There’s a National Natural Landmark in our own backyard, and it is there for our enjoyment, viewing and hiking year-round. But it’s a particularly special place to be on Saturday mornings when park rangers or volunteers offer a guided walking tour of our famous sinkhole.
Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park achieved landmark status in 1976, two years after the state purchased the site from the University of Florida.
In less than an hour, visitors can learn how the sinkhole was formed, walk the 132 steps down to the bottom of it, and pick up interesting tidbits along the way about how the park got its name and some of its history.
“If go back through the millennia, Florida was once much wider and was completely under water,” said park ranger Debbie Roberts, who offered the tour this reporter attended.
“That’s the basis of the limestone that makes up Florida. Limestone is hard rock, but is also porous, so when rainfall combines with carbon dioxide, it forms a weak acid.
“Water sinks through the surface. It dissolves as it goes,” Roberts said. “When it hits limestone, it falls into porous areas. Over time, caverns formed….and eventually the weight becomes too big to stay up. So that’s what formed our sinkhole.”
The sinkhole itself occupies a bowl-shaped cavity, 500 feet across and 120 feet deep, covered by lush vegetation. Ages ago, the area was home to sea creatures that lived in the waters that covered what is now the park and the rest of Florida.
Roberts began her tour by showing visitors a fossil of a megalodon tooth found on the site. Megalodons are an extinct species of mackerel shark.
“We have found many sharks teeth here,” she said. “The area is known for its sharks’ teeth.”
And if you ever wondered how the park got its name, Roberts can share a bit of that history as well.
“In the old days, people used mills as flour plants. But they were big hoppers, and people said it looked like a grain hopper,” she said. “The devil part came from an Indian legend, which said the devil lived here and fell in love with a native Indian princess and kidnapped her.”
Alternate tales talk about early visitors who found bones and fossils at the bottom of the sinkhole and believed that animals and beasts went down to the bottom to meet the devil.
The stairs that now take visitors to an observation deck just above the sinkhole are the second set to be built. The first boardwalk was destroyed in 2017, when Hurricane Irma dumped 17 inches of rain, forcing the park to close for almost two years, Roberts said.
The park reopened in September 2019, but then faced further closures because of Hurricane Elsa and the onset of the still ongoing COVID pandemic. Storm damage has kept the bridges closed, so while the nature trail is open, it is an out-and-back trail and does not loop.
The stairs also serve as a place to train for those preparing for mountainous hikes in places like the Appalachian Trail or the Camino de Santiago in Galicia, in northwestern Spain
Roberts said the park added sidewalks in 1988 to make it accessible to people in wheelchairs. She also pointed out some paths still lead to the bottom of the sinkhole, left behind by those who are now UF alumni when they would come to party here decades ago.
“The grooves were made by UF students who would come here to party and would slide on down. Then they used ropes and cables to get themselves out,” Roberts said. Her story was confirmed by a friend who is a longtime Gainesville resident, who said she used to hang out here when she was a student.
So, while Devil’s Millhopper may no longer be the wild and crazy place it was for UF students in years past, today it is an excellent choice for a nature walk on the wild side.
Note: Guided tours take place every Saturday morning at 10 a.m., and the meetup point is at the Visitors Center. Currently, the park is open Wednesday through Sunday.