When planning your next getaway, picture Columbia County—the gateway to Florida. Nature, history and culture abound in this picturesque oasis and the county has the best the Sunshine State has to offer. Here are the top 10 reasons to visit Columbia County.
1. Stunning Freshwater Springs
With the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Gulf of Mexico to the west, the majestic springs in the Columbia County area are Florida’s best-kept secrets. Pictures hardly do them justice. The sparkling blue water flowing over colorful reefs add to the beauty. You have many ways to enjoy Columbia County’s springs. Swim, canoe, kayak or fish in the crystal clear water at Rum Island Springs. Jump off the diving platform at Gilchrist Blue Springs, or splash in the clear, sparkling green water at Poe Springs. See the life under the water with snorkeling at Ginnie Springs, or ride the waves with a tubing adventure at Ichetucknee Springs. At Ichetucknee springs, you’ll find the Blue Hole, a deep blue spring that leads to an underground cave system (scuba divers must be cave certified). After you’ve played in these springs, you still have more springs to discover in Columbia County.
Snorkeling at Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Columbia County, FL.
2. Florida’s Largest White Water Rapids
Enjoy a different adventure at Big Shoals State Park, which offers an exhilarating ride down the Suwannee River. It is a rare opportunity to ride rapids in Florida. The rapids range from Class I to Class III when the water level is between 59 and 61 feet above mean sea level. The Class III rapids are only for experienced canoers and kayakers, but hikers and bikers can take advantage of more than 28 miles of wooded trails that pass by the water as well as limestone bluffs that give scenic views from above. You can also sink your line and go freshwater fishing along the river.
View from the shore of Big Shoals on the Suwannee River.
3. The 200,000-Acre National Forest
Columbia County is clearly the place to visit if you love the outdoors. It is home to Osceola National Forest which has nearly 200,000 acres to explore. Start at the Olustee Depot, a former train station that is now the visitor center. Beginning around the Civil War, Olustee was a hub for passengers and commodities like timber and turpentine. Inside the depot building, you will see turpentine barrels and old graffiti decorating the walls. Today the landscape of Osceola National Forest has returned to its natural state with pine forests, prairies, swamps and lakes. Miles of hiking and equestrian trails will lead you past the local flora and fauna and range from a flat and easy walk to more challenging, rugged paths. One of the many gems about Columbia County is the Florida National Scenic Trail, which runs through Osceola National Forest. Walk along the 23 miles of trail as you enjoy the sights surrounding you. Don’t forget to pack your bathing suit for the sandy beach along Ocean Pond. You’ll enjoy swimming, boating, water skiing and camping at the 2-mile-wide lake.
Palmettos and pines of the Osceola National Forest.
4. Florida’s Largest Civil War Battle
Olustee Battlefield State Park, located within the Osceola National Forest, is the site of Florida’s largest Civil War battle. On Feb. 20, 1864, more than 10,000 men fought in the battle. The Union side included the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the first African-American units. The battle ended in a victory for the Confederacy and the retreat of Union soldiers to Jacksonville. In 1912, Olustee Battlefield was designated Florida’s first historic site. Today, you can learn about the events of the battle along a 1-mile trail and view memorabilia at the visitor center. Every February Lake City hosts an annual festival for the Olustee Battle, complete with a historical re-enactment at the park.
View of the Olustee Battlefield monuments.
5. Strolling, Shopping and Dining in Downtown Lake City
Southern charm and hospitality abound in downtown Lake City. It is the heart of Columbia County with fine and casual dining, boutiques and historic buildings. Visit The Blanche, a former hotel where famous guests included Johnny Cash and Al Capone. It’s on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and was the first building in Florida to have an elevator. Walk along Marion Street and you’ll see a number of commemorative plaques that describe significant events that took place in Lake City. You can learn more about the area’s past at the Lake City-Columbia County Historical Museum. While in town, you won’t want to miss the massive 3D mural depicting the springs at the intersection of Marion and Hamilton Streets. When you’re ready for a bite to eat, Columbia County has a variety of top-rated restaurants and you’ll find many of them in downtown Lake City. Click here to view some of the shopping available in downtown Lake City.
Downtown Lake City, FL.
6. One of Florida’s Most Unique Breweries
Get a taste of the local beer scene at Halpatter Brewing Co. Halpatter, meaning alligator in the Seminole language, is Columbia County’s first craft brewery. It’s named after Halpatter Tustenuggee, the best-known Seminole Indian who lived in the area. The brewery is located in downtown Lake City and brews a range of beers that pay tribute to the region’s history. Try the Big Hal American brown ale, O’Leno cream ale, or the 16 Springfields imperial IPA. Keep an eye out for limited-release brews like the Seymour & Finnegans Red Irish Ale, named after the commanding generals of the Battle of Olustee. The brewery also makes fruit-infused beers, apple cider and nonalcoholic sodas. Children and dogs are welcome, and the brewery hosts community events, themed parties, and live music often.
The front entrance of Halpatter Brewing Co.
7. One of Florida’s First State Parks
O’Leno State Park, located north of High Springs, was one of the original nine state parks that made up the Florida Park Service. It was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and opened as a state park in 1940; an original suspension bridge still spans the river. You can learn about the conservation and its involvement in the park at a small museum open daily. O’Leno State Park has more than 6,000 acres, with the Santa Fe River running through it. Go hiking or biking on 11 miles of mixed-use trails, and enjoy swimming, paddling, or fishing along the river. Bicycles and canoes are available to rent at the park ranger station. The park offers excellent opportunities for birding; O’Leno State Park is part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail, a network of the top viewing sites across the state. It also has picnic pavilions, playgrounds, and a full-facility campground.
Suspension bridge over the Santa Fe river at O’Leno State Park.
8. A Disappearing River
While visiting O’Leno State Park, you’ll come across a unique phenomenon— a disappearing river! The Santa Fe River flows through the park and then seems to vanish into a giant sinkhole. The river actually flows underground for 3 miles, where it becomes part of the Floridian aquifer system. The Santa Fe River re-emerges as a circular pool in River Rise State Park and eventually flows into the Suwanee River. The natural land bridge between the Santa Fe River Sink and River Rise was an important travel route for early explorers in the area.
Santa Fe River at O’Leno State Park.
9. The River That Inspired Florida’s State Song
There’s something magical about Columbia County’s springs and waterways that can enchant and inspire. This is especially true with the Suwannee River, the inspiration behind the famous song by Stephen Foster. “Old Folks at Home,” commonly known as “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River,” was composed by Foster in 1851 and in 1935 became the official state song of Florida. Columbia County is home to a park honoring the composer and his musical legacy. You can learn about the area’s past at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. The antebellum mansion houses a museum dedicated to Foster and folk music, and there are quilting, blacksmithing, and stained glass demonstrations in Craft Square. You’ll also like the hiking and mountain biking trails, wildlife viewing, and paddling and fishing along the Suwannee River. Enjoy a night among the stars with its full-service campground and five riverside cabins available to rent. Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park hosts special events throughout the year including the annual Florida Folk Festival on Memorial Day weekend. First held in 1953, the Florida Folk Festival is the longest-running state folk festival in the United States.
The Stephen Foster Museum at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.
10. One of Florida’s Only Waterfalls
A short walk along an accessible boardwalk trail takes you to Falling Creek Falls, a hidden waterfall located north of Lake City. It’s a quick detour off Interstate 10, so it is an ideal place to stop and stretch your legs if you are passing through Columbia County. You’ll be in awe of the rushing water cascading 10 feet down a limestone rock formation. The park also has a loop trail that takes you through the woods and by the rapids, and after a day of adventure, enjoy lunch at one of the three picnic pavilions while the kids have fun on the playground.
Falling Creek Falls, Columbia County, FL.