Taking a little break from blogging our great western road trip, the next few posts will focus on our 2-week January road trip to Florida. Over the course of these two weeks, we revisited favorite spots and traveled new ones. We saw fresh and salt water in colors from black as oil to aqua blue to crystal clear, experienced ecosystems and wild creatures unlike any we’ve seen before, ate a variety of delicious regional foods, had a serendipitous meeting in St. Pete, visited the homes and final resting places of some of our favorite authors, and spent a surprising amount of time shivering from the cool weather. We drove the length of Florida from north to south, and picked up some great pieces for our vintage shop (so many typewriters!!!)
Our Florida journey begins in White Springs.
Sleepy White Springs is not the first destination that comes to mind when planning one’s Florida vacation. However, its mineral springs were actually Florida’s first tourist attraction. Once famous as a 19th century health resort, the town struggles now to keep any restaurants and antique stores open for more than a couple of years, but interestingly the non-profit Suwannee Bicycle Association has been going strong for almost three decades now.
There’s a distinctly sweet but also gothic southern-ness about this place. Giant live oaks draped in Spanish moss tower over a few dozen beautiful (restored) old houses, enabling one to envision the golden days of White Springs. Personally, I find run down and abandoned “cracker” houses just as intriguing, and you can find plenty of those here too.
The town’s site on the blackwater Suwannee River adds to the dark allure of the place. The river’s tannic color is derived from decaying vegetation in its headwaters of the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Yeah, those power lines bug me too, but in the rainy weather I couldn’t be too choosy about framing.
By the end of the 19th century, White Springs boasted fourteen “luxury” hotels, most of which burned in a fire in 1911. During our first trip to White Springs about twelve years ago, only the iconic Telford Hotel was still open, with its busy restaurant serving very good food to locals and travelers alike. This place was a true gem but sadly has been closed for a few years now.
In spite of its struggles to keep businesses open, two nice state parks are constants in White Springs, and a big reason to visit the town. Park #1 is Stephen Foster Folk Culture State Park, which has an odd 50’s era plantation-replica museum dedicated to the prolific composer Stephen Foster and the history behind his famous song “Old Folks at Home”, better recognized by its line “Way down upon the Swanee River…”. There is also an impressive Carillon bell tower which plays Stephen Foster songs throughout the day. A gift shop and seasonal craft village sell local food and wares. (Sorry, no pics to share, as my phone had a wet-weather meltdown whilst walking around the park).
Perhaps most interestingly, the park service has preserved the original four-story wooden bathhouse at the mineral springs (which ceased to flow in the 90’s). The park has a beautiful, small, quiet, and clean campground, and is home to the long-running Florida Folk Festival and several other festivals throughout the year.
Park #2 is Big Shoals State Park, home to the largest whitewater rapids in Florida and towering limestone bluffs above the Suwannee River. The park looks great for hiking, biking, and kayaking (experienced paddlers only). We’ve never been able to visit this park because every time we’ve passed through this area it’s been after heavy rains and the trails are all flooded. One day Big Shoals, one day…
After spending camping one night in White Springs, we continue south and spend a couple of hours wandering through the massive Webb’s Antique Mall near Lake City, before heading to Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park to set up camp. Payne’s Prairie is an interesting place. Wild horses and a herd of buffalo roam the prairie. The La Chua trail (accessible from the park entrance just south of Gainesville) is one of the best places in Florida for viewing Sandhill cranes and alligators. The prairie is flooded right now, so on this visit we aren’t able to do any hiking. Bummer. But the water isn’t high enough to turn it back into Alachua lake.
Our remaining daylight hours are spent checking out antique stores in the cute little old towns of Micanopy , Reddick, and McIntosh. The Antique Emporium is one of the most interesting antique malls we’ve ever visited, containing treasures from all over the world just waiting for the right person to take them home.
After an early dinner at Micanopy’s Blue Highway Pizza – a regular stop whenever we’re in the area – we head back to the park and settle into the tent early. It’s surprisingly cold and gray in Florida right now, and coupled with the constant humidity and wind, it can easily feel fifteen degrees colder than the actual air temperature. With nighttime lows in the thirties for half the nights that we spend in Florida, I curse myself for forgetting my gloves.
It’s cold when we crawl out of the tent the next morning, so we bundle up and pack up camp. We drive the couple of miles to downtown Micanopy to shoot some pictures. The sun is finally shining today. Hooray! Time to break out the film cameras.
Long-time locals claim that Gainesville native Tom Petty lived – or more likely couch surfed – in an apartment Micanopy during his early days as a struggling musician. (River & Joaquin Phoenix’s family home was here in the 80’s and 90’s too). If the town looks familiar to you, perhaps it’s because the movie Doc Hollywood was filmed here. I get the appeal. I could quietly wile away many days in this mellow, friendly, kind of hippie-ish town.
Micanopy’s historic cemetery is a peaceful resting place for those who no longer walk this world but also those of us who still do. This is Old Florida. The earliest grave marker is dated 1823.
Sidenote: If you’re not familiar with Tom Petty’s first band Mudcrutch, I highly recommend checking them out. The band reformed in 2007 and released their brilliant first (self-titled) album. It’s a great soundtrack for a northern and Central Florida road trip.
Part 2 of our journey through tiny Northern Florida towns takes us to Cross Creek and Island Grove…
Interested in seeing what else we’ve been doing in Florida? Click here.
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