By Gary McKechnie
The first time I visited Florida’s youngest county, two distinct things made an impact. One was attending Gilchrist County’s leading social event, which happened to be its leading culinary event as well. It was called the Wild Beast Feast where vendors prepared delicacies such as grilled ostrich, BBQ wildebeest, and fried snake.
The second was learning that I was there with nearly the entire population of the county because, at the time, fewer than 10,000 people lived in Florida’s fifth-smallest county.
The population has since rocketed to 17,000, and while that’s still not a whole lot of people, there’s still a whole lot to discover, including rivers, springs, fishing and arts and crafts.
The Old Depot
The town of Trenton is home to the old depot that served the Atlantic Coastline Railroad before it was converted into the Nature Coast State Trail, which at 32 miles is one of the longest paved trails in Florida. Go the distance on a bicycle, inline skates, your own two feet (or even on horseback on the adjacent dirt right-of-way) and you’ll cross the Suwannee River courtesy of an abandoned railroad trestle and be able to reach Cross City, Old Town, and the refreshing waters of Fanning Springs State Park.
Before leaving downtown, on the south side of C.R. 26, the historic Gilchrist County Courthouse was created as part of FDR’s Works Progress Administration program in 1933, and looks a little like Norma Desmond’s home in “Sunset Boulevard.” Turn around and across from the courthouse marble columns mark a small, but sincere, tribute to the area’s veterans.
For what appears to be a land-locked county, water is essential to several of the county’s most popular attractions and activities. Forming the entire northern border of Gilchrist County is the Santa Fe River. For an outdoor excursion, the Santa Fe River Canoe Trail runs for 26 miles (you don’t have to do all of it) and will take you past hardwood hammocks, river swamps, and springs while providing plentiful opportunities for wildlife viewing and the chance to fish for bass, redbreast sunfish, and spotted sunfish, which are found in abundance between May and September.
The Santa Fe River is also the reason behind Ellie Ray’s Resort. The combination marina/restaurant/bar/boat launch/campground is where locals and tourists come to put in for a day on the river. A line of jet skis, speedboats, and pontoon boats are either secured to the floating docks, entering or exiting the water, or cruising slowly past a bend in the river, many heading to the Suwannee just a few miles away. If this floats your boat, stick around. There are 99 RV sites and a few log cabins.
River Run, Part Two
On the county’s northern border, the Santa Fe merges into the famed Suwannee, the river that creates the county’s western border. Along the lower Suwannee, the Florida State Parks’ Suwannee River Wilderness Trail runs the length of western Gilchrist County to create yet another adventure. Discover your inner Daniel Boone as you canoe or kayak past undisturbed wilderness dotted by areas of either new or primitive development. Boat ramps and canoe launches provide convenient entry and exit points.
A clear favorite (quite literally) with visitors of all ages is Fanning Springs State Park. Although it claims a Chiefland address, which is 10 miles away in Levy County, the park is actually just over the county line to score a point for Gilchrist.
There are few places as serene, peaceful, and naturally beautiful as this 188-acre state park. From the top of the knoll the spring appears before you, and the glistening pool of clear water magnifies the white sand bottom. Providing an equally picturesque backdrop is the gently flowing Suwannee, a popular route for manatees that rely on the river to reach the spring in winter months.
Swimming here is a refreshingly pure sensation in the chilled waters. Two springs, Big Fanning and Little Fanning, feed the main pool. On the left, look into the depths for the main spring where, 20 feet down, you’ll see the remains of a tree that fell years ago and will likely be here for many years to come. Within the park a mile-long nature trail takes hikers through an upland mixed forest and floodplain swamp, leading you into the habitat of deer, squirrel, red-shouldered hawks, woodpeckers, and owls.
And remember the Nature Coast State Trail back in Trenton? It winds up here.
Spring Time, Part Two
Although not a state park, Ginnie Springs is one of the most popular recreational swimming areas in Florida. Whether you’re here to swim or snorkel in the sparkling spring, or if you’re a serious diver ready to explore a sprawling network of underwater caves, this place has it going on.
There are more than 200 acres here, ranging from Santa Fe riverfront (tubing is very popular) to thick forests. Settle back and enjoy picnic areas, volleyball, and wilderness camping as well as fully-equipped RV sites, showers, laundry facilities, and a general store.
Spring Time, Part Three
Like the wonderful state parks of Gilchrist County, 633-acre Otter Springs is rich with wildlife: deer, gopher tortoises, turkeys, kites, hawks, manatees, bobcats probably enjoy the natural environment as much as visitors. The main spring, which flows at 10 million gallons daily, is a natural for swimming and snorkeling and leads to a glorious mile of canoeing or kayaking on clear waters before reaching the Suwannee River. While a round-trip would take about an hour, should you put in at Hart Springs (below), make Otter Springs your final destination and you’ve got a day trip. Then stick around. Otter Springs has a pool pavilion, a lodge, clubhouse, picnic house, general store, offers overnight and long-term RV and tent sites with hook-ups, as well as primitive tent camping and fully-equipped cabins.
Bell's Hidden Beauty
Aside from Trenton (10 miles south), Bell is the only other town in Gilchrist County. Located on U.S. 129, the extent of development here is sparse: A car wash, the Burger Spot restaurant (home of the $1.99 pork chop sandwich), a Family Dollar, and Akins BBQ. There are also dairies around these parts, found either along the main road or by heading deeper into the farmland. Just follow your nose.
Nearby at Hart Springs County Park a half-mile boardwalk follows the run of a natural spring through a cypress hammock before the waters flow right into the Suwannee River. The picturesque park is home to an abundance of wildlife and local bird species (great blue heron, snowy egret, white ibis, king fisher, wild turkeys), and also attracts migrating birds including red-shoulder hawks that nest here each spring.
Primitive as well as full hookup-camping is available, along with grills, tables, restrooms, and showers. One of the nicest things about Bell is that you’ll drive along U.S. 129, a smooth road that floats over a series of low and soft hills. On a nice day with the top down or windows open, there’s nothing more satisfying than gliding along this stretch of northern Gilchrist County.
As shared on the county’s informative website, Gilchrist is a superb place to observe wildlife. When snorkeling, peer through your mask and you may see turtles, gar, bream, mullet, and bass. In the trees and skies are Mississippi and swallow-tailed kites, broad-winged hawks, Acadian flycatchers, summer tanagers, and hooded warblers. Owls, pileated woodpeckers and red-shouldered hawks are year-round residents.
Wherever you go in Gilchrist County, let nature set the pace. In other words: Don’t rush it.
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