This is basically a big tree house with three levels that, from the top, offers the opportunity to survey the grassland below from 50 feet in the air. The kids loved it and swore they could see the prairie bison that roam alongside the wild horses and cattle. There didn't appear to be any of the ever elusive bison and as many times as I've looked over the past 16 years, I haven't had a sighting yet. Trevor and Ellison claim they have, but I'm not sure I believe it. But regardless of false alarms, the tower offers a fantastic view of the expanse of Paynes Prairie and Ellison loved running up and down the stairs.
A herd of Florida Cracker horses (and cattle) runs free within the park. They've been there since a band of Seminole Indians corralled them here in the 1700s and we were lucky enough to have a group walk by us on Cone's Dike trail. While they seem unphased by our presence, they made a huge impression on Ellison and the boys. There were about six of them and, clearly hurrying off to somewhere specific, they rushed by without even giving us a glance. For the rest of the afternoon, all Ellison could talk about were the horses- how beautiful they were, how close they came to her on the trail, how desperate she is for riding lessons. This is quite a departure from the attitude she had on our one and only riding experience in the Hawaiian mountains last summer. She swore off horses forever and claimed she never even wanted to see one again (it actually had been really fun, but it was her first time even being around a horse, let alone riding one by herself). Honestly, seeing this herd was a pretty unique experience. I have been to this park dozens of time and have only ever seen them far off in the distance.
The park contains 8 trails, the longest of which is 8.5 miles. We took the Wacahoota Trail to the observation tower first (its only like 1/4 mile) because the kids were dying to climb to the top and then walked about 3.5 miles on the Cone's Dike trail. According to the rangers, this is where you are most likely to see wildlife. There is an interactive map in the Visitor Center that allows people to place magnetic images of viewed wildlife on trail locations - this was a big draw for Ellison and they boys. Each really wanted to have a unique sighting and to be able to move the magnet. Cone's Dike worked well for us this visit because the majority of the trail offers a clear view ahead and the kids could run free. They loved it and were off planning their lives, which on this day naturally included a tree house and a barn for the horses.
The years go by so quickly and to see Ellison out with her cousins, in the woods, laughing and talking about silly and serious things, was a reminder that they'll all be grown up before I know it. These boys are the closest people she has to siblings and I just hope that the fun they have on days like this one encourage countless more hikes that strengthen their bond with each other and the outdoors. They're such great kids and so lucky to have each other!