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Geological Gem | Winter 2013 Out Here Magazine

Stairway down Devil's Millhopper - Tractor Supply Co.
A 232-step stairway, built in 1976, takes visitors down into the massive sinkhole.

Descend into a massive sinkhole at Devil’s Millhopper state park

By Leah Call

Photography courtesy of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Don’t let the name scare you. Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park in northern Florida, is a must-see natural attraction. Designated a National Natural Landmark, Devil’s Millhopper, just two miles northwest of Gainesville, is an actual sinkhole, measuring 120 feet deep and 500 feet wide.

“It’s not the only sinkhole in Florida and it’s not the largest sinkhole in Florida, but it is a sinkhole that is most easily accessible to visitors,” says Randy Brown, park manager.

A 232-step stairway, constructed in 1976, takes visitors down into the massive sinkhole.

“It’s very pretty, because there are a lot of ferns and vegetation and various waterfalls that cascade down from the sides and end up in the very bottom of the sinkhole,” Brown says.

While most Florida sinkholes tend to be water-filled, fissures at the bottom of Devil’s Millhopper allow water to drain. “Unless we have an extreme rain event, that is the only time that water will actually stand in the bottom,” Brown says.

What Is A Sinkhole?

A sinkhole is a geological phenomenon that occurs when surface sediments collapse into underground voids in bedrock, such as limestone.

Voids are caused by ground water eroding limestone over a long period of years. Sinkholes can occur almost anywhere and vary in size and shape.

Devil’s Millhopper was so named because its shape resembles a hopper — a container with a chute used by farmers in the 1880s to hold grain as it was fed via gravity into a gristmill.

“They poured the grain in from the top. It had a small hole at the bottom and it would feed the grindstone beneath it,” explains Brown.
Because settlers found animal bones and fossils at the bottom, they imagined that this was where the devil tossed the lost, Brown says.

Those early farmers enjoyed a colorful story, and the sinkhole provided good fodder. Because settlers found animal bones and fossils at the bottom, they imagined that this was where the devil tossed the lost, Brown says. Geologists estimate the sinkhole formed 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, with a secondary collapse about 2,000 years ago.

“That is based on coring the soils and seeing what sediment has built up over the years,” adds Brown, who isn’t worried about further collapse.

“The bottom of the sinkhole itself, where our boardwalk terminates, has about 20 feet of sediment from erosion that has built up over the years.

If a large cavity underneath let go, that sediment could wash down. We’ve had about 40 feet of water over the bottom that drained over time and did not cause a collapse. So it’s very unlikely that a collapse would happen.”

Devil’s Millhopper welcomes about 50,000 visitors annually. After making the trip into the sinkhole itself, visitors can hike the half-mile nature trail along its rim and eat lunch in the picnic area. A visitor’s center offers audio-visual presentations for those with physical limitations.

The park draws a mix of curious visitors, including geologists and students from nearby schools.

“With the economy and gas prices, we have a larger influx of local people within a day or less drive coming to the park,” Brown notes. “But we do have visitors from all over the world. It’s an area that people can visit and not spend all day. They can easily see the Millhopper in an hour and a half, so it’s a good side trip for people.”

Leah Call is a Wisconsin writer.