Jeeping in the Chassahowitzka WMA
The jeep bounces over the gravel road, the blue skies and low shrubby landscape sliding by as strains of the Top Gear theme song fill the surrounding air. I’m blissful, chilling, and filming the landscape as we go.
The jeep veers a sharp left and I pull my camera in – what was that?
“There was a rattlesnake in the middle of the road – coiled up.”
I twist my head to get a look, but it is just a grey lump in the road, getting smaller and smaller. My son’s not stopping for a nature shoot.
Inside the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area (WMA)
It was a summer weekend afternoon on the Nature Coast when my son and I arrived at the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area. There was not a soul in sight. I foolishly did NOT take a photo of the map on the bulletin board, but paid our $3 per person admission fee in the honor box and hopped back into the jeep.
Already, the sweltering heat of the day settled in pockets of perspiration over us. The temperatures soared to the high-90’s and the back of my t-shirt felt soaked with sweat. Jeeps were great for adventuring, but ours was a vintage 1997 and had no added luxuries- like air conditioning.
We pull past the ranger station and into the vast 31,000-acre wildlife management area. I had been here once before during a trip to the N’Joy Spirits distillery- a small oasis of cool located five miles in the depths of the WMA. A couple built their dream on an old hunting camp deep in the backwoods and created the award-winning Buckhead Whiskey and Mermaid Rum. But today there would be neither rum nor whiskey. N’Joy is only open to the public on weekends, and it was Thursday. So, today we were jeeping through the Chassahowitzka WMA.
“Just relax and enjoy the ride,” my son says, putting on his playlist. He has good taste in music. Eagles. Toto. Fleetwood Mac.
The air cools as we travel down the gravel road. It’s hard-packed and well maintained. Although in a jeep, we were ready for worse.
The pinelands and scrubby flat woods stretch out to the horizon. The undergrowth beneath the pines is lush, young, and green.
Centralia – Lost Mill Town
At the beginning of the 1900s, Tidewater Cypress logging company cut the cypress, longleaf, and slash pines that filled the region. The entire community of Centralia, with a population of 1500 sprung from the logging industry and centered around the Centralia Mill, about 4.5 miles north of what is now Weeki Wachee. At one time it was the largest sawmill in the state, but it vanished as quickly as it began. By 1922, the area had been stripped of prime timber, the mill closed and Centralia was no more.
Today, rangers use prescribed burns to remove invasive oaks in an attempt to restore the longleaf pine communities. By removing the dry underbrush, they also help to prevent uncontrollable wildfires.
Three Bridges Road
We leave the open wilds. The road becomes narrower, the trees thick. The air temperature drops a couple of degrees as a canopy of green closes in around us. We’ve entered the edge of the Chassahowitzka swamp. The road dips into standing water. This section of road is built with hexagonal blocks to help tire traction when the road becomes flooded.
We pull through the water- not too deep and soon reach the first bridge- a simple wooden trestle bridge spanning a small creek. It’s more of a speed bump than a bridge. My son remarks that a bigger vehicle would have a tight squeeze to cross it. We go over two more of these bridges. The swamp stretches out on either side of us, dense and dark.
And then we see the light at the end of the tunnel and emerge from the dark, back to pine trees and blue skies.
Tram Trail & Buford Spring
In the middle of the woods, we see a big sign: “Attention: SCUBA divers. SCUBA diving registration is required to dive on Chassahowitzka WMA.”
Wait- what? There are pine trees and palmettoes all around us. Where on earth would someone SCUBA dive?
“I smell fresh water!” My son says with glee and points to the trail beside the sign.
“We must be near the river,” I haphazard a guess.
We park up by the sign and walk around a barricade to a much narrower road. This hard-packed trail cuts straight through the forest. It was one of the former logging trails created when the Tidewater Cypress logging company harvested the wetlands of Tidewater Red Cypress, a variety of bald cypress with a darker, red hue.
As we walk, the landscape changes. I wonder what we would do if we came upon a bear. (Moms think of these things). The Chassahowitzka WMA is known to have one of the sparser black bear populations in Florida, only 20, so chances of us spotting one in over 31,000 acres is slim.
The air cools as the trees become dense. There’s standing water on either side of the trail. We’re in the middle of the Chassahowitzka Swamp.
I pause to take a sip of water and a cloud of mosquitoes cover me.
“Mom, we’ve got to move,” my son says. We pick up our pace, swatting at the mosquitoes.
Just as I’m about to call our hike to an end, we see a red boardwalk- in the middle of nowhere. It takes us in a zig-zag over a swamp of cypress knees and little sunlight to a viewing platform overlooking an inky black pond. There’s a plaque describing Buford Spring and the cave system under us. But we can see none of the hidden wonders. The water is dark and high- the result of our recent tropical storm and area flooding. There is swamp all around.
The mosquitoes descend on us, thick and hungry. We make a hasty retreat, retracing our steps to the jeep and back to sunlight.
We come to a crossroads. One way is Rattlesnake Camp Road and the other Scrub Island.
“Let’s take this one,” my son says.
Anything with an Island in the name sounds promising compared to rattlesnakes.
A white-tailed deer bounces past the jeep, swerving off the road and back into the forest. A random encounter on a random day in the woods. This road is less used than the others and dead-ends at what looks like a campsite area, though there is no camping in the Chassahowitzka WMA.
We see lots of scrubby bushes, but no island. We turn around and head back.
Indigo Lane & North Road
Patches of white sugar sand, scrub oaks, and pine remind me of where I grew up in north-central Florida.
I’m filming the journey when the jeep swerves to miss the rattlesnake coiled up in the road.
Of course, I’m too busy snatching my outstretched arms back in the car to capture that moment on film. This sand-hill terrain is home to gopher tortoises, feral hogs and rattlesnakes, and wild turkeys.
We arrive at a corral of fences around a tiny picnic area. There’s no toilet, but there’s a map. I take a photo in hopes it will point the way out. It doesn’t. At either end of the corrals are signs for hiking trails: 1.5-mile Cypress Circle Trail and the 0.75-mile Wild Turkey Trace Trail. We pass on these hikes. Maybe next time we’ll return- with mosquito repellant.
We drive through the Indigo Lane trailhead area onto North Road. There are side roads marked with handicap hunter signs. The WMA is a popular hunting ground for wild hogs, deer, and wild turkeys.
A head bobs up and down in the wiregrass alongside the road before a turkey emerges onto the gravel, then another and another. We slow down to a crawl, counting at least seven wild turkeys. We stop to watch as they cross the road and disappear back into the grasses. unperturbed by the jeep.
The road dead-ends at a closed gate. My son swings the jeep around in the road and we retrace our drive as the sun drops in the sky.
Our playlist has come full circle, and the Top Gear song is back on. I learn that it’s actually called “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers. The longleaf pines take on an ethereal glow as the sky explodes in hues of purple and pink behind them.
We pull into the ranger station at the entrance for one last look and a photo of the map to use next time around, so we don’t end up riding in circles again. The tiny ranger’s house is a dark silhouette against a sunset sky. We turn our jeep onto a bustling Highway 19 and back into the chaotic world of civilization, ending our jeep adventure in the Chassahowitzka WMA.
Things to Know Before Visiting the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area
- The main entrance to the Chassahowitzka WMA is located on Highway 19. Go past West Miss Maggie Drive & Highway 98 intersection going south.
- There are toilets at the main entrance and on the south side at Eagles Nest Sink parking area.
- Pay is envelope honor box. $3 per person.
- Annual recreational licenses for this WMA (and a handful of others) are available from the FWC website. You can add it during your purchase of your annual fishing/hunting license.
- Check the bulletin board for scheduled prescribed burns and hunts. Also, take a photo of the map to use during your outing.
- Driving is restricted to named roads and ATVs are not allowed.
- Best time for wildlife spotting is sunrise and sunset.
- We stayed on the north side of Rattlesnake Camp Road for our adventure. Our drive was approximately 8-miles and took about 2 hours, including our hike.
- If you plan on hiking, bring mosquito repellent and keep covered. There are deer, which can mean ticks. Be prepared.
- Bring water to keep hydrated, and if you bring food, keep it stowed and secured, and dispose of leftovers in the bear-safe bins at the ranger station.