Before heading south to Gainesville, head 50 miles west to Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, on U.S. 90. Designated as Florida's first state park, this site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was built to preserve the site of the Florida's largest Civil War battle. A small interpretive museum, a 1-mile interpretive trail, and a monument to the Union and Confederate armies open to the public free of charge. An annual battle reenactment, Florida's largest Civil War reenactment, takes place in the park in February each year and features full-scale artillery, military drills and living history demonstrations by more than 2,300 reenactors. Call 386-758-0400 or visit the park's website to find out more.
Ever wonder what Florida was like before it became one of America's most popular destinations? Visit Micanopy's (pronounced MICK-ah-no-pee) Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park on U.S. 441, 10 miles south of Gainesville. This preserve is among the nation's most significant historical and natural areas with 20 different biological communities. For an in-depth study of the preserve, hike, bike or ride a horse on the extensive trails traversing the park - you're likely to happen upon the herd of bison or wild horses that roam free. Call 352-466-3397 or go to the preserve's website for more information.
Looking to cool off? Go tubing, of course, and not just on any river, but the Ichetucknee River - one of Florida's most pristine waterways. Millions of gallons of water pour into the river daily from eight major springs, with water so crystal clear that snorkeling is also an outing option. In Ichetucknee Springs State Park, off State Road 47 and 238, there are two tubing runs, ranging from 45 minutes to three-and-a-half-hour excursions. Your best bet? Climb into a slippery tube and float away the day at a snail's pace. Tubing from the south entrance of the park, four miles west of Fort White on U.S. 27, is available year round. Canoeing is an optional way to enjoy the natural beauty of the river year round, as is swimming at either Ichetucknee Spring or Blue Hole Spring, both available at the north entrance. If you're a cave or cavern-certified scuba diver, you can explore Blue Hole Spring from October through March. And finally, if a day in the water isn't what you're looking for, you can still experience this beautiful park through the three unique hiking trails. Trail maps are available at the ranger station or information booth. Call 386-497-4690 or go to the park website.
It's back to school for art lovers in Gainesville. In this football-frenzied town, the University of Florida is also home to one of the largest university-affiliated museums in the country, the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, S.W. 34th St. and Hull Road. Established to consolidate and care for university collections, The Harn is notably strong in photography, Asian, African, modern and contemporary art. The museum also displays numerous traveling exhibits throughout the year. Call 352-392-9826 or visit the website.
Right next door, don't miss the Florida Museum of Natural History, where you can explore the fascinating world of original Florida natives, diverse natural habitats and much more. Call 352-846-2000 or go to the museum's website.