Off the Beaten Path from Gainesville: Suwannee County, Fla
By Gary McKechnie
Survey a hundred people and odds are most would agree no Florida county has a more delightful name than Suwannee County. On every bridge spanning its famous waterway, a “Welcome to Suwannee County” sign features a staff emblazoned with the distinct opening notes of Stephen Foster’s classic tune.
Incredibly, Foster never saw the Suwannee River (or Florida for that matter), but his musical legacy can still be found across the county nonetheless. You’ll see it in a full calendar of music festivals and in the enduring landscape of oaks, magnolias, Spanish moss, and soft moonlight reflected in his melodies.
1. That’s the Spirit!
From the banks of the Suwannee River inland, the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park is the rare place that pairs nature, camping, and concerts. Across several hundred wooded acres are intimate indoor venues, small stages tucked in the forest, and elevated stages that dominate broad outdoor clearings. Throughout the year, performers showcase a vast spectrum of musical styles in an ongoing variety of festivals.
After the artists are done performing, you’ll learn the park is nothing if not diverse. On foot or by bicycle you can explore the camp and find hiking trails, horse trails, a craft village, disc golf, general store, restaurant, camping and RV sites, a white sand beach, and an outfitter who will rent you a canoe or kayak so you can take a trip… way down upon the Suwannee River.
Across 1,800 acres in the southwest corner of the county is a blend of history and nature ranging from Civil War-era earthwork mounds and the ghostly ruins of a cemetery that served the ghost town of Columbus to hiking trails ranging from a quarter-mile to 18 miles that wind through the longleaf pines and into the Sand Hills. After setting up camp (in a tent or by checking into one of five two-bedroom riverside cabins) head to the boat launch and set off down the Suwannee or nearby Withlacoochee River for some of the best backcountry paddling in Florida.
Exactly why cave divers decide to disappear into pitch black water-filled channels is a mystery to many of us, but it’s no mystery that cave divers from around the world crave the chance to visit Peacock Springs.
Two major springs, a spring run, and six sinkholes combine to create nearly five miles of submerged passages, each surveyed in detail so divers can swim ever deeper and farther into an intricate network of tunnels and caves. If you prefer your outdoor recreation sunny side up, consider splashing, swimming, or snorkeling above ground at Peacock Springs and Orange Grove Sink.
4. Take Your Pick
Rivaling the county’s natural springs is nature’s springtime bounty. Largely a rural area, several local growers supplement their income by inviting visitors to their “u-pick farms” to pluck blueberries, blackberries, grapes, strawberries, persimmons and other varieties of fruits and vegetables. Hours, growing seasons, and the selection of crops vary so check in advance before visiting Live Oak’s Rooney’s Front Porch Farm, C&J’s Blueberry Vineyard, Sivyer Farm (386/362-7108), K & S Farms (386/590-6226), or Mitillini Vineyards (386/364-1773). You’ll find Lee’s Nursery in Branford (386/362-9578) and, in Wellborn, Scott’s Blueberry Farm (386/963-4952).
5. Downhome Dining
Sometimes the best part of a road trip is topping it off with some downhome dining. For that, take a seat in the county seat of Live Oak. Within a few blocks are several choices, including the circa 1959 Dixie Grill (buttermilk-dipped fried chicken, livers, and gizzards, jumbo pork chops, Apalachicola oysters, catfish filets, shrimp and creamy grits); All Decked Out Café (fried green tomatoes, crab-stuffed mushrooms, fried shrimp, fresh oysters, fried shrimp, lobster nuggets, coconut shrimp, ribeye steaks); Big Wood BBQ (brisket, sliced beef, sliced pork, ribs); and the Brown Lantern (beef tips, Carolina barbeque, fresh Gulf grouper, grilled pork chops, potato casserole).
For more information, visit suwcounty.org/county
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