By Bill Steiden
Ever since the early European explorers set foot in Florida, people have been coming to its subtropical peninsula in search of treasure. The quest continues, though the goal now is not to find gold and jewels, but the perfect vacation.
Every day, thousands of tourists pass through north central Florida on I-75, heading for the Gulf coast beaches or the Disney and MGM resorts south of Orlando. The landscape they see through their windshields at 70 mph — a rolling expanse of palmetto-studded fields and scrubby live oaks — lacks the stately palms and colorful plumerias they associate with the vaunted paradises to the south. Some Florida first-timers even complain about the upper peninsula’s lack of scenery, as though they expect the surroundings to magically transform the second they cross from south Georgia into the Sunshine State.
Especially if they’re campers, they don’t realize what they’re missing. Those in on the secret know that near Gainesville are natural wonders some consider the true treasures of Florida. The path to this enchantment begins at exit 399, just north of Gainesville. Traveling west on U.S. 441, you veer off on U.S. 27 – the old Dixie Highway — and quickly arrive at the quaint village of High Springs, where side-by-side feed stores and craft galleries attest to a seemingly harmonious intermingling of cracker culture and remnants of the nearby University of Florida’s once-thriving hippie scene. But this is only a way station on the road to your destination.
Heading west of town on State Road 236, also known as N.W. 182nd Avenue and Poe Springs Road, you travel through flat and nearly featureless ranchlands. Shortly after you pass a Dannon water-bottling plant – a hint of what’s to come – you reach a long, unpaved drive marked by a large and colorfully painted sign that informs you of your arrival at Ginnie Springs. This is the improbable gateway to some of the finest unsung natural features the Southeast has to offer.
Ginnie Springs is a privately owned campground along the banks of the Santa Fe River, a tributary of the fabled Suwanee that is lined with cypress trees and live oaks festooned with Spanish moss. Hundreds of pleasant campsites, including 90 with full RV hookups, are nestled on the resort’s 200 wooded acres. Most have built-in grills and picnic tables, some with shelters, and there are bathhouses with hot showers scattered throughout the site. Cabins are also available for those who prefer less spartan accommodations.
But that is not the reason to come. You’ll find the main attractions dotted along the nearly mile-long river frontage: seven springs that gush thousands of gallons a minute of clear, cold water, among them the resort’s namesake.
If you love a good swimming hole, you’ve found heaven. Ginnie Spring flows into a broad rock-and-sand-bottomed pool, about 15 feet deep at the cavernous spring outlet, or “boil,” then out a narrower chute, or “run,” as it is known, for several hundred yards to where its crystalline purity forms a visible boundary as it blends with the tannin-stained river. Bass and bream, along with the occasional turtle, dart about through the waters of the spring. But the main show is the spotlight-toting scuba divers who travel from throughout the country to explore the caverns from which Ginnie and the other springs’ waters flow.
On a hot day, and Florida has no lack of them, there’s nothing as refreshing as dipping into the chilly springs with snorkeling gear to chase the fish, watch the divers and just relax. Don’t have a mask and fins? Does the water make you shiver? Scuba-certified but need cave diving instruction and equipment? Visit the well-stocked resort store to rent gear and a wetsuit, fill up on 02 and pick up firewood, snacks or whatever else you need for your campsite. You can also rent inflated innertubes for a downstream float, or a canoe for an upriver paddle to explore perhaps a dozen more springs and spring runs – including, if you dare, Lily Spring, where the resident owner invites you to join in his clothing-optional lifestyle. For a different kind of thrill, try one of the many rope swings along the Santa Fe’s banks.
Especially for families, a day of swimming and sunshine, followed by a campsite cook-out and a night under the stars listening to the screech owls, can be a far more relaxing Florida sojourn than competing with the crowds at the teeming beaches and theme parks and paying for overpriced restaurant meals and hotel rooms.
No visit to Santa Fe spring country is complete without a pilgrimage to Ichetucknee Springs State Park. The staff at Ginnie can provide directions for the 30-minute drive. The park may be a secret from tourists, but it’s a favorite of the university crowd from Gainesville, so try to visit on a weekday, and arrive early. Vendors along the way will rent you a canoe or tubes. A quota system established by the park to preserve this spectacular ecosystem determines whether you can take the entire three-hour float or a shorter portion thereof, so call ahead for information.
The scenery along the seven-mile run, undisturbed by development, is a majestic reminder of what wild Florida must have been like centuries ago. Giant cypresses line the run in deep, dark, swampy groves, studded with their knobby, knee-like roots. The deep, clear water, flowing swiftly as one spring after another increases its volume, bends forests of eel grass through which swim dozens of species of freshwater fish. Every log is loaded with turtles, and alligators sun on the banks as ospreys swoop overhead. Herons stalk minnows in the shallows, and the lucky visitor may even spot one of the park’s resident river otters. On a day when visitors are sparse, lift your paddle from the water and listen: The only sounds will be of the trickling water and the breeze through the trees.
It’s a magical place, and once you’ve experienced it, you’ll know what it’s like to discover the real treasures of Florida.
High Springs, Florida
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Fort White, Florida
However often he gets the chance to camp, it still isn’t often enough for Bill Steiden, a Decatur, Ga.-based journalist. Got a suggestion or a question about a camping destination? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.