We’re Back at it!

It’s been awhile since we ventured out! With vacations and home improvement projects stacking up we did not get to explore as much as we wanted to this month. We are in the process of remodeling our kitchen and it feels like it’s taking forever! Hopefully the end result is worth it, because we have already put many, many hours into this project! I think it will be. 😊

Anyway, this weekend we decided it was time to get back outside! We wanted to check out a region that we’ve been eyeing for a while – the Withlacoochee State Forest. It was hard to decide where to go here because there are so many trails in this region you could easily spend a loooong time exploring it! We finally agreed to hike a small section of the forest that was said to have a few caves. The Dames Cave and Peace Cave were the most notable! They were located in the Citrus Wildlife Management Area, settled right between Inverness and Brooksville. Let me tell you, this place was amazing! D and I loved it, all of the kids loved it, it was a major success!

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We really wanted to check out the Citrus Wildlife Management section because I’ve heard there are some cool backpacking spots nearby, but there is so much more than that here! We pulled up and parked in the “unofficial” parking lot (it’s a dirt lot that you pull off onto from County Road 491/Citrus Way). After a quick picnic lunch, some pink lemonade, and a sunscreen/bug spray application we set out on our adventure – well, almost. We found a really cool golden orb weaver (aka banana spider)img_8800 and just had to take a few photos! I’m the first one to get creeped out by a spider, but have you ever really looked at one of these things up close? They are absolutely beautiful! Also, if you look at their webs in the right lighting, they look yellowish – almost as though they are spun out of gold! Be prepared to see a lot of these on your hike here. The kids were finding them left and right!

In general the terrain here was a lot of fun! The sandy paths are scattered with tree roots and random ups and downs, so we had to watch our step or risk a face-plant – which almost happened a few times! Most of trees here are tall pines scattered with oaks, so the shade is thick in some areas, but not reliable. I highly recommend sunscreen and bug spray. The mosquitoes were not bad, but we did find a deer tick on Ry after we got home. Luckily, it had not latched onto him yet. Just be on the look out and as a general rule, do a tick check after you spend a lot of time outside!

I know, I know, I’m rambling about trees, picnics, and ticks and all you want to know about are the caves I mentioned earlier! Well, here you go, but first a little background: img_8807the bedrock of Florida is made up primarily of limestone, which is highly porous and easily dissolved under the right conditions. As water flows through the bedrock, it carves out hollow areas which can eventually become unstable and even collapse! This is why sinkholes are so common in Florida! Sometimes, this also leads to the formation of caves like the ones we saw today. Regions that are characterized by this limestone bedrock are typically referred to as having karst topography. This phenomenon is very common in Florida, and can also be see in the beautiful cenotes of Mexico. See below for a comparison of the cenote D and I explored in Cozumel (and jumped off of into the water below!) versus the cave we explored today in the Withlacoochee State Forest. They are remarkably similar!

The first cave we explored was Dame’s Cave. I was initially really nervous about letting the kids climb down inside – this was not exactly the same as hiking or walking. It was actually climbing down some rather slippery rocks to get to a cave roughlyimg_8761 15-20 feet below. “Maybe one of us should just take K and M down,” I remember saying to D as we peered down the entrance. There were no rails. There was no path. We were outnumbered by children! We spent a few minutes mulling it over before deciding to go for it – this is what we came here for, after all! So down we all went. We moved slowly, D focusing on Ry and K while I focused on M and Rh.We took their hands and guided them down the rocks, advising them on foot placement and eventually letting them scoot on their bums  towards the bottom once it got less steep. After we made it to the bottom it felt immediately cooler! There was a large, open region at the bottom. It was slightly muddy with one big tree branch in the center. Graffiti decorated the walls and off to the right was a dark, small “room.” At the back of that small “room” was a hole just slightly shorter than the twins, but wide enough for adults to crouch down and waddle through. Should we go in the hole? Uhm, is that even a question with four adventurous children?img_8774 We knelt down and climbed in – using our phones for light as we made our way through the darkness. Everything was damp, and after a few feet the hole opened up into a small room where we could all stand. More graffiti could be seen on the walls in this room, but the air was cool and a welcome relief from the heat outside. The ceiling was covered in small ridges and dents, and there were no bats to be found. We clearly were not the first ones to have entered this cave – there was even another family exploring it with us! Nonetheless, it was amazing to hike out in the wilderness and find an actual cave that the kids could really explore! img_8823Like I said before, there were no rails, no boardwalks, no man-made markings to acknowledge the cave aside from a single rope fence at the top which prevented hikers from falling into depths of the cave – so it really felt like we had just stumbled upon a natural wonder all on our own! All of the kids loved it – Ry even said that he wanted to stay there forever!

