A river runs through the north-central Florida piney woods. You’ve probably heard of it, the Suwannee River, made famous by American composer Stephen Foster who wrote “Old Folks at Home,” Florida’s State Song. The Suwannee may be famous, but the area the river runs through is one of Florida’s best-kept secrets. It is relatively unpopulated; the landscape is a mosaic of piney woods and bucolic small farms; it is dotted with beautiful natural springs, swamps, and wetlands, most of which are protected within state parks. It is rich with interesting wildlife including alligators, manatees, black bears, and armadillos; the local folks are friendly; and it has a rich folk music culture that is celebrated at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park on the banks of the Suwannee at White Springs, Florida.
All of that inspired friends Don and Karen along with Carol and me to hook up our RV pull-behinds and head south for an eight-day stay while folks at home endured another early spring snow squall and freezing temperatures.
Our campsite was a short bicycle ride from the river that rises in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and runs 246 miles southward through swamps, high limestone banks, hammocks of hardwood, fifty-five freshwater springs, and salt marshes on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. It has been part of Florida’s history since the early days. It is the only major waterway in the southeastern U.S. that remains unspoiled.
Some call it “shamrock touring” where you set up camp in one spot and then do day tours to attractions in all directions from camp. For the first leaf of our shamrock tour, we took the back way to Falling Creek Falls State Park via a sand road and quickly found the trailhead for a short hike to a boardwalk built adjacent to Florida’s highest waterfall. At all of 10 feet, it was lovely not so much for its “spectacular” height but for its beautiful coffee-colored water rich with dissolved tannins from its swampy watershed upstream. Falling Creek is a tributary of the Suwannee, and like the Suwanee, it is referred to as a “blackwater” river due to its dark color. Tannins are water-soluble polyphenols present in many plant tissues like the bark and leaves of oak trees and other plants. Water flowing out of bogs and other wetlands has a characteristic brown color from these dissolved tannins. Aerated at the base of the waterfall, globs of white foam were created which floated downstream. This was a lovely walk next to a pretty little waterfall and stream.
I’ve followed Civil War history for a while, but until now, I had totally overlooked the Battle of Olustee in Baker County just east of our camp. On this flat, unassuming space next to Ocean Pond, with scattered live oaks and pines, the third bloodiest battle of the Civil War took place. Union General Truman Seymour landed troops at Jacksonville, aiming to disrupt the Confederate food supply. This initiative did not end well for the Yanks. On his way to Tallahassee, he ran into a Confederate force under General Joseph Finegan that decisively defeated Seymour’s forces. The victory kept the Confederates in control of Florida’s interior for the rest of the war. The film we watched in the Visitor’s Center reminded us of the brutality of face-to-face combat during this war. Our short walk on the battlefield, now a lovely landscape of mature live oaks, was just too peaceful to conjure up what the battle must have been like.
Our last stop on the tour was Webb’s Antique Mall, a massive building filled with consignment antique booths way too numerous for a full day’s perusal. Karen and Carol did find a “pearl” or two they couldn’t do without.
Gulf Coast Tour: Cave divers travel from all over the world to explore nearly 33,000 feet of surveyed underwater passages at Peacock Springs State Park. Within the park, there are two main natural springs that provide an opening to the labyrinth beneath. At one, we met a woman from Montreal Quebec, a scuba instructor conducting a class, who shared what it was like to swim underground in pitch black for three hours from one portal to the other. “I only needed three bottles of oxygen because I am a small woman; the others needed four,” she said matter of factly. We admired the feat but couldn’t wrap our heads around how that exercise could be fun, not to mention the risk associated with cave diving.
The drive to Steinhatchee on the Gulf Coast traversed forests, fields, and untouched wetlands. We had an appetite by the time we reached Kathi’s Krab Shack in the village. Kathi’s menu did not disappoint. Steinhatchee is known for its Spanish moss, miles and miles of tranquil country roads and bike trails, the egrets who seem in permanent residence, and the abundant fishing opportunities.
Just north up the coast was Keaton Beach with white sand and calm, shallow water in which six or eight kids were swimming without noticing the 70-degree water temperature. But the sun was shining which makes up for about 10 degrees of cold water temperature, or so I’ve heard. I rolled up my pant legs and waded to my knees which was enough regardless of the bright sun.
