Sites in Gainesville
Florida Museum of Natural History
Among the permanent exhibits at the museum’s Powell Hall are “Northwest Florida: Waterways and Wildlife” with its recreation of a Panhandle floodplain forest and cave, “Hall of Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life and Land,” “Hall of South Florida: People and Environments” and the “Butterfly Rainforest.” Traveling exhibits come and go: dinosaurs yesterday, shipwrecks today, manatees tomorrow. Bring a few bucks for the gift shops.
From University Avenue, go south on SW 34th Street (SR-121) to Hull Road and turn left. Then take your first right into the parking lot of the museum (which is also the parking lot for the Harn Art Museum and the Performing Arts Center). General Admission is free, although donations are gladly accepted. There is a cover charge for special exhibits and the Butterfly Rainforest.
In 1991, a large colony of Mexican Free-tailed Bats and a smaller one of Southeastern Bats were relocated from their homes in the concrete bleachers of the University of Florida’s track and tennis stadiums to a newly-built Bat House across Museum Drive from Lake Alice. They disappeared immediately, but returned in 1995 and have been there ever since. Their total population now stands at 60,000 – it’s one of the largest colonies of Mexican Free-tailed Bats in the southeastern United States -and watching them stream out of the Bat House on spring and summer evenings is a Gainesville “must.”
View streaming video of the bats by following this link.
From University Avenue, go south on US-441 (SW 13th Street). Turn right on Museum Drive and proceed (20 mph speed limit) until you see Lake Alice on your left. Pull into the next parking lot on your left. The Bat House is directly across the street. No admission, of course.
Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo
A training facility for students in the Zoo Animal Technology program. It houses 80 species of animals.
From US-441 (NW 13th Street) go west on NW 16th Avenue to NW 83rd Street and turn right. At the far end of the campus, turn left onto North Road and follow it back to the zoo. Tours run hourly from 9-2 on weekends, and can be arranged on weekdays by calling (352) 395-5604 three days ahead of time. There is no admission. The zoo is closed during semester breaks and school holidays.
Devil’s Millhopper State Geological Site
A behemoth sinkhole, astonishing to behold. A nature trail traces the circumference of the upper rim, while a boardwalk leads you down through the lush growth on the sinkhole’s sheer slopes to the drainage basin at the bottom.
On CR-232 (NW 53rd Avenue) just west of the intersection with NW 43rd Street. Open 8 to sunset. For information call (352) 955-2008.
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
This lovely botanical garden (or collection of gardens: a hummingbird garden, a butterfly garden, a water garden, a scent garden, palms, bamboo, cacti…) is situated on 62 acres at the edge of Lake Kanapaha in southwest Gainesville. It’s a pleasant place to spend a few hours. Every March the Spring Garden Festival draws thousands of visitors.
Go west on Archer Road (SR-24) 1.3 miles beyond I-75. Entrance is on the right, well-marked. Open 9 to 5 on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday, and 9 to dusk on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday. Closed Thursday. For information call (352) 372-4981.
Sites outside Gainesville but within Alachua County
Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail
A pleasant 17-mile bicycling and horseback-riding (and jogging, and rollerblading) trail that parallels SR-20 from southeast Gainesville to Hawthorne. Quiet and wooded nearly all the way.
From Main Street go east on University Avenue. Cross Waldo Road and turn right onto SE 15th Street. Go about two miles to Boulware Springs Park. The parking lot adjoins the road; the trailhead is on the back side of the park. Other access points for the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail are north of Cross Creek on CR-325, Rochelle at the intersection of CR-234 and CR-2082, and Hawthorne at 300 SW 2nd Avenue (behind the University of Florida Health Clinic). For information call (352) 336-2135.
Poe Springs County Park
There are numerous fresh-water springs in North Central Florida, but this is the only Alachua County park built around one. There’s a nature trail, open fields for games, a picnic area, and of course the spring itself, which gushes crystal-clear 70-degree water guaranteed to wake any swimmer up.
From Gainesville go north on US-441 through Alachua to High Springs. There turn left (south) onto US-41. Just outside town, turn right onto CR-340 (Poe Springs Road) and go 3.3 miles to the park entrance. Blue Springs and Ginnie Springs, which are privately-owned attractions, are a little further west on CR-340, in Gilchrist County.
