The Woods and Waters of Union County Florida
Need to get the kids (and yourself) out of the house for the day? Try one of these day trips and unique tours for a new view on Florida.
Quick side-trips and short outings are great for families traveling or living in Florida. These family road trip ideas are personal recommendations that are educational and fun-- and best of all, they're not too long that the kids get restless, and not too short that you don't enjoy a sense of adventure.
Florida Natural’s Grove House
A visit to the Sunshine State wouldn’t be complete without a taste of Florida’s Natural brand orange juice. The company’s Lake Wales grove in central Florida offers a private glimpse of its juice-making and provides a history lesson for the kids in the guise of a fun stop.
Take a break from highway driving and relax on a front-porch rocker as you test the native citrus juices at the Grove House.
The cracker-style visitor center houses a theater, where guests watch a 14-minute how-to video about making OJ – from choosing the right orange to cleaning and packaging. The history of Lake Wales is also highlighted for visitors.
In the museum, mementos and artifacts help trace the history of Florida’s Natural juices. Some family road trip ideas for the younger set, there’s a button-pushing machine that demonstrates the squeezing process. And, of course, all kids like to push buttons (no pun intended)!
Gift items like lemon trees, orange trees, Florida’s Natural T-shirts, and other citrus-themed gifts are all on hand so you won’t go home empty-handed. These make great souvenirs for teachers and friends back home.
A Train Ride to Remember
There are some scenic routes in Florida that can only be viewed by rail. What a good excuse to hop aboard the Seminole Gulf Railway, which owns and operates the Murder Mystery Dinner Train in Fort Myers.
This unique dining experience offers the opportunity to view the Caloosahatchee River from the railroad's 75-foot steel drawbridge. But the view is not restricted to the outside. Inside the train a full murder mystery play unfolds while passengers enjoy a full service dinner. The Murder Mystery Dinner Train departs from Fort Myers Wednesday through Sunday year round. Travelers are treated to a 3½ hour performance during which they get to play detective while enjoying their five-course meal.
The train departs at 6:30 every evening but Sunday, when it leaves at 5:30. Cost, including dinner, is $69 every day except Saturday, when it’s $75 (beverages not included).
Florida Family Travel Tidbits
Dollar Rent-A-Car now offers prepaid tolls for its Florida rentals. Instead of reaching for change, visitors can sign up for the Pass24 prepaid toll service for $7.99 per day for all Florida toll charges. Check www.dollar.com for details.
Hertz has a similar program. For a daily service fee of $2.95 (up to a maximum of $14.75 a month) customers enrolled in Hertz’s PlatePass can get their actual Florida tolls added to their credit card after they turn their car in. To find out about the offer, see www.PlatePass.com
Tampa’s first dedicated kosher hotel kitchen opened at the Tampa Airport Marriott under the supervision of a local rabbi. Jewish families celebrate 52 Sabbaths and 13 holidays per year. Information at www.marriott.com.
By Gary McKechnie
If you’re old enough to remember when license tags began with a number based upon the population of Florida’s 67 counties, you may recall Dade County plates started with ‘1’, Duval came in second with ’2’, Orange County was ‘7’, and so on.
Way down in the batting order was #63. Union County.
With a current population of around 15,000, today Union County Florida license plates would be stamped with #60. If you’d like to help move them up to #59, do yourself a favor. Visit Union County.
Reels and Rails
Union County’s modest population is matched by one thing: Its size. When it was carved out of the original New River County in 1921, at only 240 square miles it was (and remains) the smallest county in the state. But that doesn’t mean you should overlook it. If you enjoy fishing, canoeing, kayaking, horseback riding, camping, bicycling, and the outdoors, chances are you’ll discover a new destination to explore. Slip onto the back roads and roll through this lonesome region. Along the way you’ll find only three incorporated towns: Raiford, Worthington Springs, and the Union County seat…
Lake Butler is only about 20 miles southeast of Lake City, but more than miles distinguish the two. Near the junction of I-75 and I-10, Lake City is in all ways a city. Conversely, Lake Butler is off the rural route where the pace is slow and easy and calming. You’ll notice this most of all on the shores of the town’s focal point, Lake Butler.
Most locals, along with a handful of visitors, gather by the waterfront at Lakeside Park where there’s a community building, a large park and playground, a swimming beach, splash park, outdoor grills, a boat launch, and a dock. In pavilions, families gather at picnic tables to celebrate birthdays and family reunions and anything else that needs celebrating.
The mile-wide lake supports what appears to be the town’s most popular pastime: Fishing. Every day, at nearly anytime of day, anglers are sitting in folding chairs or atop overturned five-gallon buckets and hoping that a bass (or catfish or brim or crappie) will bite. There’s a calm feeling here on the lake, with the still waters as quiet as the people fishing here. The scene makes it impossible to resist the temptation to step onto the dock and join them. As you take in the beauty of the landscape, you may notice something missing.
Most lakes of this size and beauty are encircled by large homes or walls of condominiums. Aside from the dock you’re on, however, the remaining 98 percent of the lake is nearly untouched. It is trimmed by an endless stand of reeds bordering a symmetrical wall of trees. Pure, natural Florida.
A few blocks south, the Union County Court House dominates the downtown district with its mix of red brick and gray stone, and is worth a look due to its Old Florida appearance. Downtown itself features only a handful of active businesses and restaurants (apparently the wealth of restaurants in Lake City are worth the drive). But there’s something that Lake Butler has that Lake City lacks: The Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail (352/473-4701).
The multi-use recreational trail was created atop the old railroad bed once used by the Georgia Southern and Florida Railroad. Created with support from the Rails to Trails Conservancy and Florida Greenways & Trails Foundation, the trailhead is found in the heart of the town at the site of the old depot, a replica of which provides rustic lodging for hikers. While you may not be able to go the distance on foot, when the 47-mile trail is complete (sections are still being paved), it seems just the right length for well-tuned bicyclists who could complete a “century” (100 miles) with a round-trip that would take them through four rural counties often bypassed by travelers: Union, Bradford, Clay, and Putnam, eventually ending west of US 17 in Palatka.
Nine miles away via Route 121 (a completely paved country road), sweeps its way southwest and leads to a vignette from the past…
Part of the joy of exploring Florida is finding small towns you’ve never heard of that become towns you’ll never forget.
Worthington Springs may be one of those places. The center of town isn’t very large, you could step on the gas and clear it in about 10 seconds, but there’s something about it that feels familiar in a southern sort of way. Worthington Springs looks at ease with itself. Maybe it’s the old whitewashed Methodist church that’s shaded by oaks or the weather-beaten log cabin across the street. Or maybe it’s the notices tacked up on the community bulletin board outside the post office (a post office in a trailer, no less).
Steps away, a small restaurant serves hot pizza and down the street local kids are playing a pick-up game at the basketball court. Just a short distance south, the highlight of Worthington Springs is Chastain-Seay Park.
With the Santa Fe River creating a natural border between Union and neighboring Alachua County, this is the perfect place for a park. Near the entrance, a playground and, further along, a primitive campground. Like their counterparts in Lake Butler, it seems most visitors find their way to the shoreline to enjoy a few hours of fishing on the Santa Fe, most beside the bridge that spans the river. Should you wish to explore, it’s anyone’s guess if the water will be high enough to float a boat. If so, it’s BYOC (Bring Your Own Canoe).
Simple pleasures in an undiscovered part of Florida. It’s what traveling is all about.
You’ll find even more to catch your attention on a Union County Florida road trip.
The town is too small to keep you occupied, and the main industry (the Florida State Prison) isn’t designed for well-behaved tourists. But if you enjoy history, cemeteries can fill you in on a town’s past. Signs along CR 121 will point you toward the Sapp Cemetery (12522 Northeast 233rd Lane) where an assemblage of headstones creates a fascinating photo op.
7839 Southwest 126th Avenue
No pesticides used here. Only fresh, natural blueberries.
Union County Riding Club
15460 SW 154th Loop
On the south side of Lake Butler on Route 121, the club meets at a small arena that provides a family-friendly setting for the sport of barrel racing. Members and fans gather on the second and fourth Saturdays at 7 p.m. to practice and compete in events including the arena race, pole bending, cloverleaf, and the Texas barrel weave. The UCRC also offers classes, free admission. There is a dress code for riders: Jeans, shirts, and boots only.
Lake Butler Fourth of July
Lake Butler’s big event arrives on Independence Day with a festival featuring vendors, fireworks, a Fun Run & 5K Run, as well as a Rotary-sponsored bass fishing tournament.
North Florida Regional Chamber of Commerce
Lake Butler City Hall
Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA