North Florida’s Great Little Rivers
As everyone knows by the inch thick layer of yellow oak pollen on every outdoor surface, spring is here. The plus side is that every wildflower is at its peak of color and display, making this the best time of year to explore a few of North Florida’s great little rivers. Take a much-needed day off of work, pull the kids out of school, throw the canoes on top of the car, and head up to the town of Ellaville, near the confluence of the Suwannee and Withlacoochee rivers.
This area of Florida is rich in wild beauty and history. For thousands of years, Timucuan and Apalache Indians hunted and lived in these woods, leaving behind the evidence of their presence; pottery shards and arrowheads litter the banks of the upper Suwannee and Santa Fe. The famous naturalist William Bartram explored this area during his “Travels” and wrote about it extensively. In the years prior to statehood, pirates often attacked ships in the Gulf and retreated up the Suwannee River; it’s a known fact that there is unreachable sunken treasure in the sink at Fowlers Bluff, and divers still find Spanish doubloons and pieces-of-eight throughout the river during low water. During the War Between the States, blue coats would hide along the banks of the river and attack Confederate steamers. There are still remains of such a ship at Troy Spring.
For your long weekend, reserve a beautiful riverside cabin at the Suwannee River State Park. These cabins have two bedrooms, fully equipped kitchens, large bathroom, fireplace, wrap-around screen porch, and all-new amenities. The cost? A reasonable $100 per night. Reservations must be made at Reserveamerica.com.
Keep your first day relaxing by running the Withlacoochee River from Highway 6 to the Suwannee River. The put-in is at Madison Blue Springs State Park. The spring is wide and deep with a great-elevated platform to jump off. After cooling off in the seventy-two degree water, point your canoe downstream until you reach Pot Springs on the right bank of the river after the power lines. It’s not a large pool, but the spring itself is a great snorkel spot. Just before the confluence, check out the remains of the old sawmill by the mason-walled spring on river-right. Once you reach the Suwannee River, make a left and paddle upstream to the boat ramp on the right; welcome back home to your cabin. Spend the evening walking on the Florida Trail or visiting the Confederate earthen-works in the park.
Wake up early on day two and head west to Wacissa Springs. Put in at the southern end of Highway 59 and shuttle a vehicle south to Goose Pasture. The 9-mile paddle is nothing less than spectacular, with lots of springs, wildlife, and a spider web network of paths to choose from. If you’re into bass fishing, this is your land of milk and honey. Take your time and enjoy the many swimming opportunities. The boat ramp at Goose Pasture will be on your left. On the way back to the cabin, be sure to stop in the town of Madison for dinner at O’Neil’s. Better be near starving, it’s a great southern buffet.
One of the finest things about visiting in Spring-time, is that inner-tubers are restricted from floating the entire length of the Ichetucknee Springs. Between May and September, this registered National Natural Landmark hosts tens of thousand of “tubers” everyday. So come early and enjoy the uncrowded crystalline waters as you drift down this amazing run. Watch for otter, turkeys, energetic mullet, and the occasional manatee, and don’t forget your snorkeling gear, as the water runs clear the whole six miles. The entire run is within the borders of the Ichetucknee Springs State Park. Call for shuttle possibilities and regulations.
Running the spring will only take a few hours so head into town afterwards and enjoy a great lunch at the Mayo Café -- Ms. Belinda makes some of the greatest fried chicken known to man. Afterwards, head north on Highway 51 to the world-famous Peacock Springs State Park at Luraville. Don’t be surprised by the number of international travelers you may find at the end of the lightly-traveled dirt track, as people come from all over the world to scuba dive the vast network of underwater caverns found here. What you will want to do is swim and snorkel the placid run between the springs. You will be amazed at the amount of life found in a clear water slough, so beautiful that some folks swim the few miles out to the Suwannee. Park hours and visibility end at sunset.
As always, play it safe. Know where you’re going, bring plenty of water and sunscreen, and leave an itinerary with the ranger at the cabins. Have fun exploring! If you are interested in a guided tour, check out dates and availability of the Florida's Greatest Rivers, Swamps, and Springs tour offered by Adventures in Florida.
OUTFITTERS, SERVICES, and REFERENCES
Adventures in Florida: Florida's Greatest Rivers, Swamps, and Springs guided tour.
The Canoe Outpost: Outfitter, canoe/kayak rentals, and shuttle service
American Canoe Adventures
Suwannee River State Parks
Madison Blue Springs State Park
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Peacock Springs State Park
The State of Florida’s Nature and Heritage Center
Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park
National Geographic Magazine, March 1999
A Naturalist in Florida, a Celebration of Eden by Archie Carr
Travels of William Bartram by William Bartram