by Robin Draper
Six unforgettable adventures await you in the Suwannee River Valley, home to the legendary river, as it winds through scenic state parks, natural springs, charming small towns, past music festivals, and Civil War battlefields.
The Suwannee River is preserved in song, steeped in history, and presents a natural haven for outdoor enthusiasts. As this north Florida river winds its way from Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico it passes through an interesting, yet lesser known, region of Florida –the Suwannee River Valley. Comprised of three counties – Suwannee, Hamilton, and Columbia, and dotted with small towns such as White Springs, Lake City, and Live Oak, the Suwannee River Valley abounds with southern charm, greeting visitors with warm hospitality and authentic Florida cultural heritage.
Scenic state parks, natural springs, charming small towns, and Civil War battlefields are just some of the things in store for you as you visit the area. You may stumble across an old tobacco barn or a corn field while walking down a meandering nature trail, encounter rich scenery, wildlife, and even rapids as you paddle the river and its tributaries, and if you are there on Memorial Day weekend you can listen to some of the best folk music in the country. Whatever you discover, be assured that the Suwannee River Valley with its river and small towns will likely touch your soul with beauty, music, and charm. Here are six unforgettable adventures while visiting the area.
A River Runs Through It
When visiting the Suwannee River Valley, it is easy to see that the Suwannee River provides the heartbeat of the region. Originating in Georgia’s Okeefenokee Swamp, the river flows 246 miles to the Gulf of Mexico. Of that total length, more than 170 miles comprise the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, a connected web of Florida State Parks, preserves and wilderness areas.
For an easy half-day paddle launch your canoe or kayak in White Springs where American Canoe Adventures will provide transport to Wayside Park to launch. Enjoy an easy eight-mile adventure by beginning with this early morning paddle on the upper Suwannee River. The flowing water will slowly set your boat in motion as the sun rises and a faint mist hovers above the tannic black water river. The slow-moving current will carry your vessel downstream at a peaceful pace, surrounded by lush nature and bordered by limestone bluffs with natural springs flowing into the river and tall gnarled cypress trees towering above. Birds, some rare, flit in and out of moss-draped old oaks, tall pines, and hedges of palmettos.
You’ll rarely need to paddle as the current gently guides your vessel while a symphony of crickets fills the air. Watch for gators sunning on the riverbank (they will avoid you), deer grazing, and otters playing.
Three miles down-river, just beyond the State Road 136 Bridge, you’ll pass the historic Spring House. Here, more than a century ago, tourists bathed in the “healing” therapeutic springs, no longer bubbling, yet the building remains. Soon, you’ll hear the sounds of the carillon, a huge bell tower that rings out with tunes by Stephen Foster, who wrote the Florida state song –Old Folks at Home (Suwannee River) in 1851 at the state park that now bears his name. For another four miles, the river runs through the wildness of Stephen Foster State Park, but the calm nature of the river will absorb your every thought. If you need to rest or stop for lunch, sandy riverbanks line the shore.
Paddle on and time will pass with hardly a notice as you soon land at Swift Creek Track landmark where you’ll be picked up by the outfitter to return to your car.
The lengthy Florida Wilderness Trail is ideally set up with convenient camping platforms above the river, providing restrooms and hot showers for avid paddlers. If you are really adventurous, you may want to head upstream to Big Shoals State Park where experienced kayakers can challenge Florida’s only Class III rapids, or continue your journey downstream to the river’s middle stretch between Suwannee River State Park and the town of Branford where the river widens and you can enjoy spring-hopping adventures in Florida’s freshwater springs along the way. Further south of Branford, the lower Suwannee River terrain transforms from bluffs to low banks where boaters enjoy fishing for both salt and freshwater fish.
Crystal Clear Serenity Awaits On Another River
Ichetucknee Springs and River, near Fort White, gives you a chance to lazily float down the river. From the dock near the headspring, tubers prepare to slip into huge brightly colored inner tubes and enter the clear, cool, 72-degree spring water. Here they begin to experience one of Florida’s most beloved waterways for more than three miles. The Ichetucknee River flows into the Santa Fe River, which in turn joins the Suwannee.
It’s a place where there is nothing to do but become “one” with the gentle current. Absorb the beauty as natural Florida greets you at every turn while you easily navigate under or around fallen trees. Bright blue skies offset the crystal clear water as the sun shines on the sandy bottom highlighting the river grass below. Mullet and bass swim by and an occasional otter may emerge onto the riverbank. Hawks, herons, and egrets perch in the shady hammocks and wetlands while colorful wood ducks swim near the shore. Yellow-bellied turtles line up on submerged logs, basking in the warm sun. Red Cardinal flowers and white spider lilies add color and contrast to the riverbank while white-tailed deer drink from the water’s edge.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Ichetucknee Springs and River has been a destination for campers, college students, and Floridians seeking the delightful experience of tubing more than three miles down river.
