Off the Beaten Path Near Live Oak, in Hamilton County, Fla.
More than a few native Floridians have looked back on their childhood and longed to return to the Florida of their past. Chances are they’ll find it in Hamilton County where, in the 1950s, some of the county’s standout attractions were found along two-lane Highway 41.
But just a few years later traffic was rerouted to four-lane I-75, leaving much of Hamilton County frozen in time. Though largely undisturbed by development, there are still reasons to visit.
As a matter of fact, the casual pace may be the very best reason.
Few things capture the feeling of “Old Florida” as well as the songs of Stephen Foster. Tunes composed in the 1850s bring to mind magnolia blossoms, night-blooming jasmine, and moonlight flickering on the waters of the Suwannee River. In a setting as peaceful as his melodies, this state park pays tribute to Foster and a bygone era.
At the antebellum-style visitor center, ingenious dioramas bring to life Foster’s lyrics; songs toll from a 200-foot, 97-bell campanile; there are quilters, artists, blacksmiths, artisans, and a general store in Crafters Square; and special events fill a year-round calendar highlighted by May’s popular Florida Folk Festival. Few places in Florida are as peaceful as this, so consider pitching a tent in the campground or staying a night or two in one of five riverside cabins.
This small community at the doorstep of the state park has all the ingredients for a thriving center for outdoor recreation. Explore the drowsing downtown on foot or by car and you’ll find Adams Country Store where century-old counters and shelves inside a rustic 1885 wood-frame building are stocked with antiques and collectibles; smoked chicken, sliced pork, butterfly shrimp, and wild catfish served at the downhome and delicious Fat Belly’s Bar-B-Que & Grill; and, in the heart of town, American Canoe Adventures which arranges runs from three miles (one hour) to 12 miles (six hours) on the Suwannee River.
Class III rapids roiling past the Suwannee River’s limestone bluffs are the largest whitewater rapids in Florida, and recommended only for experienced canoeists and kayakers. They are only part of the appeal of this 400-acre state park. Take a hike on a stretch of 33 miles of wooded trails, check out the tower that accommodates thousands of mosquito-craving bats, and find a new source of entertainment with geo-seeking – a popular pastime inside the park.
4. The Best of the Fests
Depending on the time of year, you may reach Hamilton County in time for June’s Jasper Wild Blackberry Festival where blackberries are poured into pancakes, syrups, and jellies, and the town crowns the newest Miss Wild Blackberry. During the third weekend in March, the White Springs Wild Azalea Festival celebrates the flowering plant that thrives along the banks of the Suwannee River, with the largest festival of the year -- May’s Florida Folk Festival – preceding other events at the state park including September’s Old Time Music Weekend, October’s Quilt Show and Rural Folklife Days, and November’s Dulcimer Retreat.
5. Old McCulley Had a Farm
Having been in these parts since 1915, the McCulleys can show you how life is lived, country style. At McCulley Farm it’s easy to put in a canoe or kayak on the neighboring Withlacoohee River, and guests with horses can explore miles of trails leading through old growth forest to crystal blue pools, an old cemetery, and a restored cabin from the 1870s – which are highlights on organized rides including spring and fall’s Withlacoochee Trail Ride. If you find yourself enchanted by the country setting, primitive camping and two cabins are available for overnight stays.
For more information, visit hamiltoncountyflorida.com
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