O’Leno State Park
The lovely Santa Fe River, on its way to join the Suwannee, runs between wooded banks and then disappears underground, resurfacing three miles to the south at River Rise Preserve State Park, which is administered by the state park. O’Leno’s 6,000 acres offer nature trails, canoeing, swimming, horseback riding, fishing, primitive camping, youth camping, and full facility camping. Lots of camping, in other words.
The park entrance is on US-441 six miles north of High Springs, about 30 miles northwest of Gainesville. Open 8 to sunset. For information call (904) 454-1853. There’s a bird checklist, of sorts.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park
Rawlings moved to Cross Creek in 1928, and the nearby Ocala National Forest was the setting for her Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel The Yearling(1938). Rawlings’s home is preserved with period furniture.
From Gainesville go south on US-441. Just south of Micanopy, turn left onto CR-346, which dead-ends at CR-325. Turn right (south) and go 4.5 miles to Rawlings Park, where there is a parking area specifically for the site. Access to the grounds is unrestricted, but tours of the house ($2 adults, $1 children) are available only October to July, Thursday to Sunday, on the hour. For information call (352) 466-3672.
To see Rawlings’s grave, continue south on CR-325 and drive straight across US-301 at Island Grove. On the far side of the highway, it’s not CR-325 anymore, it’s SE 219th Avenue. Cross the railroad tracks, ignore the curve left onto SE 203rd Street, and continue straight on 219th to SE 225th Drive – about 1.6 miles from the highway. Turn left onto 225th and proceed 1.7 mile to SE 189th Avenue. Turn right, go a fraction of a mile, and you’ll see Antioch Cemetery on both left and right. Rawlings’s gravesite is in the larger section, to your left.
If you’re really interested, you may want to visit the site of the events on which the novel is based, Pats Island in the Ocala National Forest – about 40 miles further. Go south on US-301 through Citra, and turn left onto CR-316. Stay on this road (there’s a little jog to the right at CR-200A) through Ft. McCoy, across the Ocklawaha River bridge, all the way to Salt Springs. Here turn right onto SR-19 and stay on it (keep left at the fork) till you get to Forest Road 10 – a distance of nine and a half miles. Turn right onto FR-10 and go 1.7 mile till you see the sign directing you to Pats Island. At this point, let me warn you of two things: first, the long one-lane driveway to the parking lot goes through a lot of soft sand in which you could bog down (I’ve successfully negotiated it in a passenger car, but…); and second, once you’ve parked the car you’ve still got a mile’s hike to the actual site of the events – and there’s nothing there but an ancient cemetery. Still, you can say you saw it. And incidentally, the 1947 film of the novel, which starred Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman, and Claude Jarman, Jr. (who won a special Oscar), was filmed on this spot as well.
Sites outside Alachua County
Osceola National Forest (Columbia and Baker Counties)
Nearly 200,000 acres of pine flatwoods, longleaf pine savannah, and swamp. There’s boating, fishing, and swimming at Ocean Pond, four campgrounds, and several miles of hiking trails. Birders can look for Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and Swallow-tailed Kites. Every February, there’s a reenactment, with uniformed soldiers and unnecessarily ear-splitting artillery, of the Battle of Olustee, fought here on February 20, 1864.
An hour north of Gainesville. Take I-75 north to Lake City. Exit at US-90 and go east through town. There are several access points on US-90, notably the one in Olustee which leads to Ocean Pond. Unrestricted access, no admission fee.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park (Columbia County)
Did early man, perhaps, tube? We cannot know. But if you haven’t been tubing on the Ichetucknee – which is to say lounging luxuriously in a fat rubber doughnut as you drift along in the placid current, marveling at the scenic banks, the crystalline water – then I’m sorry, but you have not experienced Florida. The tubing-impaired may enjoy nature trails, swimming, picnics, and boat tours, but should really just loosen up and get themselves a tube. Literary note: featured in Richard Adams’s novel Girl in a Swing.