There are a few suggestions to maximize your Ichetucknee experience: Go early, and if possible, go on a weekday. Holidays and weekends are crowded. There are numerous tube outfitters outside the state park off SR 238 or 47 and reservations are not required. You’ll pick your tube up the day of your trip for one of the most special experiences in all of Florida.
This River Goes Underground
Another cherished oasis is O’Leno State Park, less than 20 minutes from the Ichetucknee Springs, just west of Live Oak in High Springs. The park is well known because of its unusual geological feature where the river disappears underground and rises three miles south at the River Rise Preserve State Park.
A suspension bridge built by the Civilian Conservation Corps still spans the river and hiking, biking, camping, and fishing are popular activities amongst shaded hammocks where turkeys, grey fox, and gopher tortoises are sure to be seen.
Music flows in Suwannee Valley with the annual Florida Folk Festival in White Springs. Get ready for good times with this relaxed, down-home celebration of Florida’s cultural heritage.
Held on the banks of the Suwannee River, it’s one of the oldest folk festivals in the United States, occurring every Memorial Day Weekend (May 27-29) at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park.
More than 300 of Florida’s most talented musicians, songwriters, and artists gather to salute Florida’s heritage arts. Song, dance, tales, and traditions are shared, and late-night jam sessions entertain and often create collaborative new work.
Plus, the Festival’s folklife area demonstrates blacksmithing, butter churning, quilt making, a sugar cane boil, cracker whip making, and fishing line casting.
And if you came to eat, you found the right place. Famous for homemade root beer floats as well as authentic soul food served up by local church groups, plus fried chicken, smoked mullet, shrimp, grits, greens, sweet tea, and homemade desserts, the festival offers many mouthwatering choices and a heaping dose of genuine southern hospitality.
But get your reservations early. Camping is popular and if you miss getting a campsite at one of the state parks, the Spirit of the Suwannee nestled on the Suwannee River near Live Oak offers a range of accommodations including primitive campsites, RV hookups, and nice cabins. It is also a music park with a music hall open year around and two major festivals, the Suwannee River Jam and Wanee Festival. Expect to hear country, roots, rock, blues, gospel, and bluegrass here.
The Smoke Gets Thick: Battle of Olustee Re-Enactment
In 1864, the largest Civil War battle in Florida was fought at Olustee. It is commemorated every February at the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park. Nearby Lake City marks the event with the two-day Olustee Festival and at the battlefield, a re-enactment brings the hard-fought battle to life.
Each year, nearly 30,000 spectators converge on the battlefield to witness the re-enactment of the Confederate Army’s battle to repulse invading Union troops. During the actual battle, more than 10,000 troops fought a five-hour skirmish in a pine forest with more than 2,800 casualties.
Smoke fills the air, as uniformed Confederate and Union re-enactors battle using authentic weapons and firing cannons.
If you can’t make the re-enactment visit the Olustee Battlefield State Park or the Lake City Columbia County Historical Museum for a taste of history. And while in Lake City try the Marion Street Deli & Pub for shrimp & grits and house-smoked pulled pork.
Southern Charm in a Small Florida Town
White Springs could be the quintessential small Florida town. Timber and cotton were once mainstays, but it also attracted well-heeled tourists in search of the relaxing, medicinal waters of the White Sulphur Springs. Fancy hotels provided lodging as the railroad brought them to town.
In 1851, composer Stephen Foster wrote the popular tune “Old Folks at Home,” and White Springs became a destination “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River.” Nowadays, while there is no longer a bubbly spring, the Spring Building still stands as a reminder of the past. The Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center and Park, known for its carillon playing melodic Stephen Foster tunes, is home to an antebellum museum that pays homage to Foster and his music.
Today, White Springs is an eco-tourism destination, as hikers and bikers enjoy nearby Florida trails and paddlers enjoy the rivers and springs. Bird watchers flock to traipse through the woods where Eagles, Osprey, Pileated Woodpeckers, and Owls call home. For lodging, the White Springs Bed & Breakfast Inn welcomes guests to stay in town.
Enjoy a walking or biking tour of the small town to absorb its charm. Stroll down Spring Street to see the Adams County Store, churches dating to the late 1800s, and several historic homes. And don’t miss old the Telford Hotel, not currently open but the only hotel that has survived since the prosperous resort town era.
Outside White Springs, along the Suwannee River, is Big Shoals State Park. This is home to Florida’s largest white water rapids. Hike the trails that lead to the shoals (shallow, rocky rapids). The well-laid-out trail in the pine flatwoods, along wetlands, and beneath towering longleaf pines is a good place to spot hawks, barred owls, and Pileated Woodpeckers.
With a host of outdoor and cultural amenities set against a glorious backdrop of winding rivers, springs, parks, and wildlife, Florida’s Suwannee River Valley offers a vacation experience you won’t forget.
About the Author: Robin Draper is a Florida native and blogger devoted to the simple and delightful pleasures of Florida living.