I’ve realized that vacationing in Florida can be a very expensive proposition. Just this week in May 2019, I traveled to Florida with my Son, Daughter in law and my 3-year-old grandson. Although I love the big attractions like Disney World and Universal Studios. I’m finding that even the lesser-visited attractions are getting very expensive. I was suffering from sticker shock all week.
Wonderful, off-the-beaten and FREE
When I stumble on a wonderful off the beaten path thing to see in Florida that is absolutely FREE, that is something I want to write about.
As most people who know me knows, my sister got tired of New England winters and moved to Florida about 20 years ago. My parents who had retired north from CT to NH also go to a point where New England winters were just getting to be too much for them. They followed suit and bought a house in Florida to snow bird in, then eventually lived there full time.
Because of half of my family living in Florida and being able to snow bird there myself when I had a telecommuting job, during my RV days (see Lessons From the Road: USA and soon to be Lesson From the Road: RV available at all book sellers worldwide – yes that is a shameless plug) I have had the good fortune to spend extended quality time in Florida. On any given weekend, I’d be out exploring the area. I have covered a lot of ground in Florida and have gotten to where I have to work at finding something new and fun to explore that I haven’t already seen.
On this trip to Florida, as I was looking for places I had not been to in the past, so I can go explore, I ran a google search for odd and cool things to see and do in central Florida and came across a story about a Native American Artifact of an owl totem pole at Hontoon Island State park and that is what drew me to the island.
Deland, last vestiges of Old Florida
The ride was about an hour from the Disney area through beautiful back roads and horse farms in Deland, Florida. If you have time to explore Deland, the downtown area is very cute. It is one of the last vestiges of Old Florida left in the state. The beautiful Stetson Mansion and the cool Athens Theater is also in Deland. You could make a very full day out of this area and not have it break your bank.
Arriving at Hontoon Island State Park
As I was approaching the State Park, you meander through a lovely little residential community. I kept looking and thinking, I could live here. When I get to the parking lot for Hontoon Island State Park, I am surprised by how small it was. You could fit maybe fifty cars but there were plenty of spaces available for me to park. I get out of the car and there isn’t much to see right there. There is a ranger notice bulletin informing you that there are black bear and snakes on the island.
Other than the Owl totem, I did not do any reading on the state park, so everything was fun and new. There was nota kiosk or ranger station to pay to get into the park which I thought was weird. Then I noticed a sign for Hontoon State Park across the river. Then I noticed a pontoon boat was taking off from my side to the island. Not knowing the ferry schedule, I figured I would have to wait a few minutes. Then I hear a friendly voice yelling to me, “Don’t worry we will come right back and pick you up.” And that is just what they did. One thing about the pontoon boat is that they can only take a maximum of 6 people on the boat so be prepared for that if there happens to be a line for the ferry or your party is more than 6 people.
As I got on the boat I was happily and enthusiastically greeted by Ken and Melanie. Melanie pointed out a giant grasshopper that was orange and she admits that although she is a critter person, if one of those giant orange grasshoppers ever jumped on her she’d probably die of fright. Here is a great website with cool intel on grasshoppers https://www.thoughtco.com/fascinating-facts-about-grasshoppers-1968334.
I take the lovely pontoon ferry ride, or as I like to say, the party boat fun trip over. Ken and Melanie did their best to make the 5 min trip fun.
Once on the Island, right in front of the boat dock is a ranger station that contains a store and a small museum outlining the wildlife typical to the island, plus a short movie about the Island that is on a continuous loop. I took in the information at the museum. Right in front of the store were a row of rocking chairs. There was also a shower house with bathrooms. Everything was neat and clean.
Melanie and Ken gave me a heads up that I should go into the store and talk to Lynn. They indicated that she was an amazing birder. Anything you needed to know about the birds found on the island she would know. I took this opportunity to go over and talk to her about the birds. She is a lovely lady who was pretty modest about her birding knowledge but was ever so happy to hear her colleague’s opinion on the matter. She had a fascination for a bird known as a Limpkin which looks to me like a Heron. Here is a link to learn about Limpkins.
It’s a lovely bird but its song is very distinctive. She described it as a woman screaming. I’d describe it as a sound I would think a Tetradactyl would make, either way, it was a very disconcerting and loud sound. In fact, as I was getting off the boat, I heard the bird call (at the time did not register as a bird) sound and it made me stop and turnaround for whatever made that sound. Lynn works there every Saturday and Sunday from 9:00 AM – 3:00 PM if you want to hear all about the limpkins as well as other birds on the island.
Boat, Bike and Cabin rentals
I discovered that the park has boat and bike rentals. In the island’s interior they had a lovely campground with handicap accessible cabins. All of the cabins had electricity and a screened-in porch which I thought was great. I witnessed a family coming to the island to camp. They brought a ton of gear including multiple coolers. The park provided wheelbarrows for people to put all of your gear in and then you take it from the boat to the ranger station where they load it in the back of a van, where they drive you and your gear to your campsite. All of that for a $30.00 a night for a four-person cabin rental.
To the left of the ranger station is a lovely picnic area, a nice PlayScape for the kids, horseshoes, and a pavilion for events. This would be a great day-trip for families or for a date day.
They also had all kinds of boats to rent so you can go around the island. The River is really nice. Not as spectacularly clear as some of the springs in the area, but beautiful all the same.
Well maintained hiking trail
There was a foot traffic only, a hiking trail that was 3.4 miles out and back total. It was well maintained and an easy walk and mostly shaded, so it was great even for me on what turned out to be a hot sunny day. I walked to the campground just to check it out and thought ‘Yup I’m bringing my grandson here some day to go camping.” Maybe I will bring a group of Trail Dames hiking and camping there someday. I’m a head Dame in CT. Ladies, if you like to talk while you hike, check this organization out. They are wonderful, but I digress.
The Hontoon Island Owl Totem
It took me a while to get to it, even though it was just to the left of the boat launch, but I eventually got to the Owl totem that drew me to the area to begin with. As it turns out, the original totem was highjacked by some archeologist and brought to Gainsville 50 years ago, but they made a very good replica (at least that’s what Lynn says) for this island. It looked authentic enough to me which surprised me to find out that the one at the park is made of fiberglass. This totem was significant, because the native peoples of the time did not make totem poles. It is the only one of its kind east of the Mississippi. Here is a great article on the Hontoon Island State Park Owl Totem.
Is it an otter or a frog?Right next to the Owl was a rock carving from the native people that has a plaque to decide whether you thought it was a frog or an otter. Honestly, to me it looks like a hawk or another owl. It has vertical lines on the back which to me looks like a representation of feathers in wings. The front to me, especially the head, looks bird like. So I vote OWL, just because this is my blog and I can.
A worthwhile day-trip
After my wandering about the island, I sat on a rocking chair along with some other folks and just relaxed, watching the birds and the river. It was very peaceful.
If you ever go to central Florida and you are looking for something affordable to do and you have children or looking for a good date day idea, pack a picnic lunch and go. I highly recommend taking the ride to Hontoon Island State Park and spending the day, it was lovely.