By the Banks of the Suwannee: Natural Northern Florida

Natural Northern Florida, along the Suwannee River

By Shady Hartshorne

“Way down upon the Suwannee River far, far away…”

Suwanee River sunset. photos by Shady Hartshorne.
Suwanee River sunset. photos by Shady Hartshorne.

You may be familiar with the Florida state song, “Old Folks at Home,” written in 1851 by the great American composer, Stephen Foster.

But you may be less familiar with the subject of the song, the Suwannee River, which flows 207 miles from the Okefenokee Swamp in southern Georgia to the Gulf of Mexico, its banks lined with tall longleaf pines, cypress, and sweeping live oaks dripping with Spanish moss.

And if you’ve never visited the Suwannee River, you have something in common with Foster who never set foot in Florida!

When people think of Florida, they often think of Disneyworld, the Keys, or Miami’s South Beach. But I decided to take a trip to Florida’s northern region to get an alternative view of the Sunshine State. I found excellent hiking, boating, fishing, and birding as well as historic mansions and farms, great food and places to stay.

When You Go…

I’m sure you know that Florida can be extremely hot in the summertime. Bring sunscreen, a hat, and bug repellent. If you go during the winter, you should know that northern Florida gets chilly at times. Check the weather before you go and pack accordingly.

The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail

A coordinated effort by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Suwannee River Water Management District in collaboration with county governments and private partners has produced an ambitious project that will allow boaters to travel the entire length of the Suwannee from the Georgia border to the Gulf of Mexico.

Camping platforms and other accommodations have been strategically placed at 10-mile intervals (about 4 hours leisurely paddling) to create a water version of the Appalachian Trail. The camping platforms are screened with ceiling fans and showers and cost $4.00 per person.

Or you can book accommodations along the way at a local inn or B&B. Full-service outfitters can provide everything you need including boats, paddles, food, tents, and transportation to and from your car.

Hiking and biking trails, picnic areas, wildlife preserves, and other activities are readily accessible from the river, so you can customize your trip to suit your preferences. Below you’ll find descriptions of a few stops you can make along the way.

Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in North Florida.
Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, Florida.

Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center

Stephen Foster originally intended to make his song about the Peede River in Pittsburgh, but the syllables didn’t match up, so he was forced to look in an atlas for another suitable 2-syllable river. There he found the Suwannee, (he dropped the “u” so people wouldn’t mispronounce it) and the rest is history.

You can learn more about America’s first great composer at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park located in White Springs, the northernmost stop on the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail. Here you’ll find beautiful dioramas depicting all of Foster’s great songs including Oh Suzanna, Camptown Races, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, My Old Kentucky Home and more.

The Park is serenaded regularly by a carillon located in a huge brick tower that features 97 tubular bells operated by an electronic striking system that allows it to be played via a small keyboard on the first floor. You can see scale models of the bells and the striking mechanism in the lobby.

The 888-acre park is located in White Springs near the junction of I75 and I10. The meticulously manicured grounds can be used for weddings and the carillon tower can be programmed to play the bride and groom’s own choice of music. There are hiking and biking trails, canoe rentals and a craft village.

The Spirit of Suwannee Music Park

Just down the river, you’ll find the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak. They have concerts every weekend of the summer and bluegrass festivals in March and April that attract musicians and fans from all over the country. In addition to the main shows on the big stage, there are impromptu jams that spring up as most visitors have brought their own instruments along.

The park has all kinds of camping available from RV hookups to “primitive” areas all within a short walk of the stage. For those who don’t want to rough it, there are cabins for rent including a 375 square foot “Treehouse” that overlooks the stage.

There are 30 miles of horseback riding trails as well as canoe rentals and mini golf. Local artisans display their wares at the Craft Village and there’s a country store to supply you with anything you might have left at home. When you get hungry, the SOS Café serves up breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Tubing on the Ichetucknee

The Suwannee is fed by smaller rivers, which, in turn, are fed by fresh-water springs created when water bubbles up from the aquifer through Florida’s limestone sub-strata. Ichetucknee Springs State Park is one such place. These springs form the Ichetucknee River a popular tubing spot considered the most pristine river in the country.

The water is so clear you can easily see schools of bright blue freshwater mullet swimming by as you float along in water that stays 72º all year long. For some reason that no one has quite figured out yet, the mullet love to put on a show by jumping high in the air and landing with a big splash. You may see beavers lounging on the shore or a great white heron standing like a statue waiting for a meal to swim by.