The park is about an hour’s drive northwest of Gainesville, near Ft. White. There are north and south entrances, which allow longer and shorter river voyages, respectively: the north entrance is 6 miles northwest of Ft. White on CR-238; the south entrance is four miles west of Ft. White on US-27. Open 8 to sunset. Admission fee varies according to activity and season. Tubes may be rented for ten bucks or so at several nearby shops. For information call (904) 497-2511.
Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park (Clay County)
This park was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It’s situated on the Central Florida Ridge, so the habitat is mostly sandhill and scrub, but there’s a deep mesic ravine with springs flowing from its steep sides, as well as marshes and lakes. There’s picnicking, swimming, canoeing (rentals available), hiking, camping, and 14 lakefront cabins.
About forty-five minutes northeast of Gainesville, on SR-21 six miles north of Keystone Heights. Open 8 to sunset. For information call (352) 473-4701.
Cedar Key / Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge (Levy and Dixie Counties)
Cedar Key is a Gulf Coast fishing village (pop. 1,000) that has been commandeered by the proprietors of gift shops, seafood restaurants, and vacation condos. These establishments have not yet managed to squelch the slightly shabby charm of the place. See the cemetery and the museum, go fishing, have some fried shrimp, get a sunburn. Art festival in April, seafood festival in October. Birding can be excellent, especially during spring migration (mid-April to mid-May). To the north is the 900-acre Cedar Key Scrub State Preserve, home to a small (ca. 20) population of Florida Scrub-Jays, the northernmost on the Gulf Coast. Further north is the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, 52,110 acres of cypress swamp, tidal marsh, pinelands, and hardwood forest that extends from the mouth of the Suwannee River south for 26 miles, and which is just too darn big for me to describe in any detail; see the web site.
Manatee Springs State Park (Levy County)
Don’t expect any manatees. They come around once in a while, but unless you’re mighty lucky you should plan only on diving and swimming in the (very deep) spring, canoeing in the spring run and the Suwannee River, and walking the nature trails that thread their way through the park’s 2,075 acres of hardwood forest. Take a minute to be awestruck by the volume of water gushing out of this first-magnitude spring: 81,280 gallons per minute, which translates to 117 million gallons per day.
An hour west of Gainesville, in Chiefland. Go west on Archer Road (SR-24) to Bronson, turn right onto ALT-27, and continue to Chiefland, where ALT-27 converges with US-19/98. At the north end of town, turn left onto CR-320 and go all the way to the end. For information call (352) 493-6072.
Goethe State Forest (Levy and Alachua Counties)
Timber baron J.T. Goethe harbored a peculiar affection for this 49,949 acres of turkey oak sandhill and longleaf pine forest, and couldn’t bring himself to harvest it for sixty years – at which point the state bought it from him pretty much intact. Home to Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Swallow-tailed Kites, Sherman’s Fox Squirrels, even a few Florida Black Bears. Beautiful wildflower displays, especially in the fall. Equestrian and hiking trails.
Thirty minutes southwest of Gainesville. Take SR-24 (Archer Road) to Bronson, turn left a fraction of a mile to CR-337, and continue south to Goethe. There are access roads and trails along CR-337 and to the west along CR-326. For information call (352) 447-2202.
Ocala National Forest (Marion County)
There’s really almost too much to say about this 383,000-acre patch of quintessential Florida. The sand pine scrub is the largest unbroken tract of this habitat in the world. Birders can see Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, Swallow-tailed Kites, and Florida Scrub-Jays. Hikers have the Florida National Scenic Trail, which runs the length of the forest, equestrians have probably twice as many miles spread over several trails, and bicyclists have a 22-mile trail all their own. There are 17 campsites, eight of which are suitable for trailers. You can canoe through the Juniper Wilderness Area. You can fish. You can swim in four or five springs. As Samuel Johnson wrote, “When a man is tired of the Ocala National Forest, he is tired of life.”
An hour, or perhaps a bit more, southeast of Gainesville. Giving directions is problematic, since there is no single point of entry; forest roads lead off a dozen main highways, among them SR-40, CR-316, CR-314A, and SR-19. Juniper Springs is on SR-40, Salt Springs, Silver Glen Springs, and Alexander Springs on SR-19.