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Some say it sprang to life more than 900 years ago, gradually pushing its way up through the Levy County muck in a time when, on the European continent, people were still living in the Dark Ages and setting out on what would be the first of many attempts to reconquer the Holy Land.
Gradually, it established a foothold, weathering the onslaught of pests, storms and wildfire during the time of the Timicuans, hundreds of years before people such as “Great Floridian” David Levy Yulee had any influence in the state and before bands of runaway Creeks organized themselves into what would become the Seminole Indians.
Even during the earlier part of the 20th Century, as the blades of progress and profit swept through various parts of the county, the Goethe Giant, as it happens to be called because of its size and where it’s located, survived, flaunting its thin needle leaves in the sun.
“It’s hollow in spots,” says Goethe Forestry Supervisor Bobby Cahill. “I think that’s why it survived.”
But, in today’s Florida, “survived” may be a bit of an understatement for the estimated 907-year-old bald cypress that measures more than 9 feet in diameter. The tree, which looks like it may have been topped — perhaps by a storm — in its past, stands at about 105 feet tall and has a canopy that spreads more than 50 feet.
“It’s the sixth biggest cypress in the state,” Cahill says, adding that it’s listed as a Florida Challenger on Florida’s Champion Tree registry. “It’s quite impressive.”
Florida, according to the state’s forestry service, has the most champion trees in the country, with about 111 species having representatives on the list, the biggest of which happened to be another bald cypress in Seminole County named The Senator that succumbed to the ravages of time in 2012.
Levy County has seven trees on the registry, including a couple species of oak, palm, maple and sycamore, though none trump The Goethe Giant in terms of sheer mass.
The woody behemoth looms like a gray, knotted tower, punctuated with bee-filled hollow spots and planted firmly amid moist ferns and bog plants at the end of a short boardwalk, built with wood salvaged from trees ravaged by pine beetles.
Cahill said he, on occasion, likes to bring people out and watch the look of surprise as they reach the end of the boardwalk and see the massive cypress. Future plans include extending the boardwalk to some of the floodplain swamp’s other large trees, which can be seen through the greenery.
The boardwalk rests at the end of Big Cypress Trail, a ¼-mile-long hike bordered by palmettoes and blanketed with pine needles and the leaves of the southern magnolia. Big Cypress Trailhead, open to the public, is a little more than 3 miles down Cow Creek Road, an 8-mile birding trail accessed from State Road 121 – about a mile or so from where the road intersects with U.S. 19 between Williston and Inglis.
Big Cypress Trailhead is Goethe’s only non-fee area, but be sure to bring bug spray this time of year, lest one be carried away by the throngs of yellow flies and mosquitoes.
And while you’re out, visit some of the other Goethe trails, which total more than 100 miles through a portion of the forest’s 53,587 acres in Levy and Alachua counties. Goethe boasts more than 15 different types of natural communities and is well known for the wildlife sometimes on display there.
• Apex Trailhead: about 30 miles of trails where visitors can hike, bike and horse ride. Camping is allowed.
• Buck Island Pond Trailhead: 1.8 loop (and boardwalk) around the pond.
• Black Prong Trailhead: about 40 miles of trails where visitors can hike, bike and horse ride. Camping is allowed.
• Tidewater Trailhead: about 40 miles of trails where visitors can hike, bike and horse ride. Camping is allowed.
• Daniel’s Island Tract Trailhead: Open roads and trail accessible through Tidewater Trailhead.
• Watermelon Pond Trailhead: about 7 miles of trails where visitors can hike, bike and horse ride. Camping is allowed.