Gainesville Tour: It’s hard to believe that its been 43 years since Carol and I left Gainesville, FL, and moved to VA. We have fond memories of the four years we spent there in the mid to late 70s while I pursued a graduate degree at the University of Florida. It was a quick trip down I-75 to show Don and Karen some of our favorite places. The best was the renowned Florida Natural History Museum, a leading authority in biodiversity and cultural heritage. It is an engaging and impactful hub for teaching, research, and learning about Florida’s diverse ecosystems.
The museum is unique in that it houses the world’s largest center devoted to butterfly (Lepidoptera) collections-based research and education, as well as a living butterfly vivarium. The Butterfly Rainforest exhibit is a screened enclosure of lush tropical trees and plants with waterfalls and a walking trail that supports hundreds of living butterflies and moths from all corners of the globe.
A few miles south of Gainesville is the quaint village of Micanopy, a great place for an afternoon stroll under a canopy of live oaks covered with Spanish moss. Both sides of Main Street are lined with historic storefronts containing coffee and baked goods, unique gifts, books, antiques, and several eateries.
Have you seen the movie Doc Hollywood? Micanopy played host to actor Michael J. Fox who played the role of a young plastic surgeon who, on his way across the country to a job interview, crashes his car in a small town and is sentenced to work for several days at the town hospital. To reach Micanopy from Gainesville requires crossing Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a large wetland prairie that was a freshwater lake when we crossed. Around the corner is Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park containing the farmhouse where she lived and wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Yearling” and other novels.
I’m not sure if it is the deepest sinkhole in the state, but Devil’s Millhopper at 120 feet is right down there. On the way back to camp, we stopped at this Geological State Park to explore another of Florida’s natural wonders. Climbing down a sinkhole is an exceptional experience. As we descended the 132 steps of the boardwalk, we realized we were in a small rainforest with tumbling waterfalls in creeks that fed into the sinkhole. The climate, geology, and plant and animal life within the hole have created a small unique ecosystem.
Our short day trips were quite enjoyable but the village of White Springs and the immediate area just outside the park were a treat as well. The local folks describe White Springs as a “——-friendly town nestled on the banks of the Suwannee River, where pride in family, community, and patriotism create a wonderful quality of life. It is a peaceful rural area of natural beauty balancing the old with the new.” It is the home of the annual Florida Folk Festival.
The village has a population of around 700 with a canoe livery, bait shop, gas station, Dollar General, restaurant, and hardware store. The restaurant, Fat Bellies, was really special; we had lunch there when we arrived. But the hardware store, Suwannee Hardware & Feed, was really, really special—totally one of a kind. Cats, dogs, and chickens had the run of the place along with the locals and visitors. The sign in front advertised “Goat Milk Soap, Firewood Bundles, and Seed Potatoes.” But there was virtually nothing you couldn’t find along the many aisles, nooks, and crannies of the store and its outside animal stables.
It was easy spending a day walking around the village. A combination crafts fair, flea market, and farmer’s market occupied a couple of the streets on Saturday and brought in the locals as well as a few visitors including us. Across the street from the hardware store was a canoe livery where Don and Karen made arrangements for their eight-mile paddle. “Beautiful scenery along the river,” they said, “but only one alligator.”
A long walk or short bike ride from camp took us to other scenes of Florida’s natural beauty. The Suwannee River is beautiful from any angle and down sand roads are hardwood hammocks dotted with cypress ponds. One mile from White Springs is Big Shoals State Park featuring limestone bluffs as well as the biggest whitewater rapids in all of Florida. A two-mile hike took us to the Big Shoals. We were impressed by the tenth-mile-long cascade of Class III waves rocking the surface of the chocholate-colored water. Don and Karen chose not to quarrel with Big Shoals and opted for quieter water for their canoe float.
Mid-March to mid-April is a great time to camp in North Florida; we recommend it. We had great weather despite some rain at night and night-time temperatures requiring a bit of heat. A few midges and mosquitos didn’t keep us from enjoying storytelling around the campfire with our favorite drinks. I know there are other great places to camp and explore, but this jewel will be hard to beat.