Standing on the bluffs overlooking the Apalachicola River as it winds through the red-, yellow- and orange-leafed forests below, it’s easy to forget that I’m in the state whose official tree is the palmetto palm.
The rolling countryside and dense woodlands look like they belong in the Appalachians, not in Florida, land of coral reefs and sugar-sand beaches.
But that is the beauty of this 12,000-acre state park, nestled in the hinterlands between Tallahassee and Pensacola. Some locals call it the Garden of Eden, and not just because of its undeniable beauty. Here, and here alone, grows a rare tree that harkens back to the time of Adam and Eve.
As the Bible tells it, when God told Noah that it was going to rain, his trusty servant fashioned an ark out of gopher wood. While theologians debate the exact wood, many believe it to be a type of “stinking cedar.” Of the tree varieties, three grow in China, one in Korea, one in Japan and one in California. The last, Torreya taxifolia, is found here, along a 65-mile stretch of the Apalachicola River.
One hundred years ago, great stands of Torreya trees – some three feet around and 60 feet tall – grew along the eastern shore of this great river. In 1875, the fabled Harvard botanist Asa Gray made what he called a “pious pilgrimage” to Florida just to see these fabled evergreens.
Foresters recognized the symbolic value of the Torreya tree early on and took steps to protect it. In the 1930s, men from Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps camped beneath its bows, hewing roads and trails out of the dirt and building one of Florida first state parks. (Torreya State Park opened in 1939.)
The Torreya, a tree that first grew when dinosaurs walked the earth, would be protected, along with the stands of beech, hickory and stubby needle palm that round out the park. The diversity of flora here is another reason local legend compares this to the hallowed place first mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Of the 25 trees listed in the Bible, all have grown here at one time or another (as written by E.E. Calloway).
In the early 1950s, however, the famous Torreya trees began to slowly disappear. One by one, the old
giants fell. A half-century later, less than 1,000 of these magnificent trees are still alive, survivors of a rare tree fungus that scientists are still trying to understand.
Most of the Torreya trees still found in the area are from seeds deposited since the blight first hit. There are still plenty of these rare trees, but you have to be willing to walk. And that is the beauty of this state park: The longer you spend here, the more treasures you will discover.
Botany lovers come to Torreya for more than that famous tree. In addition to Noah’s tree, you will find the rare Florida yew (a cousin to the Torreya), the queen magnolia (the largest magnolia in the United States) as well as cypress and tupelo.
In a 1999 wildlife survey, park managers recorded more than 100 species of birds, five species of tree frogs and a wide variety of Florida natives including Pseudemys concinna, better known as the Suwannee cooter. This turtle with yellow stripes on its head is found mostly in Florida’s Big Bend and Northwest.
History buffs are also drawn to the area, intrigued by the spot’s strategic significance and views from Torreya’s bluffs overlooking the Apalachicola River. Long before white men came to Florida, Native Americans found the bluffs an ideal place to set up villages as the area provided a natural defensive position. From this vantage point, a watchful eye could see anything – be it an alligator or a dugout canoe – that moved north or south.
During the late 1700s and early 1800s, runaway slaves from the British and then American territories to the north found sanctuary here. Later, in 1818, General Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, marched through what was then Spanish Florida in pursuit of Seminole Indians and their African-American allies.
Jackson, who would become the country’s seventh president, is said to have crossed the Apalachicola River with his army at this spot. Ten years later, after Florida became a U.S. territory, the federal government built a road across the northern part of the peninsula, ending it here on the bluffs that are 150 feet above the river.
By 1845, the year Florida became the 27th state, steam-powered freighters were chugging up and down the river, carrying cotton bales on a waterway that linked the Deep South with the Gulf of Mexico and Europe. At its peak, more than 200 steamboats traveled the Apalachicola River each day.
During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers saw the importance of protecting this trade route from Northern raiders, who had control of the open water. The Confederates knew that whoever controlled Torreya’s bluffs controlled the river. They built a six-gun cannon battery overlooking the Apalachicola River.
Today, the guns are gone, but you can still see where they (and their communication trenches) rested if you take a hike along the park’s Bluff Trail.
During the Antebellum era, the Northwest was different from the rest of Florida. The region that includes
Torreya State Park had more in common, economically and geographically, with its neighbors to the north than it did with the rest of the peninsula.
In the 19th century, a series of large, plantations stretched from Jacksonville west to Pensacola. Most have of these houses have been lost to time, but visitors can catch a glimpse of that era by visiting The Gregory House on the park grounds.
Built in 1849 by the planter Jason Gregory, this Greek Revival-style house once stood at Ocheesee
Landing, on the other side of the river. In 1935, when Torreya was in the process of becoming one of Florida’s first state parks, workers dismantled the wooden structure and moved it, piece by piece, by barge, to its current location. Weekday tours are conducted at 10 a.m.; on weekends, tours are held at 10 a.m. and 2 and 4 p.m.
Into the Wild
While Torreya State Park may mean different things to historians and botany buffs, for backpackers and hikers, it is a rare chance to climb the only “mountains” in a state where most folks live at or slightly above sea level.
Torreya has miles of hiking trails through a variety of terrain. Hikers and backpackers can rough it or camp in relative style, depending on which trail they choose.
The shortest trail and most accessible campsite is located at Rock Bluff, an approximately one-mile hike, or 45-minute walk, from the parking lot. A second campsite can be found along a small feeder stream called Rock Creek. This site can be accessed from the High Pines parking area.
The truly stout of heart (and feet) should consider heading out to the Torreya Challenge campsite, a four-hour hike from the park entrance. The terrain has changes in elevation from a low of 40 feet to a high of 290 feet.
Unlike most Florida trails, which are sometimes akin to a stroll on a beach, Torreya’s longer trails will be a challenge (hence the name). Sturdy, ankle-high hiking boots are a must. Those new, lightweight, aluminum hiking stick(s) will help you keep your balance. If you planning an overnight trip, be sure to pack lightly because the frequent changes in elevation have broken many a backpacker used to the state’s sea-level trails.
On a recent trip, we set up camp at Rock Bluff. The air temperature dropped into the upper 30s that night, and when we awoke in the morning, the Apalachicola River below was covered by a fog thicker than pea soup. For a moment, I forgot I was in Florida – the scene was more reminiscent of the Great Smoky Mountains than the Sunshine State.
All night long, we could hear deer as they rustled along the ridge. In the morning, we heard the cries of a bobcat, and later caught a rare glimpse of the nocturnal predator as the sun struggled to rise above the horizon.
But you don’t have to lug a 45-pound pack up the River Bluffs Trail to get a taste of nature. Torreya has a campground with 30 full-service sites and three primitive sites that welcomes tents and recreational vehicles. Another unique sleep option is to reserve the park’s YURT (or Year-round Universal Recreational Tent). It’s a round, 20-foot, domed tent with a floor, electrical hookup and lockable wooden door. This shelter, inspired by Mongolian nomads, has a real bed, as well as fresh water and a fire pit.
With the campground or YURT as your base, you are free to explore a half-dozen different trail combinations, each one special in its own right. While you are out there, keep an eye out for the fabled gopherwood tree. For in this Old Testament-style Garden of Eden, you never know when you just might need an ark.