Off the Beaten Path from Jacksonville: Columbia County, Fla.
One of Florida’s easiest-to-reach destinations also happens to be one of its most overlooked.
Travelers rocketing east and west on Interstate 10 or north and south on Interstate 75 seldom take time to step on the brakes and get out of the clutches of these heavily-trafficked highways.
But if you knew what awaited you in Columbia County, you’d be inclined to pull over for a refreshing swim in its natural springs, a walk through its woods, and an inner tube excursion down one of Florida’s most famous rivers.
1. Spring Time
If staring at a hanging plant outside your office was your last outdoor excursion, it’s time for a road trip to an oasis of woods and waters. Few pleasures are more enjoyable than slipping into the bracing waters of a natural spring, floating freely beneath the filtered shade of oak and cypress and palm trees, and feeling the soft sand beneath the bare soles of your feet. Those sensations await you in Columbia County, where more than a dozen springs, ponds, and parks are listed and mapped on the informative, descriptive, and detailed website springsrus.com.
2. Park It
In the late 1800s the arrival of railroads sparked thriving boomtowns just as sure as their departure created empty ghost towns. That’s what happened in the trackside town of Leno, where a hotel, sawmill, stores, and homes were abandoned in 1894 after the line shifted to Fort White. Locals referred to the abandoned town as “Old Leno” (later shortened to O’Leno) which, in 1934, became the foundation of O’Leno State Park, created as part of FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps.
Found along the migratory path of the Great Florida Birding Trail, the focal point of O’Leno State Park is the Santa Fe River. You can ease into its tea-colored waters, cross it via a swinging bridge, explore it by canoe or kayak, or let its softly-flowing waters lull you to sleep as you settle down in a cabin or the park’s tent- and RV-friendly campground.
3. Down a Lazy River
The highlight of Ichetucknee Springs State Park is the Ichetucknee River, which offers a natural antidote to deadlines, schedules, and social media. Atop inflatable rafts, inner tubes, and stand-up paddleboards, guests are transported 3.5 miles along the crystal-clear current on a four-hour journey, warmed by sunlight flickering through a canopy of oaks and peering into glassy waters at fish, turtles, and lengthy strands of eel grass. To preserve the waterway, rangers limit the full-length river run to 750 people per day during the Memorial-Day-to-Labor-Day season, with guests arriving later in summer or anytime off-season enjoying trips of a mile or more by wading in at different entry points. Whether you’re in it for a short run or going the distance, this is one of Florida’s best natural experiences.
4. History Happened Here (and There)
As evidenced by a stone monument by the courthouse in Lake City, ripples of the Civil War were felt across Columbia County. This one remembers 151 Confederate soldiers who died in February 1864 fighting at the Battle of Olustee in neighboring Baker County and were laid to rest at Oaklawn Cemetery about 10 blocks northwest of downtown. Some hidden history surfaced in 1982 when divers found a cache of century-old weapons in nearby Lake DeSoto. During Reconstruction, resentful rebels stole Springfield rifles from Union soldiers and heaved them into the water. A marker at the lake shares this story while other glimpses of history are explained and exhibited at Lake City-Columbia County Historical Museum in downtown Lake City.
Split between Columbia County and neighboring Baker County to the east, roughly 200,000 acres of forest offer a glimpse of Florida, unspoiled. Among the highlights is Ocean Pond, a shallow two-mile wide lake is ideal for fishing and water skiing. Intersected by the Great Florida Birding Trail and the Florida National Scenic Trail, the lake and adjacent campground attract more than 100,000 visitors a year, some of them staying a night or more at the 67-site campground. Wooded trails are plentiful and include the Nice Wander Trail through an ancient stand of longleaf pines, and the Fanny Bay Trail which, within its mile-long loop, includes a boardwalk that winds through a swamp forest of towering cypress trees. What else? The 13,600-acre Big Gum Swamp Wilderness, a combined 50 miles of wooded and open-range paths on the West Tower Equestrian Trails and, near Lake City, fishing-friendly Watertown Lake.
For more information, visit springsrus.com.
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