By Lauren Tjaden
If you’re in need of some elbow room, Florida's Jefferson County delivers. Encompassing a generous 609 square miles, the pastoral landscape boasts thick forests set on rolling hills, resplendent with abundant ponds and lakes as well as three major rivers, the Wacissa, Aucilla and St. Marks.
To get an idea of how rural it is, here’s a simple fact: it’s the only county in Florida with no stoplights whatsoever. That’s pretty rural. And some might say soul-soothing.
Yet Jefferson County is easily accessible. Monticello, the county seat, is situated a mere 23 miles east of Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city. And it’s hardly a snooze; the Monticello Opera House offers plays and musical events throughout the year, it hosts events that include the Watermelon Festival (held annually for 70 years and counting), and the outdoor recreation is unparalleled.
Discover more about this hidden gem and its offerings:
Yearning for a relaxing day of open-air adventure, brimming with nature, swimming and a tranquil paddle? You can’t do better than the Wacissa River, a wild and diverse waterway designated as a state canoe trail by the Florida Department of Natural Resources. Home to more than a dozen springs, the river draws swimmers, snorkelers, boaters and anglers, meandering through pristine territory until it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
Wacissa Springs County Park marks the river’s headwaters. It isn’t a fancy affair, just a boat ramp and unpaved parking—but you don’t want to miss it. There, nestled within a forest, you’ll find the immense basin of Wacissa Springs, with water so clear you can see fish dart in and out of the undulating plants lining the spring’s bottom. Make sure to take a spin on the rope swing and drop into the spring!
The park is often busy on weekends, and the river may be busy, too, at least for the first mile until you reach Blue Springs, a popular swimming hole. For more solitude, visit on a weekday or during the winter, or venture further south on the river.
Want to hook into some underwater fun? The river is home to abundant brim, small and large mouth bass, mullet, and catfish. Wacissa Canoe and Kayak Rental invites you to call ahead for a fishing report at (850) 997-5023 or (850) 545-2895.
Or just kick back in your canoe and keep your eyes peeled for the Wacissa’s aquatic birds and animals: inhabitants include bald eagles, egrets, herons, osprey, wood storks, barred owls, alligators, river otter, turtles, and many more.
You can even turn extend your trip into an overnight adventure—or longer. Goose Pasture Group Campground is situated on the river, located adjacent to the public campground, complete with portable toilets, grills and a covered pavilion. Both campgrounds are free to use and both are closed during general gun season. Call the Suwannee River Water Management District to make reservations and get the gate code to the group camp (386) 362-1001.
You can rent a canoe or kayak, as well as arrange shuttle service at Wacissa Canoe and Kayak Rental, located just outside the park (290 Wacissa Springs Road, Monticello).
Check out maps of the paddling trail, directions and much more in the Wacissa River Paddling Guide.
A Night at the Opera
The handsome, historic Monticello Opera House, built in 1890 by an resourceful businessman named John H. Perkins, serves as a multipurpose community center. Voted the Best of Tallahassee 2019 in the Entertainment Venue Category by the readers of Tallahassee Magazine, it holds bragging rights as one of the oldest surviving performing venues in the state. It features productions from its resident theater companies as well as arts education, scholarships and even summer camps.
Make sure to mark your calendars for one of its popular, interactive Murder Mystery Dinner Theater Shows.
Learn more about the Opera House, productions and programs here: monticellooperahouse.org
Eat it Up
The Monticello Tupelo Bakery offers an authentic hominess, and the muffins, scones, watermelon pie and quiche du jour are tasty enough to please the most serious foodie.
“Everything is made from scratch – almost 100 percent organic – that’s our passion, using local foods and supporting local farmers,” said owner Kim Davis.
To add authenticity to her claim, a board in the bakery lists the names of area farms that supply the chicken, beef, pork, pecan and other ingredients for the pastries, sandwiches and soups.
The Brick House Eatery, heralded as Monticello’s unofficial gathering spot, is unassuming, simple and cozy; yet it serves up remarkably tasty and diverse food. For a taste of its Southern heritage, sample the fried pickles or fried green tomatoes.
Check out more places to refuel here: visitjeffersoncountyflorida.org
Located in Monticello, the highly acclaimed John Denham House Bed & Breakfast is an authentic, elegant 1872 Victorian Mansion that boasts eight fireplaces, period antiques, a cupola – and at least one ghost, the infamous Aunt Sarah, a spinster who haunts one of the mansion’s bedrooms.
The bed and breakfast is hardly the only haunted place in the village; with its Indian Mounds and numerous historic buildings, Monticello has a reputation for being the most haunted small town in the South.
Let that sink in. The most haunted small town in the South.
You can learn about and explore some of Monticello’s most shiver-worthy venues on a ghost tour with Linda Schuyler Ford, a Sleepy Hollow native who possesses an impressive knowledge of local history and mysterious happenings.
Tours depart from the Chamber of Commerce. Stops along include the Perkins Opera House (now the Monticello Opera House) and the Monticello Old Jail Museum.
You can purchase tickets and learn about the monthly tours, storytelling events and concerts here: monticellojeffersonfl.com/most-haunted
More about Monticello
For more information about Monticello and Jefferson County, check out: