Levy County’s Best Kept Secret: The Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve
The wind whistled through the 30-foot wooden structure, a sentry overlooking the vast the salt marsh. Afternoon gulf breezes snatched at nearby palm fronds, twirling them in a frenzied dance. Below, acres of sawgrass bowed low as the wind rippled across them at the 413-acre wildlife preserve on Florida’s Nature Coast.
Below, Helverson Creek winds through the grasses, a serpentine path leading to the Gulf. Up in the observation tower, the chaos of the world is far away and the only forces to contend with are those of nature. It was a Saturday afternoon and my daughter and I were alone on the observation tower at Levy County’s Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve.
The Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve
Located near Yankeetown, most people pass the entrance to the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve without even realizing it’s there, heading towards the bustle of the busy boat ramp at the end of highway 40. But a turn onto the gravel road rewards the adventurous with panoramic vista views of the Gulf Coast.
With funding provided by the Florida Communities Trust with Florida Forever Funds, Yankeetown has one of the best kept secrets on the Nature Coast. The marsh and hammocks provide a refuge for wildlife, recreation opportunities for locals and visitors, and a natural buffer against gulf storms.
My daughter and I took a drive to the preserve on a late Saturday afternoon. The waters in the Gulf may have been busy with people scallop-hunting, but in the preserve, it was just us and nature.
Hiking the Salt Pond Trail
A half mile elevated boardwalk takes us through a pine forest. Below the boardwalk a gopher tortoise rustles in the leaves, making us jump and laugh. Pine forests are home to many wild critters, including the diamond back rattlesnake- so we tend to stay aware in our surroundings. The trail takes a turn towards wetter territory and leads around a large tidal pond. Yaupon Holly bushes stretch over to the boardwalk by the pond. The Yaupon Holly leaves were used by the native Americans to make tea. In the past few years, Yaupon Holly tea has made a come-back, and can even be found in stores and online.
We pause at one of the pond overlooks. The tide is going out, leaving thick mud behind, and dozens of gurgling holes- each filled with tiny crabs. They’d pop out of their holes and then scurry back in at the sight of our shadows.
A bridge crosses over the creek connecting the pond to the gulf waters. There’s a bench to rest- or drop a line, with a view of the salt marsh and hammocks beyond. Below in the water fish dart to hide beneath the shade of the bridge.
The Muddy Marsh Trail
As the Salt Pond Trail makes its final turn towards the end, steps to the right lead to the Marsh Trail. True to the name, the trail is thick with dark mud that leads through a cabbage palm forest and to the Ellie Schiller Education Resource Center. It’s too wet for us to hike this .5-mile trail today, so we continue on the Salt Trail to the last pond overlook and a quiet fishing spot.
We retrace our steps back along the boardwalk, the pine trees towering overhead, a bright contrast of reds against a bright blue sky. We hear the shriek of an eagle. Bald eagles nest in this area. The Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve is part of the Florida Birding Trail and osprey, eagles, herons, and egrets are just a few of the many birds found in the preserve.
On the Oak Hammock Trail
Having passed up on the Marsh Trail hike, we drive down the road- it’s narrow and winding- to reach the the Ellie Schiller Education Resource Center, a three-story building of stone and glass overlooking the marsh. It’s used as an education class for school field trips, so today it was closed.
We park near the center and take the Oak Hammock Trail past the wooden observation tower and through the lush cabbage palms to the dock- a kayak launch point and fishing spot on Helverson Creek. We stop to watch the mullet jumping in the creek.
Oak Hammock Trail is a .5-mile loop hike and is also known as the Fishing Pier Trail. Past the dock, here is an open meadow beneath a shady canopy of oaks with picnic tables.
We finish the loop and climb the observation tower for one last view of the Gulf of Mexico. It promises to be yet another beautiful sunset on the Nature Coast.
Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve Fast Facts:
- The Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve is located at 1001 SE Old Rock Rd, Yankeetown, FL 34498
- Although this is a fee-free park, donations are accepted.
- It’s a .3-mile path to reach the kayak launch- no cars allowed. Bring your own kayak cart or friend 😊
- Porta-toilets are located at the trailhead for the Salt Pond Trail; Outside the Ellie Schiller Education Center and near the kayak launch dock on the Oak Hammock Trail.
- These are wetlands- bring bug spray.