recon they had a fairly sleepless night. If your not sure what to do when approached by a bear there are instructions at the kiosk as you enter the campground. Black bears are mostly shy and usually try to avoid humans (unless they are hungry!) But as both the bear and human populations expand in Florida and bears increasingly associate human activity with Yogi’s picnic basket, being Bear Aware is essential to a pleasant and less stressful experience.
Chiggers and bears aside this is a beautiful place to camp. It’s open seasonally from October to June and because it’s primitive it’s fairly inexpensive. When we camped it was only $10 a night ($5 with our access pass). The fee has since increased to $15.00, but the sunsets are worth it!
Ocala National Forest Hopkins Prairie Campground Latitude : 29.26965672 Longitude : -81.68671561 Click for Information & Directions
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