The park officials limit the number of people allowed on the river each day to preserve the quality of the water, so if you want to go tubing on a summer weekend, you need to get there early. The park offers several tubing options from 45 minutes to 3.5 hours.

If you want to canoe or kayak, you should plan to go on a weekday or pick a time in the spring or fall. The park also has an extensive network of hiking trails and a fully equipped education center with videos and displays showing the geology and history of the springs.

Cave Diving

One of the most popular swimming holes in the park is Blue Hole Spring. Named for the bright blue color of the water, this spring is famous for its underwater caves. Jacques Cousteau is said to have described them as the Mt. Everest of cave diving. If you are cave certified, you can explore the twisting passageways but you should be very careful. People have died exploring Florida’s underwater caves.

Suwannee by Houseboat

Suwannee River houseboat.
Suwannee River houseboat.

One of the most memorable ways to experience the Suwannee is in a houseboat.

After a thorough training cruise, you can set out for a day, weekend or full week cruise exploring up to 70 miles upstream or head down to the mouth of the Suwannee where it meets the gulf. Miller’s houseboats will provide you with a 44-foot floating hotel suite complete with kitchen, bath, and enough room to sleep 8 adults.

Fish for redfish, sea trout, and drum or just relax and enjoy the scenery along one of America’s wildest rivers. The vast expanses of protected land along the Suwannee’s banks means you can experience the river much as people did in the 19th century when pirates are rumored to have hidden out in the coves and tributaries.

Steinhatchee Landing Resort

The Steinhatchee (STEEN-hatch-ee) River is a much smaller river than the Suwannee, flowing out into the gulf just north of the Suwannee’s outlet. The Steinhatchee Landing Resort sits on the banks of the river about 3 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Owner/developer Dean Fowler designed the resort to look like a small Florida town in the 1920s.

He left existing trees in place when he laid out the plans for the cottages and the streets (which are named after his grandchildren), so the visitor feels transported back in time to Florida’s past.

Steinhatchee gas pump.
Steinhatchee gas pump.

There’s a cottage with a gas pump outside (featuring a 1920’s price) and one shaped like a small church. The Spice cottages have two stories and screened-in porches and the Honeymoon cottages feature two-sided gas fireplaces that can be enjoyed from the bedroom or from the romantic Jacuzzi tub in the bath. They also have a full kitchen and washer/dryer.

Visitors can take advantage of the basketball and tennis courts or the archery range. The resort also features a wedding chapel and conference center. Canoes are available for rental and, for a small fee, guests can be dropped off or picked up anywhere along the river.

If you’d rather have someone else to the driving, take a pontoon boat ride so you can sit back and enjoy the sights while bald eagles soar overhead. If you’re lucky, you might spot a manatee. Birders and hikers can also enjoy the miles of nature trails nearby.

Where to Eat

Roy’s is the oldest restaurant in town, but I visited Fiddler’s, which has a coy pond in front and a fine view of the river. The walls are lined with rich cypress woodcut from the submerged stumps left behind by loggers. Exposure to the water left the wood beautifully grooved and pitted by natural wear. The grouper is fresh and available fried, broiled, or accompanied by a variety of tasty sauces. Be sure to try the oyster crackers, which have been spiced with owner Jim Hunt’s secret recipe.

Scalloping at Keaton Beach

A few miles up the coast, you’ll find Keaton Beach, a prime spot for scalloping. Every summer the beach is packed with residents and tourists swimming, snorkeling, or wading around collecting bags of the tasty shellfish. This area features the largest natural beds of scallops anywhere and Keaton beach is one of the very few places in Florida that still allow scalloping.

The season runs from July 1 to September 10. You can also try fishing for redfish, grouper, and trout on the 700-foot fishing pier. Licenses are $14-$24 and are free for seniors. Be sure to visit the Keaton Beach Hot Dog Stand also known as the Shark Shack, a local favorite. (Just look for the big shark head sticking out of the sign above the door)

Be aware that accommodations at Keaton Beach fill up quickly, so make reservations early in the year if you want to visit in the prime summer months.

This list covers just a few of the areas and activities available in northern Florida. The Suwannee River Valley is one of the most beautiful and unspoiled natural areas in the country and the state’s excellent park service works hard to keep it that way. No matter what kind of adventure you have in mind, you’ll find it in north Florida.

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One thought on “By the Banks of the Suwannee: Natural Northern Florida

  1. My family and I have been planning to go on a vacation at the Suwannee River, that’s why I’m currently looking for a vacation home that we can rent whilst we’re there. I never knew that we can go boating from the Georgia border to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s also interesting to learn that they have created a water version fo the Appalachian Trail in there.

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