Your Vacation Guide to North Central Florida
Rich in history, North Central Florida boasts an abundance of outdoor activities, natural wonders, and one-of-a-kind destinations, all infused with Southern charm. Discover the Capitol City of Tallahassee; kick back in tiny, eclectic Cedar Key, or hunt for scallops in Steinhatchee.
Above ground, you’ll find antiques, river outfitters and a homespun atmosphere (a duck race accompanies fireworks every fourth of July). But below ground is where the action is in Branford, a cave-diving playground. When the water levels cooperate, Troy Spring State Park applies to all levels of adventurers – certified divers can explore 70-foot depths while youngsters splash in the shallows. The spring run also conceals the wreckage of a Civil War-era steamboat, the Madison. Troy Spring leads to the Suwannee River, where you can launch a canoe or fish for mullet, bass or catfish (and watch for giant, jumping sturgeon). Rivers and springs define this town – tent and RV camping on and near area waters can help you recite the meaning in your sleep.
The quiet drive in should tip you off. You're alone save for the surrounding cypress and wild flowers: this is remote North Central Florida. Some liken Cedar Key to yesterday’s Key West with an eclectic arts community, ultra-fresh seafood and natural surroundings. Wander around Dock and Second streets, with its galleries, restaurants, the 1859 Island Hotel and a new multi-million-dollar fishing pier. The population swells during annual arts and seafood festivals. Offshore, the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge captures the essence of the untouched. Accessible only by boat, most of its islands grow wild to accommodate nesting birds. A 19th-century lighthouse and cemetery are accessible to visitors six times a year.
“Smithsonian,” “National Geographic Adventure” and “Forbes” magazines have lauded Gainesville’s live-ability. Turns out it’s a great place to visit for many of the same reasons: personality-packed districts, plenty of active pursuits and an energy infusion from The University of Florida. Queen Anne-style homes and a smattering of revival styles create historic districts and bed-and-breakfast options. The Hippodrome State Theatre offers further architectural interests with Corinthian columns erected in 1911. Slip onto the UF campus to visit the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art and the Florida Museum of Natural History. Inside the Florida Museum of Natural History are Mammoth and Mastodon skeletons, both discovered in North Florida's Aucilla Riverbed. When it’s time to head outside, take your pick of area parklands (descending into a 120-foot-deep sinkhole into a miniature rain forest makes Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park a must).
The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail ends here – or starts, depending on your orientation. Bike, walk, rollerblade or trot (segments of the trail allow horses) this 16-mile path that connects the two towns via Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park and the Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area. Native plants decorate the former railway. About 15 minutes southwest of Hawthorne, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park echoes the area’s rustic, pioneering appeal. The author’s Cracker homestead and farm have been preserved for visitors, bringing to life the pages of her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Yearling,” a tale from the Florida scrub.
The collection of antiques is impressive here. Not just the wares – the buildings, too. Homes and churches constructed in the 19th- and early 20th-centuries showcase details from gables to gothic. Town events include farmers markets held every Thursday and first Saturday of the month. Bed-and-breakfast inns match the mood. For all the happenings in town, it’s the springs that are really bubbling – with scuba and cave diving, snorkeling, tubing, kayaking and swimming. Try Ginnie Springs Outdoors or Blue Spring Park, where the waters are shockingly clear, blue and cool (near 72 degrees).
You dig the outdoors. Your partner harbors a love of history. Indulge them both in Jasper. Water (almost) all around ensures a good day fishing or boating or canoeing. Gibson Park offers access to the oak-shrouded banks of the Suwannee River, and provides rustic camping. The Withlacoochee and Alapaha Rivers also flow here. (Some trivia to put you on par with the locals: the Alapaha is nicknamed “the river of sand” because low water levels can expose its rocky bed for months at a time.) Your history buff companion will love to learn that, after nearly a century, the old Hamilton County Jail is now the county’s historical museum. Built in 1893, this Roman Revival brick two-story is in itself worth a look.
You guessed it – waters here are abundant, fresh and inviting. Ocean Pond inside nearby Osceola National Forest is a favorite of boaters and skiers. But the name doesn’t say it all. Florida’s largest Civil War battle was fought just east in Olustee, and a large-scale reenactment takes place inside Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park every February. In town, there’s more history, and a full events calendar. Circle Lake Isabella and the surrounding historic district to view grand 19th- and early 20th-century homes. Go downtown on a Friday to shop the farmers’ market and mingle with the locals at a family-friendly evening event. There’s antiques shopping too, and the Lake City-Columbia County Historical Museum.
