Remote, picturesque and rural, northwest Florida is a long way from major population centers. But thatâ€™s what it takes to get off the beaten path.
The payoff for your drive is a land of crystalline natural springs for swimming, the pristineÂ Suwanee River for kayaking and multiple parks and springs within an hourâ€™s drive, including the stateâ€™s top tubing river at Ichetucknee State Park
Two of the regionâ€™s state parks make excellent bases for exploration:
- Lafayette Blue State Park, about 80 miles southeast of Tallahassee in Mayo. It has a terrific spring for swimming and some of my favorite Florida park cabins.
- Suwanee River State Park, 40 minutes north of Lafayette in Live Oak. It has campgrounds as well as river-front cabins and interesting historic features.
Both parks are on the Suwanee River and close to multiple springs to explore. We stayed at the cabins at Lafayette Springs State Park, and most of this article will focus on Lafayette and its environs. But if youâ€™re a camper or if Lafayetteâ€™s cabins are booked, youâ€™ll want to look into Suwanee River State Park as your base.
The springs at Lafayette Springs State Park
You reach these gorgeous springs via wooden stairs that take you from the bluffs down to the level of the Suwanee.
Lafayette forms two pools of water, each lined with limestone rocks, surrounded by hard packed earth and separated by a natural limestone bridge. (Note that spring conditions are dependent on water levels at the time you visit; we visited at low water levels.)
The pools are not deep and are shaded much of the day. Itâ€™s a terrific swimming hole, sort of a Tarzan fantasy pool, with fish and turtles visible in the clear water. The water is a crisp 72 degrees year round.
The spring run is very short. The spring water is held at a level slightly higher than the river by a small man-made rock damn along the Suwanee River and this creates a lovely waterfall effect as the clear water cascades into the river and joins the orange tannic water of the Suwanee.
On the bluffs above the springs, there are shaded picnic grounds and facilities. This side of theÂ park is quite compact — there are at most 30 picnic tables.
The spring actually originates in the woods above these spring pools. A nature trail, whose entrance is near the primitive campground, winds through the woods past two other springs that are surrounded by vegetation and viewable from above.
Paddling on nearby sections of the Suwannee River
I don’t know if there is a bad section of the Suwanee to paddle because I have loved every part I’ve experienced.
This section of the Suwanee was especially quiet and picturesque. Even on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, we had the river to ourselves.
The Suwanee has high banks with cypress trees and a rocky shoreline. The limestone rocks form interesting caves and crevices, but the highlight is exploring the springs along the way.
Large waterfront homes and cabins are tucked discreetly on the bluffs overlooking the river, but they donâ€™t make the Suwanee feel developed or commercial.
The river has a gentle current that wafts you along and occasional shoals that speed you up. It is definitely a river for one-way paddling with the current. Itâ€™s wide enough that you will paddle much of the time in the sun.
We rented our canoe from the Suwannee River Rendezvous outfitters. They are a large operation nearby, located along the banks of the Suwanee. The complex includes an RV park, cabin rentals and canoe and kayak rentals plus Convict Spring, a spring rimmed with a concrete ledge that had a bit of an algae problem when we visited.
The folks at Suwanee River Rendezvous recommended their six mile trip, where they drive you to the Highway 51 bridge and you paddle back to their property. (This was $48 for two people and one canoe. They also will provide livery service for personal kayaks and longer trips are also possible.) You can do the trip in three hours and the paddling is easy. We spent longer because we loved exploring along the way.
The staff member who dropped us off described the springs and stops along the way, and they were all terrific.
At the midway point, you stop at Peacock Slough camp site, one of the fabulous paddle-in campsites that are part of the Suwanee River paddlingÂ trail system. The stop is a good place to use indoor restrooms and shaded picnic tables. It is on the bluff overlooking the Suwanee, and you couldn’t find a prettier place to spend time.
We were really impressed with the facility: The campground includes individual screen houses with electricity, ceiling fans and running water. This would make wilderness camping pretty comfortable
The next stop along the river is Telford Spring. It is clearly marked as private property with â€œno trespassingâ€ signs. Nevertheless, the outfitters told us to stop and look around, and we were glad we did.
It is a natural spring bubbling up and passing through several pools before it goes under rocks and emerges in the river as an upswelling of water. We waded in the spring, all alone in a magical place.
With the water level low, it is a little tricky to find a place to tie up your kayak and clamber onshore. We found the best place was actually just after the spring. Just beyond here, there is a second lovely spring you can also visit.
Next along the river is a very strange sight: a huge bridge disconnected from the banks in the middle of the river. This rusty relic is a railroad swing bridge from the 19th century that was purchased from Brazil and used for a few decades in the early days of Florida railroads. It is a strange and photogenic site.
