Explore A Giant Sinkhole In This Truly One-Of-Kind Southeastern State Park

Every now and then, you'll hear reports of a sinkhole opening somewhere in Florida. The news has shown them swallowing bedrooms and homes or encroaching on them from the yard, forcing residents and their neighbors to flee. One legendary sinkhole in the 1980s even developed a taste for Porsches, gobbling up five from a car dealership in Winter Park. It's unique to encounter a non-emergency situation, with people headed toward a sinkhole and down into it in a Florida state park. However, at Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park, you can do just that: explore the inside of a sinkhole that's 500 feet wide and 120 feet deep.

The park, a National Natural Landmark, is located in Gainesville, about 10 minutes by car from the University of Florida. It's been drawing visitors since the early 1880s, when fossils layered throughout the sinkhole may have inspired its name. Imagine coming upon this massive sinkhole in the woods and finding shark teeth, marine shells, and the bones of extinct animals funneling into the earth the way grain would do in a gristmill hopper. You'd almost think you'd found the mouth of hell, chewing up prehistoric life like a garbage disposal.

As scary as that might sound, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection likens the sinkhole in Devil's Millhopper to the more heavenly green image of a rainforest now. As you take the boardwalk steps down into it, you'll see trees growing up around you, providing enough shade that the temperature drops.

Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park

The 132-step boardwalk in Devil's Millhopper leads down to a deck overlooking the pond at the bottom of the sinkhole. The previous boardwalk had 100 more steps and extended even deeper, but after the damage Hurricane Irma caused in 2017, it had to be rebuilt. The current version reopened in 2019 and is encircled by a half-mile hiking trail. Ferns, orchids, needle palms, and live oaks are among the plants lining the sinkhole. This vegetation, coupled with streams flowing down the slopes, helps invite the rainforest comparison.

Aside from the beauty of its greenery, Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park also provides an interesting, three-dimensional cutaway of the ground beneath one's feet in Florida. Most of the state is built atop limestone, which can dissolve as the ground collects acidic rainwater. Over time, when enough subterranean cavities have formed, it can cause a collapse, leading to a sinkhole in the ground. This is a relatively common occurrence in Central Florida, so much so that this part of the state has been called "sinkhole alley."

The five red counties on Florida's Sinkhole Maps are away from the usual tourist areas in Pasco, Hernando, Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Marion. Together, they represent about 90% of the state's 27,000-plus sinkholes. Alachua County, where Devil's Milhopper is situated, is north of these places. Yet its sinkhole offers a rare view down through over 100 rock layers. The deeper you descend, the further back in the geological record you're going.

A peaceful nature-lover's retreat in Gainesville

If you want to learn more about the history and science of Devil's Millhopper, the park offers ranger-led tours on Saturdays at 10 a.m. There are also interpretive displays and a visitor center with exhibits about the park's geological features and the genesis of its sinkhole. The pond is fed by a dozen springs, and after it rains, it can give the mini-waterfalls on the sinkhole's slopes a rushing cascade effect. You might hear the sounds of birds chirping or tree frogs croaking or spot some rabbits or other forms of wildlife in the area.

Despite its foreboding name, Devil's Millhopper can be a nice place to picnic and escape the hustle and bustle of Gainesville as well. This is especially true if you're in town during college football season when fans flock to see the Florida Gators play at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. In places like that or the theme parks of Central Florida, it's easy to forget sometimes that you're standing on top of an underground aquifer, which provides drinking water for much of the state. This is where some of the streams in Devil's Millhopper drain.

Sinkholes can be a destructive threat for Florida homeowners who may need a special kind of sinkhole insurance to cover their property, but they also serve as a reminder of nature's power. In Devil's Millhopper, you can reconnect with nature and maybe wander the boardwalk deeper down into it than you ever have before.