Offbeat Adventure

Devil's Millhopper Is a Normal Hike — If You Normally Hike in Giant Sinkholes

When you think of Florida sinkholes, you probably think of the terrifying ones that swallow entire homes like they're ibuprofen. It's only natural. Not every Florida sinkhole is a menace, though — and some are downright scenic. Take the Devil's Millhopper in Gainesville: a 120-foot (37-meter) deep sinkhole that opened in the ground between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago. While probably alarming in its day, it's currently a harmless, lush bowl of rainforest in otherwise sandy terrain. You can climb right down to the bottom, and it won't eat you. We promise.

A Scenic Sinkhole

Entering the Devil's Millhopper is like teleporting from Florida to the Pacific Northwest. The limestone sinkhole is a microclimate, which means that even when it's hot and dry at the rim, the weather inside is cool and damp. The tree cover shields the depths from the sun, and a dozen streams run from the down its sides. At the bottom, all that water collects in a small pond. It's tranquil and "exceptionally quiet" down there.

It's easy enough to see all this for yourself, though you won't be hiking to the bottom of the sinkhole, exactly. Instead, you'll be descending more than 200 stairs. People have been exploring the Devil's Millhopper since the 1800s, but ever since the state bought and spruced up the land in the 1970s, sliding down the sides is forbidden. (It's fun, but contributes to erosion.) Instead, visitors descend into the sinkhole via a sun-dappled wooden staircase and take in the sights and sounds at the bottom from a modest boardwalk. (It's currently closed for repairs in the wake of Hurricane Irma, but it should reopen soon.) Often, visitors spot wildlife down there, from lizards and birds to deer and bobcats.

Guests can enjoy the sinkhole from above, too, on a low-key hike. A half-mile trail circles the rim, which is 500 feet across. You can also explore the park with a guide; rangers lead tours every Saturday at 10 a.m.

What's the Devil Got to Do With It?

The Devil's Millhopper got its name in the 1800s when millhoppers were more of a thing. The farming machines, used to feed grain into mills, were roughly the same concave shape as the sinkhole. The basin was also linked to the devil because when it was first discovered, it had a lot of animal bones and fossils at the bottom. The thinking went that instead of funneling grain into mills, this millhopper fed living creatures to Satan. Cheery, isn't it?

For scientists, though, there's a real silver lining to all that death. The detailed fossil record submerged in the sinkhole's murky bottom gave them new insight into Florida's natural history. They found fossilized shark and horse teeth; fossilized remains of the manatee-like dugong, which is native to the area; and remains of various extinct land animals. One fossil found in the sinkhole, a bone from a prehistoric camel's foot, was a whopping 8 to 10 million years old. At this point, the fossils have largely been excavated, but they've fleshed out experts' sense of prehistoric Florida, and you can see some of them on display in the park. In the end, joke's on the devil — his work turned out to be very educational.

There's a lot of science to learn from the Florida landscape. Check out "Roadside Geology of Florida" by Jonathan R. Bryan, Thomas M. Scott, and Guy H Mean. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Mae Rice July 17, 2018