By Lenora Dannelke

Imagine finding hidden treasures without the X-marked map or pirate ship. Try geocaching in Florida, a new way to explore while on vacation.

What is Geocaching?

A term that combines "geographical" and "cache," from the French word meaning "to conceal" – is the sport of searching for and finding a hidden object by means of GPS coordinates posted on a website. In other words, it’s a real life treasure hunting game.

In 2000, the U.S. Department of Defense stopped scrambling signals from their Global Positioning System, and techno-nerds quickly embraced a "treasure hunting" game that employed handheld navigational receivers. Using coordinates for locations posted on web sites, they searched for creatively hidden, weather-tight "cache" containers filled with inexpensive trinkets.

But the high-tech hide-and-seek soon attracted enthusiasts of all ages and descriptions, and has become a favorite form of outdoor recreation. Across the state, the sport has caught on.

Gear and Preparation for Geocaching in Florida

An active geocaching friend convinced me that borrowing her GPS device would add a new dimension of fun to a road trip. Programming a list of latitude and longitude coordinates into the device, she explained that caches are rated by degrees of difficulty. "They can even be hidden underwater," she warned. "But we'll start you off with something simple."

Checking different web sites, the "Hidden Treasures" caches listed by Original Florida looked perfect for a novice cacher and meshed nicely with my travel route.

Now it's just me and my little electronic buddy, the Garmin iQue 3600. As I impatiently cross and re-cross a road by the Maclay park admissions station, the ranger leans from the booth and says, "Slow down! It takes a few seconds for the satellites to read your location." Geocatching is simply perfect for walking tours in Florida.

Obviously, he's familiar with the sport and has watched other players stalking the park's cache. I consider being blunt and asking where it's hidden, but refrain from cheating. Instead, I thank him and take his advice.

Suddenly, the numbers on my screen aren't spinning like a slot machine. And I'm noticing beautiful plants and birds around me. The ranger station is surrounded with vibrant azaleas, and a cabbage palm adds a tropical touch to the stately neighborhood of water oaks and loblolly pines. A bluejay and a pair of cardinals flit through the trees, and a mockingbird perches on a nearby branch to offer tuneful encouragement. I may have found my geocaching zone. However, the cache doesn't jump out and yell, "Here I am!" The ranger, who'll probably be an old friend by the time I leave, advises, "Remember, it's smaller than a train."

Okay - focus. I resort to deciphering the web site's encrypted hint for the cache (a neophyte tactic): "V nz cvavat sbe lbh gb cnex arkg gb zr." It decodes to: "I am pining for you to park next to me," which makes sense upon spying a fallen pine tree. Parking myself on the log, I brush away leaves to uncover an ammunition box. Success!

Unhinging the lid, I examine the contents of the cache. Lots of cool bracelets, stickers and miniature toys to choose from. I add a magnet from Wakulla Springs and remove a tiny bobble-head puppy - my first caching "treasure."

After recording the exchange in the cache's log book, I flip back to peruse notations left by previous cachers, and finally feel connected to the caching community. It turns out the prize I selected was left by my friend, Geo "K," four months earlier. Synchronicity is clearly at play.

During the following week, I locate caches at Steinhatchee Falls, Evinston Community Store and Post Office near Gainesville, Lafayette Blue Springs State Park along the Suwannee River and more. But the north of the state isn't the only place to look for geocaching in Florida.