There are sinkholes in Florida — this is a given.
In fact, there’s the deepest ever, right over here in Land O’ Lakes. I should know. It sits behind my childhood home.
However, there are very few sinkholes in Florida — or anywhere else, for that matter — that are considered a tourist attraction.
That are a registered natural landmark.
But that’s exactly what the National Park Service has designated Devil’s Millhopper: a national natural landmark. The geological state park in northern Gainesville features a 120-foot deep, 500-foot wide sinkhole.
And, it actually is an ecological phenomenon, despite — or rather, thanks to — the Florida weather.
With its lush vegetation, extensive boardwalk and convenient proximity to San Felasco County Park and the San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park — a visit here is definitely worth the trip.
Deal with the devil
Once upon a time, according to the brochure, there was a beautiful Native American princess living near the present-day location of Devil’s Millhopper. And, of course, the Devil wanted to marry said princess, but she wasn’t having it.
So, he did what happens in every fairy tale: He kidnapped her. The braves of her tribe went all Super Mario to rescue the princess, but the Devil created the huge sinkhole for them to fall into.
The sinkhole is Devil’s Millhopper.
As the braves tried to climb out, the Devil turned them to stone (cue: sinister music) and, it is said, the water runoff into the sinkhole is from the tears those poor braves shed for the princess (cue: sad music).
Millhopper, for a time, was owned by the University of Florida Science Department and used as a research site for students. However, non-scientific students would also use it as a place to socialize and par-TAY, which led to litter, foot traffic and erosion problems.
The state purchased the site in 1974 and built the set of 236 wooden steps, along with boardwalks and an observation deck at the bottom to allow access for visitors without further soil erosion.
The formation was designated a National Natural Landmark in that same year and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017.
Underneath the canopy
Even though the park is only 71 acres, three distinct ecological environments exist based on exposure to sun, fire and water, and thanks to a hammock canopy that is shaded by the broadleaf trees and low vegetation. Basically, it’s like a rainforest: moist and damp and lush, all year-round. The park also has sandhill and swamp environments.
Because of the cutaway of the sinkhole, it provides easily visible geological records of the area. Twelve springs, some more visible than others, work like small waterfalls and feed the pond at the bottom of the sinkhole. In the summer, the bottom is dramatically cooler than surface air and significant fossil deposits include shark teeth, marine shells and the fossilized remains of extinct animals.
The thin layer of soil at the top of the sinkhole has rocks and sediments from the Hawthorn Group, which is geologic formations of Late Oligocene to Pliocene Age in North Florida. Devil’s Millhopper is composed of dolostone, phosphatic sands and clay that were deposited during the Miocene Epoch, between 5.3 and 23 million years ago.
The Hawthorn Group is underlain by upper Eocene Ocala Limestone, which can be seen in the deepest part of the sinkhole. Ocala Limestone was deposited in a warm, shallow marine environment more than 34 million years ago, and that material is what the sinkhole dissolved.
Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park is not your typical park. There are no picnic areas or playgrounds and there’s only one circular trail, which throughout you are repeatedly reminded to stay on. That’s because it’s a Natural Landmark. That’s to keep the foot traffic down and erosion of the geological site from happening again.
The boardwalk down to an observation deck makes for wonderful views and pictures, if not also a very sweaty hike.
If it’s more hiking you’re looking for, check out San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park. It’s literally less than 10 minutes from the Millhopper and features 65 miles of hiking trails and even creeks.
Just do so after you pay a visit to the Devil … that is, if you dare.
Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park
Where: 4732 Millhopper Road, in Gainesville
When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday. The park is closed Monday and Tuesday.
Cost: $4 for parking
Details: An unexpected rainforest in a geological wonderland. This park offers patrons a chance to see a dry sinkhole that’s 120 feet deep down the steep slopes of the limestone.
Info: Visit floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/devils-millhopper-geological-state-park, or call 352-955-2008.
Published October 25, 2023