North Central Florida – Beaches and Outdoor Gems
Naturalist John Muir trekked through this region to end his famous Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf at Cedar Key, noting many previously unrecorded species of birds and plants. Look for them in the region’s state and national forests, preserves and parks. Stretches of the Great Florida Birding Trail thread through the region, offering sightings of upland and coastal species.
Hiking trails abound. Beachgoers speed past this area, lured to the snow-white sands of the Emerald Coast or eastward to the Atlantic beaches. That’s good news for locals, who know that the flow of major rivers such as the Suwannee, Ichetucknee and Santa Fe throws up banks of pure white sand where hikers and paddlers pause for a swim. More than a dozen hidden springs that feed the rivers are popular swimming holes. Keaton Beach, a fishing village south of Perry, has a sandy beach on the Gulf of Mexico.
Tubing the area’s unique springs provides an intimate look at a tangled wilderness. Float through tunnels of vegetation too small for canoes. Entry points include Blue Spring State Park in High Springs and Fort White’s Ichetucknee Springs State Park.
The Suwannee River can be paddled for its entire length, from north of Jacksonville to the Gulf of Mexico. Primitive camps are provided for overnight stays. Overnight lodgings, supplies and restaurants are found in White Springs and Dowling Park.
An exceptional network of hiking, biking and equestrian trails is well maintained and mapped, thanks to the Florida Trail Association. Gainesville’s Loblolly Woods is a serene hideaway in the heart of the city. The two-mile-long Hogtown Creek Greenway loop trail rewards all with views of woods, waters and wildlife seemingly untouched by urban sprawl.
The Osceola National Forest’s most popular spot is Ocean Pond, a two-mile-wide swimming hole with a sandy beach. The 200,000-acre forest has hiking, birding, ATV, motorcycle and equestrian trails.
The Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail runs 20.5 miles from the capital to St. Marks. It’s part of Florida’s Greenways and Trails System, a National Recreation Trail and a portion of the developing 120-mile “Capital City to the Sea Loop” corridor on the Big Bend Scenic Byway. Tallahassee’s Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park is a botanical showplace, renowned for winter blooming camellias.
More of the region’s unique flora and fauna is found at such diverse spots as the sprawling savanna at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a prehistoric sinkhole at Devil’s Mill hopper Geological State Park, the wetlands environment at Cedar Key and wooded upland habitats in state and national forests.