Hiking the Chinsegut Hill Trail: Here’s what we Found
It was a beautiful day in May, sunny and a bit humid (but this is Florida and that’s how we roll). After a delicious lunch at the Chinsegut Hill dining hall, my son, David, and I were to go exploring on the “hidden” Chinsegut Hill trail. Renee Berger was our guide and we began in a golf cart.
Renee picked us up right outside the dining hall and we took the cart behind one of the Chinsegut Retreat cabins to a magnificent oak tree.
The grandfather oak was huge, with resurrection ferns on several branches that could each have easily been another tree – if they weren’t horizontal and attached to the main trunk that sported at least a ten-foot plus circumference.
Directly behind this amazing oak was a patch of giant elephant ear plants, in bloom, with huge citrus trees sporting large round orange orbs behind the elephant ears.
There were large, healthy citrus on these trees, which were some of the largest citrus trees my eyes have held! Then more oaks, some hickory, and magnolias. It was a picture-perfect image of wild Florida reclaiming itself – plantation style.
I saw what looked like a trail, but Rene explained that this was not the trail’s beginning and kindly walked us over to it. Now our journey officially began.
The trail is not well marked, but it is obvious. A previous caretaker named Joshua McAdams had cleared it and used to lead foraging walks along the way.
The ground was covered at the start with leafy, traveling plants sporting gentle white wispy flowers, and there are hardwoods on both sides interspersed with citrus trees, looking mostly like oranges and tangerines. The tangerines are old and drying up, but the oranges are large, round and bright against the sea of green.
This part of the trail has a faded sign, “NATURE TRAIL” is lightly visible. Renee will be repainting it, she states. We are definitely walking downhill, which is easy – great explorers we are! I am scanning both sides of the trail when I notice a collapsed pile of debris to the left.
What looks to be a historic building of some sort is dilapidated and blanketed by the ground cover, with pieces of tin roof and support beams of old poking out. “Probably a lean-to,” “Maybe it was a shanty,” “Maybe a CCC building,” we each have immediate theories, but not the manpower or tools to explore further safely.
Off about ten feet away from the debris a cluster of groundcover rises about 2-1/2 feet above the ground in an odd “U” shape. We venture from the path to explore, watching where we walk for holes, snakes and other common wild Florida explorer pitfalls.
I see coquina rock poking out from the groundcover and begin peeling it away. Renee and David join in and we discover a cooking hearth underneath! What a find. This could be what’s left of a home of long ago. Eventually, I hope to go to the Manor House Museum and research the library to find out the details, but for today, we joyfully continue our trek.
We walk under a southern magnolia tree that has grown in an arch formation. It looks healthy and it is growing in an arch. Hmmmmm…
As we descend the hill along this trail, David points out the giant Sabal Palmetto trees all around us. These hardy palm trees are Florida’s state tree, with the hearts being edible and the leaves being great for giant fans! Florida’s cowboys used the stalks as boot jacks to help remove their footwear in the evenings. This is a subforest of sabal palmettos, which is a treasured find in the ever-developing Florida landscape.
We were then greeted by a 20-foot palm tree stump with what looked like a face burned into it.
A 25-foot tall Sabal Palm appears to have a teepee made of eroded palm branches and subsidized with an oak branch or two in a cone shape. Was this someone’s sweat lodge? I peer inside, but there are no more clues. It is more food for the history lover in me. My imagination is reeling with possibilities.
To the right, the subforest is magical, with so many large sabals creating a canopy of frilly deep green arcs at different heights giving relief from the sun’s rays and fodder for shape finding. We identified butterfly shapes and a huge umbrella.
On the ground is a large piece of woven palm material. It fascinates me. What a useful tool for straining things or filling holes in something. How many ways did the native Timacuan population use these valuable natural items?
Along the trail we run into many small patches of what looks to be Coral Ardisia, with its bright red poisonous berries and lovely dark green waxy leaves, growing alongside trees of all types.
A couple of huge longleaf pines appear as we trek. Renee stops to hug one and I attempt to convey its magnitude by taking a panorama photo from bottom to top of the tree. It is humbling to know that some things have been here such a very long time, surviving hurricanes, droughts, and “progress.”
Next, we discovered a grove of banana trees! Now banana trees require a lot of sun and moisture to produce, and these trees had bunches of green fruit hanging on them so more exploration was necessary. The grade was steep and the ground cover profuse, so I just snapped a couple of pictures and we continued on the trail discussing how much we love bananas.
The trail merged into what appeared to be a road, complete with a bridge! A drainage pipe went under the bridge and the banana grove was resplendent in the sunlight to the right. In fact, the entire area around it was an entirely different shade of green.
Now we began the upward journey on the road. Questions were revolving in my mind; “Who made this road?” What did they use it for? Where does it go? Was it put in by the Civilian Conservation Corps to help with drainage on “the Hill” or was it done before by Fielder Harris and his team of plantation workers before the CCC ever came?
As we walk up the grade, wild basil presents itself along with ginger and a patch of very interesting flowering plants about five feet high with tightly bound buds that sugar ants seem to favor. What could they be? Were they planted here by Lisa Von Borowsky under the Robins family tenure on Chinsegut Hill?
We are getting back to the cabins and our golf cart and we are ready to ride back to our vehicle with a couple of stops along the way. The bamboo forest surrounding the washroom and 1930s public restroom is simply stunning. As the afternoon wind blows, these tall thin trees blow back and forth into one another, making knocking sounds.
Then it’s around to the bench along the southwestern side of the property, giving a glorious view of its surrounding landscape. Recently cleared and landscaped, this bench is a special place to recollect all we have encountered on our hour-plus trek through time and nature.
What a gift Chinsegut Hill is to the residents of and visitors to Florida’s Nature Coast. Experiencing this trail has been another dimension to the huge gift left by Raymond and Margaret Robins to the people.