By Chelle Koster Walton
“People on the river are happy to give.” -- Creedence Clearwater Revival
River Ratz Café fits its name. Ramshackle and riverside, the only thing pretty is the view. You can rent a canoe or bike next door for exploring Withlacoochee State Forest. But I was planning a light lunch. So I ignored standard-issue Florida river fare this time, forewent a catfish sandwich and cheese grits for the day’s special soup: chicken gnocchi.
I was feeling downright virtuous, sipping my iced tea and watching for gators in the river waters below, when up pops the manager to wish me a warm welcome as a first-timer, a welcome that included a steaming hot combo appetizer basket of fried okra, onion rings, jalapeno poppers, and mushrooms.
Besides friendly river folk, visitors discover massive opportunities to fish, hike, bike, tube, kayak, snorkel, dive, hunt, horseback ride, camp, bird watch and even go off-road motor-biking on and around the swamp-fed Withlacoochee River and its offshoot spring-fed Rainbow River.
Carlton Ward Jr. for VISIT FLORIDA
The 141-mile long Withlacoochee squiggles through the state forest and river towns that tick to the tempo of its slow flow. Historic Dunnellon stands where the two rivers meet and, because of the pristine Rainbow River State Park and its tubing and kayaking, is the most bustling of Withlacoochee’s harem of small towns.
Blue Run Recreational Park provides access to the Florida Trail and provides a kayak launch into the 6-mile Rainbow, whose spring is ranked Florida’s largest by volume of flow. Across the street, Swampy’s Bar & Grille takes advantage of the view, serving Louisiana style specialties such as alligator soup and etouffee.
Stay on the river at Two Rivers Inn’s unfussy cottages or fishing-frenzied Angler’s Resort Motel with its Blue Gator Tiki Bar & Restaurant, serving up baskets of frog legs, steamed shrimp, and good burgers with live music. You can also rent a boat or catch an airboat tour.
The river and its bulge of Lake Rousseau have a reputation for trophy largemouth bass, and Angler’s caters to the town’s rod-wielding clientele.
Not far away in Yankeetown, the Withlacoochee makes its exit plan into the Gulf of Mexico, giving the old Cracker town a shake of saltiness. Drive along rambling, oak-shaded Riverside Drive for glimpses of the river between Riverside Inn restaurant, marinas, RV parks, cottages and boat docks.
Southeast of Dunnellon, you can follow the Withlacoochee, whose name aptlymeans crooked waters, through Hernando – stop for dinner at Stumpknocker’s and a tour with Captain Mike’s Lazy River Cruises – and into Inverness. Here’s a good place to rent a bike to pedal the 46-mile Withlacoochee State Trail.
One of Florida's longest rails-to-trails paved pathways, it skirts the Withlacoochee State Forest, its 157,000+ acres divided into a number of tracts. Croom Tract is a favorite because it’s close to the interstate, and because both the Withlacoochee River and the Withlacoochee State Trail traverse its 21,359 acres. Withlacoochee’s various recreation areas have something to appease every outdoor interest.
Sandwiched between state forest and river at the north end, the town of Nobleton, where River Ratz Café lives, is all about outdoorsmanship. Don’t come to the Withlacoochee for fancy or luxury. Come for the neighborly people and the river that gives its all for adventure types.