After we had finished exploring the wonders of Dame’s Cave, a family who was just arriving told us that there was another cave a little further down the path. So, weimg_8784 followed the trail past Dame’s Cave to the other side where there were some smaller, more easily accessible caves. We decided to enjoy a water break here. As we sat down to relax for a moment, we noticed a peculiar worm slowly inching its way through the dirt. The worm had a broad, flat head, and I jokingly told the kids that it must be a hammerhead worm. As it turns out, that’s exactly what it was! The hammerhead worm is also known as the broadhead planarian. I don’t know much about these slimy little critters, but it was a very cool organism to find! I’ll have to do some research on them to see if they are native, what their range is, and so on! We also saw a frog, and a few interesting insects as we explored these caves!

Next, we headed a little farther down the path to Danger Cave. img_8825This cave was much smaller! If you are claustrophobic like me, I would not suggest this one! The mouth is easy to climb into, but it rapidly narrows the deeper you get. It was also not at all suitable for little children to enter. It was nice to sit at the mouth of the cave and feel the rush of cool air against your face, though! Up next was Peace Cave! The family whom we had met earlier suggested that we try to find it, as well, so that was our next destination! It was back the way we had come from, and it wouldn’t add much time to our trip at all!

We hiked down the shadow-spotted trail as the children found horse footprints in the sand and talked about our adventures so far today. We saw butterflies, caterpillars, and other cool insects as we trudged onward. Eventually, the children started to complain of hurting feet and tired legs. Uh-oh. I check my Alltrails App to see how close we were to Peace Cave and luckily it was just around the next bend – literally! Finally, we saw a tree with a bright orange peace sign painted on it. This had to be it! And it was!

You can instantly recognize the entrance because there is a peace sign directly inside the cave’s entrance. There is also a large oak tree growing just above the cave, and the bark of that tree is marked with peace signs as well. It would be impossible to miss this location! D and I took a quick peak inside the cave while the kids happily ate some Clif Bars and Fruit Snacks. We had no idea the caves would be so accessible or so absolutely “cave-like” in nature! Next time, I will bring my head lamp and we will have flashlights for each of the kids so we can more safely and easily explore the wonders of all of these natural features! I think the next time we venture out this direction will be to do some real backpacking – and I can not wait to share that experience with the kids and D!

After getting home tonight, the kids played enthusiastically. They even audaciously asked to stop at a playground on the way home after our 3 mile hike! I just do not understand where their incredible amount of energy comes from! If only we could harness the energy of a four year old, I think we could basically power the entire world!

All of the children had done so great today! There were minimal complaints about back packs and zero blisters from shoes! What more could we ask for?! Still, I was feeling lazy so on the drive home I queued up an Instacart order containing our favorite apple cider, a summer sausage, a cheese platter, grapes, carrots, and cucumbers (and a margarita for the adults after bedtime!). I scheduled it for shortly after we would arrive home. The timing was perfect! As soon as everyone was done with their showers, the order arrived. The kids played while adults put away groceries, emptied water bottles, and cleaned water bladders. Then we all settled in to enjoy a platter of our favorite foods while watching a new movie together on the couch. I could not think of a better way to spend a Saturday evening!

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