Forget the bridges of Madison County – here, it’s the trails. Stop and start where you wish and go as long (or as short) as you want along a 100-mile road biking loop; fishing and canoeing trails on the Aucilla, Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers; a back roads driving tour; or a walking tour of downtown. You’re likely to see the Wardlaw-Smith-Goza mansion used as a hospital during the Civil War, historic cemeteries and the Ladell Brothers Outdoor Environmental Center, where a black-gum red maple swamp hides. O’Toole’s Herb Farm grows and sells organic, fresh-cut herbs and invites the public into its display gardens and greenhouses. In season, all of Madison blooms with magnolias, camellias and dogwoods, accentuating its Southern charm.
Any antiques aficionado worth his or her weight in collectibles has made the pilgrimage to Micanopy’s shop-heavy Cholokka Boulevard. The street is also the site of the town’s annual Fall Harvest Festival (think music and crafts). The scene is also heavy on greenery, making it a pleasant spot to while away an afternoon beneath the mossy oaks. Shop, then drop – into bed at the Herlong Mansion Historic Inn and Gardens. Built in 1845 as a Cracker-style farmhouse by one of Micanopy’s original families, it was made over as a Greek Revival mansion by one of the family’s daughters in 1910. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park allows you to spot bison (yes, bison!) and wild horses from a 50-foot-high observation tower.
One pass through Perry and its “roots” in forestry are evident. Today, that heritage has created a new reputation for the town as a festival hub. Forest Capital Museum State Park serves as the center. Thursday through Monday, you can tour its 1864 Cracker homestead decorated with antique furnishings. The museum educates visitors about the life cycles of the forest and its products, though a walk beneath the park’s mature longleaf pines and live oaks can be just as enlightening. Select times of the year, park grounds become festival grounds during the Annual Florida Forest Festival (complete with sawing competitions, parades, crafts and a free fish fry), the Florida State Bluegrass Festival, the Pickin’ in the Pines Bluegrass Festival and the Smoking in the Pines Blues & BBQ Festival.
Feathers and shells are the hottest accessories in Steinhatchee, where birds and scallops lure so many visitors. Keaton Beach’s public park and an observation tower at Hagen’s Cove provide a view to wading and shore fowl, and both locations invite scalloping. Wade right into the shallows from their shores, or hire a guide to show you the hot spots. Bring your snorkel, mask, fins, mesh bag and a diver's down flag; the required recreational saltwater fishing license is inexpensive and easy to obtain. Back at the docks, you can even hire help to clean your collection. The season typicallys runs from mid-summer to early September. Naturally, in a town just inland from the Gulf of Mexico where the Steinhatchee River flows, you'll find perfect places for North Central Florida fishing.
Gradual hills, antebellum plantations and canopied roads lend Tallahassee its gentility. Drive the Miccosukee Canopy Road Greenway for a six-mile immersion before stopping at Goodwood Museum and Gardens. The plantation’s circa-1840 main house functions as a museum with original collections and furnishings. Old and new coexist downtown, where the current and former capitol buildings contrast their streamlined and domed styles. A cultural and historic district fans out from here. Take the walking tour or dally around Railroad Square Art Park, warehouses-turned-galleries, studios and shops. Museums and trendy restaurants offer a complement. Still, fall weekends are for tailgating. The state capital is home to Florida State and Florida A&M universities.
You can fish, hunt and cycle here (there’s a trove of rivers and trail possibilities here) – or simply gorge yourself on blueberries. In season, acres of farms will give you your fill. The u-pick season begins the last Saturday of May in advance of June’s annual blueberry festival, where the title fruit stars in a bake-off and pancake breakfast. Children’s activities, arts and crafts and an adult and children's talent contest add to the fun. The town’s Scott Blueberry Farm offers eight acres and nine varieties of blues.
En route from the Okefenokee Swamp to the Gulf of Mexico, the Suwannee River cuts through White Springs. The town serves as the head of the 170-mile Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, which ensures you’ll find your share of paddling enthusiasts and outfitters here. Canoe or kayak to Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. A 97-bell carillon sounds Foster’s music, including Florida’s state song. Annually, the park hosts festivals, like the Florida Folklife Festival every Memorial Day weekend, or Rural Folklife Days in the fall. The river also leads to Big Shoals State Park – when the water level’s right, the rapids rate a Class III. Get off-river to explore the town’s shops and B&Bs.