We were “Following that Dream” – following “Follow That Dream” Parkway from Inglis at SR 19 towards Bird Creek, in hopes of proving that Elvis’ old stomping grounds might be successful for birding – when an unexpected sign caught our eye. There are a lot of signs along this little stretch of highway, signs for historic Crackertown and Yankeetown, signs for the Inglis-Yankeetown Bike Path – a narrow strip of concrete paralleling the highway – and even a sign for the historic Izaak Walton Lodge.
This sign, however, held the promise of trails. As John and I are always looking for new places to explore – and we were both surprised we’d never heard of this one -off we went into Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve, following a narrow one-lane limestone road into a landscape of coastal salt marsh. The preserve is off the radar, in part, because it’s local. The City of Yankeetown purchased the 413 acre property, which opened to the public in 2009. A strong volunteer group, the Friends of the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve, maintains the trails and holds special events.
The first parking spot provided access to the Salt Pond Trail, a half-mile accessible boardwalk leading from the narrow strip of high ground that the entrance road traversed into the marshes themselves. Coming to the first overlook, we could tell this would be a pretty hike.
After pausing to watch a family of raccoons scramble through the underbrush, we continued to the next overlook, where we heard the distinct cry of a bald eagle overhead. A mullet jumped in the pond. The eagle circled us, and the pond, for a good ten minutes before settling down atop the nub of a dead cabbage palm to survey its fishing grounds.
The Salt Pond Trail was the first in a chain of several trails providing scenic views all along the salt marshes. Stepping off the boardwalk and walking into the pine-palm flatwoods, I headed up the Marsh Trail while John took the car down the road to the second parking area. Despite its name, the trail wasn’t at all marshy. But it did provide more sweeping views of the salt marshes, and more interpretive markers explaining the trees and shrubs along the way.
Passing an unexpectedly large educational center with picture windows overlooking the marsh, I could see John waving from the top of a 30-foot observation tower perched over the marsh. From the top, the panoramic view extends all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Following the Oak Hammock Trail along the causeway beyond the tower, we ended up on an island in an oak hammock with picnic tables set in the deep shade. It looked like the sort of spot where someone once lived, a clearing with views through the forest. A narrow path led to a point on this island, a rocky spot along a tidal creek.
On the north side of the island, a dock provides a place for paddlers to launch or take out, with a composting privy not far away. This is another spot where waiting and watching would be rewarded, as mud flats emerge during low tide, attracting wading birds.
An unexpected treasure in Natural North Florida, Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve is open daily sunrise to sunset. Admission is free.