Torreya State Park exposes visitors to a side of the Sunshine State unknown to many: river views from high bluffs and ravines that transport visitors to a world of environmental intrigue and naturalistic charm.
"You're up and down and walking through a forest that you just can't find anywhere else in Florida, without going north into different states," says park manager Steven Cutshaw. "You can't find it anywhere else in Florida; we are definitely the ‘mountains of Florida.'"
An hour west of Tallahassee, the area's terrain is home to a rare steep-head ravine system, created when seepages of Florida aquifer water emerge from the ground and constantly erode. Over time, this erosion and topographical change has created the 150-foot drops and rises that challenge hikers.
"Our main recreational attraction without a doubt is our hiking trails," Cutshaw said. "We've got 16 miles of hiking trails and it's all because of the ravine system that makes them so attractive."
Adventurists training for treks on the Appalachian Trail frequently train in Torreya, which has four unique ecosystems – streams, wetlands, hardwood slope forests and dry upper-slope forests.
Many also visit the park to research and educate themselves on the park's collections of plant and animal life. This northwest Florida area ranks among the country's best biodiversity hotspots according to Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States (Stein, Adams 2000).
"It's our first time at the park," said a University of Florida botany student visiting with classmates. "We are really interested in looking at different types of plants and the Torreya (tree) is an endangered species."
The park's namesake evergreen species is found exclusively in the 20-mile stretch of the Apalachicola River.
"This is the only place worldwide where the Torreya tree grows," Cutshaw said, "in this 30-40 miles range encompassed in the park."
According to the University of Florida School of Forest Resources and Conservation, the torreya re-sprouts from its stump once disease has killed its stem, giving slight hope of repopulation. Using seeds obtained from living trees, the Florida Park Service is working with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, growing seedlings that are being planted in the ravine habitat at Torreya State Park.
"With our efforts of propagation and seeding, numbers are increasing, with at least 400 known trees in the park," Cutshaw said. "We hope to continue to have a nice, healthy crop that will be sustained into the future."
Two tree plantings can be found along the brick walkway leading to the historic Gregory House. Others can be seen along the nature trails; 45 young trees have been surrounded by plastic netting for protection.
Spotting a torreya tree is easy. The tree is distinguishable from other evergreens, with a structured branch system that coils around the main trunk, sharp needles protruding on each leaf tip.
There are numerous area-specific plant species here, including the U.S. Champion big leaf magnolia, southern magnolia, mockernut hickory, sweetgum, live oak, spruce pine, American beech and the rare Florida yew tree, according to the Florida State Park System.
Animal species populating the area include deer, beaver, bobcats, river otters, gray fox, Florida black bears and the unusual Barbour's map turtle.
For bird watchers, Torreya has more than 100 species. Hardwood ecosystems within the higher elevations and lush river-level ecosystems provide the perfect environments for osprey, white ibis, snowy egret, ruby-throated hummingbird and the nocturnal chuck-will's-widow.
Many bird lovers frequent the park during the fall to witness the annual nesting patterns of the American bald eagle. According to the FDEP, one specific nest is home to annually returning bald eagles who feed, mate and raise young along the banks of the Apalachicola. Although the eagles are not tracked specifically, it is assumed the birds are the same pair, according to Cutshaw. It is extremely rare for multiple and differentiating pairs to occupy a nest previously belonging to a separate pair.
"They make home here where they wouldn't elsewhere," says Cutshaw. "We have eagle nests that are in the park that have been active for years upon years. Every year they will hatch fledglings, which you can see flying around the historic Gregory House."
Jason Gregory was an affluent Calhoun County plantation owner. The house was abandoned as the Civil War moved into the North Florida area.
Between 1937 and 1940, the Civilian Conservation Corps dismantled and moved the home from the Calhoun County side of the Apalachicola River, rebuilding the Gregory House on one of the park's largest bluffs.
Several gun emplacements can be seen along the bluffs, where the Confederacy placed cannons to offset Union Navy boats if they were to come up the river in hopes of reaching Columbus, Ga.
For those looking to enjoy an extended stay of solitude and peaceful retreat, the park offers 30 full-facility campsites, 3 primitive campsites and two group-stay campsites.
Visitors looking for an alternative to the traditional camping route should consider booking the park's 20-foot domed Year-round Universal Recreation Tent (YURT), which offers electricity, a lockable wooden door, wood flooring and three large windows with screens. This unique lodging option rests a comfortable distance from all other campsites, atop one of the park's many scenic bluffs, surrounded by Florida pine and oak trees to create a sense of privacy.
According to the Florida Park System, the YURT offers accommodations for up to five people and includes air conditioning/heating, skylight and futon with bunk twin bed on top, queen-size bed, table, chairs and a deck.
If You Go
2576 NW Torreya Park Road, Bristol
Admission: $3 per vehicle via honor box, limit 8 people per vehicle; $2 for pedestrians, bicyclists
Camping Fee: $16 per night, plus tax (includes water and electricity)
Yurt: $40 per night, plus tax
Tours of the Gregory House are available weekdays at 10 a.m., and weekends at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. at the cost of $3 per adult and $2 per child, 12 and under.
The park is open from 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year.
For more information, call 850-643-2674 or visit floridastateparks.org/torreya.