Each has a distinct personality—which is your perfect match?
By Robin Draper
Gainesville, situated within driving distance of six Florida State Parks, is an ideal entry to your outdoor Florida vacation. Each state park possesses a distinct character providing a diverse experience—which will you visit? How about all of the above? Drift down a river, step back in Florida history, get lost in the wilderness, hike down into a sinkhole or even enjoy watching wild horses run across a prairie. Prepare yourself for Gainesville's wild and wonderful great outdoors.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Located northwest of Gainesville, the Ichetucknee Springs and River have long been a beloved destination for tubers and families seeking the bliss of drifting down one of Florida's most scenic waterways. Relax and enjoy total serenity immersed in the beauty of Florida's nature while tubing the stunning Ichetucknee River. Overhanging trees, blue skies and crystal-clear slow-moving water are relaxing. Let the cool water caress you, listen to birds, glimpse deer and turtles along the river bank, and let go of all your cares and worries—you'll find it's better than a spa day. The park is open year-round, but prime tubing season is Memorial Day through Labor Day. If you're hungry for lunch, stop for a tasty Fish Reuben at the Great Outdoors Restaurant in High Springs—winner of the prestigious Golden Spoon award, every year since 2011.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park
For most Florida school-aged children, writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' novel The Yearling is required reading. The coming-of-age story is about Jody, a 12-year-old boy, and his pet fawn, Flag, growing up in rural Central Florida during the 19th century. Rawlings' home and farm in Cross Creek, now a Florida state park, is where she lived and wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and other great works. Open to the public, her home is a fascinating example of 1930s Florida cracker architecture, an iconic wood frame home that is still used for design inspiration today. Typical of the style, Rawlings home features high ceilings and a raised floor built on posts and trusses to allow air to circulate and cool the structure. An old typewriter sits on the table in her screened porch where she penned her novels and admired the surrounding citrus grove. Visitors can enjoy the sweet smell of orange blossoms to work up an appetite before visiting the nearby Yearling Restaurant for a home-cooked Florida meal of venison, frog legs, alligator or quail. In 2007, the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings house and farm yard was designated as a National Historic Landmark, our nation's highest historic recognition.
Payne's Prairie Preserve State Park
Sculpted by Mother Nature, Payne's Prairie Preserve is a vast, 22,000-acre plain south of Gainesville. More than twenty biological communities, or mini ecosystems, provide diverse habitats where wild cracker horses run, bison graze and eagles soar. You get a great view of these habitats when you climb the 50-foot observation tower with its panoramic view of this designated National Natural Landmark. Pack a lunch for a hike on the La Chua Trail boardwalk, where you'll see flocks of cranes and 12-foot alligators while admiring the blue skies and puffy white clouds. Enjoy the shade of moss-draped oaks while listening to songbirds along the trail. Campers can savor the splendor of a full evening sky lit by twinkling star while sitting around a blazing campfire. On your way home, stop for some antique shopping in the charming town of Micanopy—ranked by the Huffington Post in 2015 as one of "The 12 Cutest Small Towns in America."
Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park
Named for its funnel-shape (grist mill hopper) and the fossilized animal remains at the bottom, the Devil's Millhopper is a 120-foot-deep sinkhole where a mini rainforest with lush vegetation envelopes you as you descend 232 steps to an aqua-colored pool at the bottom. The sinkhole is a depository for prehistoric fossils and artifacts. Natural history displays at the visitor center and ranger-led hikes explain this rare "snapshot in time" of the area.
After increasing your heart rate by descending the stairs to the sinkhole and then treading them back up, you may have an appetite for the local pizza hangout, Leonardo's Pizza of Millhopper.
San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park
Not far from the Devil's Millhopper, the San Felasco Preserve will stir the nature lover in you. Start at the park's south end in one of the few remaining mature hardwood forests in Florida. Away from it all, you'll find serenity in the comfort of nature as you trek through the quiet forest. Keep your eyes open for bobcats, deer, foxes and turkey along the trail. If you prefer biking or horseback riding, try the north end of the park near Alachua for miles of scenic trails. And after you work up an appetite, head to Bev's Better Burgers, in Alachua for what else? A better burger!
Dudley Farm Historic State Park
In the 1850s, the Dudley family moved to the area from South Carolina and maintained a 640-acre farm for three generations. Today it is a state park, where you can visit the home's grounds complete with original furnishings, an 1880's kitchen outbuilding, smokehouse, tobacco barn, stables, a general store and post office once run by the family. Completing the genuine experience, staff members dress in period costumes while leading tours and demonstrating farm chores. You may even chance upon a sugar cane grind, boil demonstration or corn shucking and join in the fun. Hungry? Afterwards, try Newberry's Backyard BBQ for some pulled pork and fried green tomatoes. More upscale dining and shopping is just down the street in beautiful Tioga Town Center, where visitors and locals alike go to enjoy a Latin-infused meal at Sabore or an event such as Hogtown Craft Beer Festival or the Tioga Car Show.
With so much variety and activities at each one of these parks, you'll be sure to find some new favorites to enjoy long into the future. Just get outdoors in Gainesville and explore.
Get outdoors in Gainesville.