Jeeping in Goethe State Forest
‘Rows and rows of tall pines stretched out on either side of us, each aligned with the next with a dizzying deliberate perfection. Endless pine flatwoods. The gravel road turned into a slush of sand that may have sent a regular car sliding towards the trees, but the Jeep’s 4-wheel drive cut through the sand pit with ease. Soon we reached the harder packed road on the other side. “If BigFoot was setting a trap for people, that would be it,” I joked.‘
The afternoon rainstorm had passed. The sun returned to dry up the puddles, and my son and I were both in need of an escape. So, we hopped in the Jeep and headed into the wilds of Goethe State Forest near Dunnellon, Florida.
The majority of the lands, purchased from JT Goethe by the Florida Conservation & Recreation Program in 1992, were once mostly timber forests. Now only parcels are set aside for timber production- hence the perfect pine forest, while the remainder tracts are for wildlife habitats, ecological restoration and outdoor recreation.
My son drove down the gravel road that cut through the pine forest. He stopped at the Ten Mile Creek Road sign. The trees in the field by the sign were charred at the bases and the underbrush was decimated by fire. Unlike a wildfire, the state forest rangers use prescribed burns to maintain the forest tracts. A controlled burn clears the underbrush to help prevent future uncontrolled wildfires.
The road ahead dipped into water. Unlike our first trip in the forest years ago, it wasn’t a flowing creek. A cypress tree stood guard by the water-logged road like a troll at a bridge. The pine forest was behind us and we had entered swamp.
Goethe is home to 19 different ecosystems, from flatwoods and sandhills to hydric hammocks and basin swamps. We went into 4WD and the water. My son drove and I kept an eye out for gators and swimming snakes. We’d been in hairy road and water situations before, but this wasn’t one of them.
We went through a second swamped road site- there a handy measuring stick was placed in the water to let drivers know the exact depth. Roads flood in the forest. This can mean deep mud, flowing creeks and getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. Be prepared.
Animals in Goethe
We turned on another road through pines and lush bright palmetto undergrowth. The afternoon sun filtered through the trees to splay across wet greenery. White tail deer frolicked on the roadside ahead. My son slowed down as I attempted to video them. They saw the jeep and dashed across the road and into the trees on the other side. The road was bumpy in the area and somehow my video ended up looking like those ones people have of UFO encounters or BigFoot- bumpy, low-res and blurry.
We stopped to let a gopher tortoise cross the road. It was the third we had seen that day. We had only encountered one other car the entire time. The road here began to look less used than the others; grass on the side grew taller, brush was tighter, and trees lined the road on either side… an endless forest of pines.
The gravel gave way to a literal sand pit, but again the 4WD cut through that obstacle to the other side. I joked about BigFoot using it to trap unsuspecting people. And then we saw the black fuzzy critter up ahead.
It was long and furry- like an otter or a weasel – but jet black, with its head stuck into a hole in the ground. He must have heard us, and looked up before bouncing off into the woods, his big bushy tail flapping behind him. On the drive back, we pondered over the curious animal in the woods.
“Do they have black squirrels in Florida?” My son asked.
“It was too big. You think it was a fox squirrel?” I said. There was no water close by for otters.
Neither of us could even guess. Goethe is home to black bears, raccoons, opossums, gopher tortoises, the endangered red cockaded woodpecker, bald eagles and yes, fox squirrels, although black ones are rare.
Buck Island Pond
We swung by Buck Island Pond Recreation Area. It’s a fee area with a toilet, picnic tables, hiking trail and boardwalk. A 1.8-mile hiking trail runs through the woods around the pond, but today was a jeep day for us.
We took a quick break and stretched our legs, strolling over the boardwalk to view the water lilies on Buck Island Pond. Goethe is home to over 31 different varieties of orchids, but we couldn’t stop to count the flowers or other flora, as evil yellow flies settled over us. We beat a hasty retreat, swatting our way to the jeep and headed back onto the trails and home before the sun set over this piece of wild Florida.
The Goethe Giant
If BigFoot were a tree, he’d be the Giant Goethe. This giant bald cypress is over 105 feet tall and believed to be almost 900 years old. Giant Goethe can be found via the Big Cypress Boardwalk Trail in the Cow Creek tract in Goethe State Forest (FL 121 to Cow Creek Road). We didn’t have a chance to see it this time- but maybe on our next jeep adventure…
Goethe State Forest and the Proposed Turnpike Extension
Of the proposed Northern Turnpike Extension routes, Alternative Corridor North-B would run a course through Goethe State Forest. However, this past December, the Levy County Board of County Commissioners stated that their official position was “No Build” for any Northern Turnpike Extension routes through Levy County.
The Ocala Gazette has a detailed run-down of impacts of each of the proposed routes at https://www.ocalagazette.com/it-isnt-pretty/. Grassroot community efforts and resources concerning the proposed toll road routes and can be found at https://noroadstoruin.org/
Things to Know Before Visiting Goethe State Forest
- Goethe is massive! Also, cell phone service is spotty- WIFI none. Consider it a digital detox. Let someone know your plans before you head out and take a photo of the trails map.
- You are allowed to drive on the named and numbered open roads (not gated ones). Speed is 30mph, but be mindful of wildlife.
- This state forest is open to licensed hunters during hunting season. Always check for hunting dates before venturing into the forest.
- Be prepared! Bring water to drink & make sure you have enough gas in your tank. If you plan on hiking trails, bring mosquito repellant and wear appropriate hiking clothes. After hiking, check for ticks.
- The hiking trail heads are fee-areas. They do not have a drop box for fees. You must scan their code at the sign and pay online ($1.85 + tax per person- or annual pass $41.62 + tax – good for up to 6 at any Florida State Forest). Chances are you won’t have wi-fi, so you pay when you do. Or save the hassle and frustration and purchase an annual State Forest Pass – good for all the Florida State Forests for the year. The system uses the parks camping reservation system, so if you have camped at a state park using a reservation, chances are you already have an account.
- There are 7 different trailheads in Goethe. Primitive camping is permitted at the Tidewater & Watermelon Pond campgrounds.
- You can reach Buck Island Pond Recreation Area vis the trails on CR 336
- The Tidewater & Apex Trailheads can be accessed vis CR 337