If you could roll back the clock to the 1950s, you’d find travelers rolling south into Florida on narrow two-lane highways such as U.S. Routes 301 and 129.
In the pre-interstate age, they were all we had. And if you’d like to truly experience off-the-beaten-path Florida, that may still be all you need.
To get started, just unfold a paper map (a GPS is so 21st Century) and place a finger on Florida’s Big Bend, the part from where the state begins to curve above Tampa to where Northwest Florida dips most deeply into the Gulf.
This is a part of Florida where you can free yourself from the interstates and find yourself cruising from town to quiet town; places such as White Springs, Olustee, Lake Butler, and Keystone Heights.
Few destinations in this region offer towering downtowns or exciting attractions. In fact, if you judged by population alone, some of these counties could be mistaken for small towns. But they do have roads and they do have history and sometimes those are the only components necessary for a memorable road trip.
So follow the links and then follow the center line to travel these rural locales…
For a quiet county, there’s a lot to do in Levy County. In Fanning Springs you’ll find lovely Fanning Springs State Park, and over on the coast is Cedar Key, which Budget Travel magazine was named the nation’s ‘Coolest Small Town’ in 2011. If you’re a fan of rock n’ roll, pay your respects to the late great Bo Diddley who rests in peace at the Rosemary Hill Cemetery. For more information, visit www.visitnaturecoast.com.
The county seat of Trenton is reason enough to drive into Gilchrist County. The historic Trenton Depot in the heart of town was a stop on the Atlantic Coast Line and is now the trailhead for the Nature Coast Trail, which helps folks on foot, bike, and horseback take a rural route to Fanning Springs -- and on to Chiefland, Old Town, and Cross City if they desire. Across the street, check out the (now-closed) retro service station, and around the corner Hobos is a popular restaurant whose contemporary appearance belies its history as a boarding house.
Although there are only two incorporated towns in Dixie County (Cross City and Horseshoe Beach), it’s a pleasure to experience the natural side of Florida. Explore the county and you’ll find plenty of paddling trails along the Suwannee River. (Be sure to check out the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail). For a look at a seldom-seen remnant of Florida history, head to Old Town and then onto the river for a peek at the City of Hawkinsville, a sunken steamboat that is now an underwater archaeological preserve.
There’s no denying there’s a lot of uninterrupted land in Lafayette County, but it also has the most interesting name for a county seat: Mayo, named for a Confederate colonel. This is where you’ll find the Lafayette County Courthouse (circa 1893) and, just north of town, the lovely Hal W. Adams Bridge on SR 51. Florida’s first suspension bridge, it spans the Suwannee River at the Suwannee County line.
Live Oak, the county seat, has wonderful architecture that seems frozen in time (as in Mayo, pay special attention to the county courthouse), and you’ll find that the downtown district is where locals and visitors participate in hometown events and activities. Perhaps the most activity can be found a few miles north of I-10 at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. With camping and festivals year-round, the park and surrounding Suwannee County captures that magical feeling of Old Florida.
You may have driven through Lake City while rocketing along I-10, but if you really want to slow things down head to Fort White and then head downstream on the idyllic Ichetucknee River. For decades, the crystal-clear waterway has attracted folks who climb atop floats and inner tubes and spend about four hours drifting about four miles along this seductive stream. Look for this, antiques, festivals, and a whole lot more from Columbia County’s Tourism Development Council.
Head a little off the beaten path to White Springs and you’ll find pure peace – and a lot of harmony – at the wonderful Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center. The home of the Florida Folk Music Festival, the park also features the soothing sight and sound of a lovely campanile (bell tower) and the surprisingly interesting presentation of dioramas that highlight some of Foster’s most popular songs.
Driving through the Osceola National Forest on Highway 231 puts you in the middle of a fantastic wilderness. And when your ride through the woods is done, drive over to Olustee where, in February 1864, the Battle of Olustee found 5,000 Confederate soldiers squared off against 6,000 Union troops – an event that is commemorated through a small museum and assorted monuments at the Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park.
If you’d like to see one of the prettiest lake views in Florida, head to the shores of Lake Butler. Picnic pavilions, a playground, docks, and a boat launch are welcome additions on the south shore, but since this magnificent lake is wonderfully clear of development, soaking in a full view of the shoreline is a beautiful sight that complements the pace of this quiet community.
There’s a small but active downtown in the county seat of Starke, a Main Street community that features a strawberry festival in the spring and, on the other end of the spectrum, a motorcycle fest in the fall. To fill out the calendar between them, Starke hosts a monthly ‘Cruzin’ when classic cars are displayed downtown. Oh – if you’re a Tom Petty fan, his song ‘A Heart with Mind of its Own’ includes the line, ‘I’ve been to Brooker…’ which you’ll find in the western edge of the county. You’ll find more activities to pursue at North Florida Chamber.
The drive through Clay County will lead to several interesting places including the town of Keystone Heights, which includes a great winding drive on SR 21 along the shoreline of Lake Geneva and past an endless row of lovely homes and public beaches. About 40 miles east is Green Cove Springs, the birthplace of Charles Merrill (of Merrill-Lynch fame) and the site of the designated Green Cove Historic District that includes approximately 80 historic (and photogenic) structures. It’s also the home of the Gustafson Dairy Farm started by ‘Mama and Papa Gus’ in 1908.
In addition to taking a stroll though Ravine Gardens State Park, in Palatka there’s also Florida’s oldest diner: Angel’s. The St. Johns River flows along the eastern border of the county and in Palatka and Crescent City a calendar of festivals (azaleas, catfish, blue crab, blueberries, bicycle, blues) flows throughout the year. Stick around for the Putnam County Fair and get acquainted with a number of historic homes, the Putnam Historic Museum, the David Browning Railroad Museum, the Mount Royal Indian Temple Mound, and more than 30 murals that depict the history of Putnam County.