Our final stop was a small spring called Bathtub Spring, roughly six miles beyond the Highway 51 bridge. To find this spring, you listen for running water, then tie up and climb over some rocks. When you do, you find yourself in a little Shangri-La, with clear water bubbling from a spring surrounded by moss-covered rocks and shaded by towering trees.
One last Suwanee special thrill: jumping sturgeon. We visited in May, which is the start of the warm weatherÂ when sturgeon jump, but we thought this might be a rare sight. No: It happened over and over — probably 15 times during our paddle. The sturgeon are huge â€“ 150 to 220 pounds. They jump straight up, then flop down length-wise, making a dramatic, resounding splash. Hereâ€™s more about why they jump. It’s one of those “only in Florida” experiences I treasure.
The cabins at Lafayette Blue Springs State Park
Lafayette Springsâ€™ cabins are expansive two-bedroom houses on stilts set in lovely quiet woods. (The cabins require a walk up stairs to reach them, but one cabin has an elevator to make it accessible to people with disabilities.)
They’re a short stroll to the Suwanee and the spring but the thick forest is all you see from the wraparound screen porch, which is its most spectacular feature.
Each cabin has an electric fireplace, a full kitchen, one bedroom with a queen bed, and one bedroom with twin beds. It would easily accommodate a family or two couples.
The only camping at Lafayette Springs is primitive camping primarily designed to serve paddlers stopping here overnight. You can arrive by car and tent-camp, but you need to carry your gear a short distance to the campsites. (There is a cart.)
Hiking in Lafayette Blue Springs State Park
The park has two entrances. The spring, picnic grounds, camping and cabins are all at the south entrance.
The north entrance, a short drive away, attracts very few people. It has hiking trails, including a trail that goes about a half mile into the woods to an old mill pond. At higher water levels there is a trickling stream, but on our visit, the pond was just a large brown body of water. The wooded trails, however, were beautiful â€“ tranquil, full of bird song and wildlife. (We spotted two deer in our morning walk.)
Whatâ€™s near Lafayette Blue Springs State Park
The metropolitan growth that is so typical of much of Florida has not reached here. This is a rural area with small towns far apart and conveniences may be some distance. The accents definitely sound like Georgia; I heard moreÂ â€œYes maâ€™amâ€ and â€œNo maâ€™amâ€ in a few days than I have in a 40 yearsÂ in Fort Lauderdale!
The nearby town of Mayo has a few historic buildings but also plenty of empty storefronts. There are a couple of good country restaurants. We ate at a barbecue place, Tumbleweeds Smoke House, 204 W. Main St., Mayo, (386) 294-2496, which is on the same block as the cute little Great Southern Biscuit Company, 152 W. Main St. Both get great ratings on Yelp.
The roads around here have little traffic and are very scenic. In late May we were thrilled to see many wildflowers. Other park visitors had bicycles, and we noted thereâ€™s a nice bike path along the road that leads to Suwanee River Rendezvous.
Within an hour of this location, you can visit a dozen different springs. (Florida’s springs are all threatened and you will find varying conditions from spring to spring. Conditions will vary with the weather, rainfall and water levels too.)
Here are some nearby springs and parks for those who want to plan a spring-hunting getaway.
Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park. Twenty minutes from Lafayette, this park was interesting, although the springs here (and there are several) are not the most scenic or crystalline or inviting for swimming. What makes Peacock Springs special is something you can’t see â€“ the elaborate network of caves that are under its surface. This park is a mecca for cave divers. We enjoyed the nature trail through the woods where we saw springs, sinkholes, karst windows and a variety of foliage.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park. About 45 minutes from Lafayette, Ichetucknee is in a class by itself with clear water and a six-mile spring run that provides the best tubing in the state. Hereâ€™s a Florida Rambler story on the Ichetucknee.
Madison Blue Spring State Park. About 40 minutes north of Lafayette, this spring blew me away with its natural beauty. On our visit, the spring was intensely aquamarine and the water quality was sparkling. There is short rocky spring run â€“ so pretty! — Â to the Withlacoochee River, where you can watch the clear spring water meet the orange river water. All around the spring, a boardwalk gives you beautiful views. If you find the springâ€™s 72-degree water too frigid, you can swim or wade in the shallow sandy Withlacoochee, where the mix of spring and river water is warmer. This place is packed on summer weekends. There are attractive picnic grounds around the spring. (Note: Youâ€™ll notice the road to the Nestle Waters bottling facility next door; Madison Blue water goes into Deer Park and Zephyrhills bottles here.)
Troy Spring State Park. About a half hour from Lafayette, Troy Spring is another swimming hole, but it has an unusual feature popular with snorkelers and divers â€“ a shipwreck. The remains of a Civil War-era steamboat are at the bottom of the springs, sunk there to avoid capture in 1863.
Suwanee River State Park. There are no springs here, but this park has miles of beautiful hiking trails and some interesting historic sites. It also has cabins and camping and would make an excellent base for exploring this region.
Reserve America for cabin and camping reservations