Birds twittered, darting across the boardwalk to the underbrush beneath looming pine trees. The shrill call of an eagle echoed through the blue skies above. A rustling in the leaves nearby made my daughter and I jump, then laugh as a box turtle slowly lumbered his way across a pine needle strewn landscape.
Inside the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve
Tucked away in a little corner of Florida’s Nature Coast along the sleepy end of Highway 40 West, hides Yankeetown’s 413-acre peaceful wildlife refuge, the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve. If you blink, you’d miss the gravel road entrance and the sign blending in with the surrounding natural landscape. In fact, most visitors along this quiet stretch of tarmac drive right past, heading to Yankeetown boat ramp at the end of the road. But take that turn and enter a quiet world of contemplation, gulf coast panoramic vista views and nature.
Birding at the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve
Levy County’s Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve is part of the west section of the Florida Birding Trail, and whether you are an avid ornithologist or just enjoy birds, herons and egrets are often spotted fishing in the salt ponds and marshes of the WGP. You may even see eagles or osprey circling above above.
Gulf Coast Hiking at Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve
The Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve has three .5 mile marked hiking trails that can be done as one long hike or split up and walked as round-trip hikes. Different parking areas offer accessibility to the different trails.
- Salt Pond Trail
The .5-mile Salt Pond Trail is an elevated boardwalk trail leading from the pine forest by the trail-head around a large tidal pond with pond overlooks. The bridge over the creek connecting the pond to the gulf waters provides the perfect rest stop with views of the salt marsh and hammocks beyond.
- Marsh Trail
The end of the Salt Pond Trail is joined by the Marsh Trail- a .5-mile dirt track hiking trail through a cabbage palm forest and around the edge of the gulf salt marsh to the Ellie Schiller Education Resource Center, a 3-story building used mainly for local school science programs.
- Oak Hammock Trail
The .5-mile Oak Hammock Trail leads from the Ellie Schiller Education Resource Center and over a gravel road to Oak Hammock. Climb the 30-foot wooden observation tower for panoramic views of the marshlands, Helverson Creek and the Gulf of Mexico. You can also see the steam from the stacks of the Crystal River power plant in the distance from the top of the tower.
Oak Hammock Trail, also known as the Fishing Pier Trail, is a loop hike. Bring lunch and enjoy the picnic tables in a little meadow beneath a shady canopy of oaks for dining alfresco. Launch a kayak from the dock for some water adventures. Throw a line in for a spot of fishing, or just watch the mullet jumping in the creek at the kayak launch dock. There’s a handy compost toilet on this trail, located by the kayak launch dock.
Kayaking at Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve
Paddle through tidal creeks and salt marshes on the 5-mile round-trip paddle trail from the kayak launch on Helverson Creek to Withlacoochee Bay’s Bird Creek Beach. The tides and open waters of the bay are factors to consider on this trip, so be sure to check tide times and weather before setting out. This is not a marked trail, but the Yankeetown website has a helpful map with GPS coordinates for this paddle.
The Future of the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve
The Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve was acquired by Yankeetown in the 1990’s and park improvements have been made through grants and the hard-working efforts of the Friends of the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve. Not only has it kept would-be developers at bay, but also the undeveloped wetlands have provided the local community with a natural buffer from storms that have hit the east coast.
The annual meeting of Friends of the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve will be held this January 27th 2019 at the Ellie Schiller Education Center at 11 am. Their main area of concern this year is the news that the Yankeetown town council has added a question to the February 26th election ballot to find out if their residents wish to stop funding the preserve, if so, the town will be turning the land back over to the state, and the future of this wildlife refuge will be in question. The public are invited and encouraged to attend the January 27th meeting at the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve.
Things to Know Before You Go:
- Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve is located at 1001 SE Old Rock Rd, Yankeetown, FL 34498
- It is open from sun up to sun down.
- There is no fee for this park.
- While the Salt Pond Trail Boardwalk is wheelchair accessible & stroller-friendly, there are no handrails or sides to this boardwalk, so watch the little kids.
- You cannot drive to the kayak launch. You must carry/cart your kayak .3 miles to the dock.
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