Hopkin’s Prairie in the Ocala National Forest

I almost let camping season in Florida get away from me.

Last year, I took my oldest for his first overnight in a tent, which turned into a smashing success. He’s been talking about going back ever since, and I did a poor job of making a new trip happen. I can make a lot of excuses – among others, Payne’s Prairie, where we went last year, got jacked up by Hurricane Irma – but those are all excuses.  The probability of us going on a trip this year went down with each passing weekend.

But my boy, he is tenacious.  At one point he and my wife played a wishing game – I think throwing coins into a fountain – and he told her he wished for more adventures.

My heart went *bloop* because, well, I also wish for more adventures, and when my boy is wants to head down the path I want to take him down … I want to be a follow-through kind of Dad.  This pushed me to start researching dates, places, and weather. Payne’s Prairie was an option again, but the recent hurricane flooded the area and caused limited site availability. Other somewhat local state parks and designations did not have any campsite availability, either. So after poking around, I settled on a primitive, un-reservable campsite in the Ocala National Forest called Hopkin’s Prairie.

The word “prairie” deserves some discussion here – the word has been used twice now. When I hear the word “prairie,” I conjure up a mental image of the Great Plains of the American Mid-West – miles of grassland almost never punctured by trees or, for that matter, features of any kind.  In Florida, “prairie” still means grassland, but the scale is different. Here, the grasslands in question are formed by low-lying seasonal marshes that flood in the rainy season and can’t support stands of trees. The major ones, like Payne’s Prairie, can look like they go on forever when you stand in them, but for most of them you can see the forest pick up on the other side.

Hopkin’s Prairie is one of these low-lying areas in the Ocala National Forest, set in a sea of Florida scrub interspersed by islands of longleaf pine. The campsite is seasonal, only open from early November through June 1.  The primary reason for the seasonality is as much about bugs as heat, too. Any time you hear the phrase “low-lying marsh,” feel free to substitute the words “mosquito factory.”  The area is all-the-way primitive – no running water, only a moldering toilet, and the 22 campsites are not electrified – so the end of April is starting to risk yucky weather. Read more