Gilchrist County Nature Trip

A bucket list trip for every curious traveler, this tiny county is Florida’s best kept secret. 

 

Expect to as you roll through town and find your way to one of the quiet, wooded campgrounds along the river. There won’t be much signage, so don’t be shy about asking for directions before you get outside the city limits. And make sure you packed all your necessities – this place is big on natural treasures, but decidedly short on shopping. 

 

While your trip here might not include any big city attractions, there’s certainly no chance of it being boring.

 

This corner of the world tucked between the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers in north central Florida is one of the last truly wild places in the state. If you want to experience one of the untouched wetland forests the south is famous for, Gilchrist County is your chance.

 

Topping the list of must-see natural wonders here are the crystal-clear springs that bubble up from the earth hugging the river. There are hundreds of them, more numerous here than anywhere else on the planet, which is why this place is known as the Springs Capital of the World. While many of these springs are unnamed or unmarked, four within Gilchrist County are managed as public parks where you can swim, snorkel, paddle, and camp. These picturesque oases are part of an ecosystem that is entirely unique to this region of the world.

 

Like most indigenous cultures, Florida’s earliest humans considered water a sacred resource. Many local tribes believed that these natural springs held healing powers. Whether they do or not, you can expect to feel a special connection when you explore these ancient waters.

 

The historic Suwanee River, stained brown by decaying leaves, offers a glimpse of what Florida was in the days before highways and rooftops dominated the state’s landscape. For over 200 miles, the Suwannee cuts a slow path through forests and swamps, providing refuge for some of Florida’s most vulnerable wildlife. 

 

When you launch your kayak or canoe into these waters, you’ll be sharing the river with hundreds of native species. Cranes, herons, and ibis wade quietly along the banks in search of a meal while hawks and great bald eagles circle overhead. Turtles are abundant, and alligators are too (you’ll be safe as long as you keep your distance). Jumping sturgeon are another possible sighting, though you’re more likely to hear their splash as they fall back into the water than you are to spot them in the air. Rarer to see are the whitetail deer, turkeys, and elusive bobcats that roam the forest on either side of the river, but you might just get lucky. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, visit in the winter when manatees come upriver in search of warmer water – it’s possible you could get to paddle beside one of these gentle giants! 

 

On the northern end of the county, the Santa Fe River is an equally beautiful wilderness experience; its waters are as clear as the Suwannee’s are black, making it extremely popular with paddlers who want to see the wildlife that lives beneath the water.

 

For a completely immersive nature trip, you can go “spring-hopping,” paddling downriver to observe the wildlife and stopping to visit the various springs you pass. Outfitter services are available to help you plan your trip and shuttle you back to your car.

 

For those less adventuresome (or shorter on time), you can drive to one of the parks within the county and enjoy a day playing in the spring. Most parks have nature trails that run alongside the river if you’d like to see it on foot.

 

While not as famous as the white sand beaches or even the renowned Everglades, the springs region of Florida is a special place, indeed. 

Where to Stay in the Springs Capital of the World

When someone says Florida vacation, most people think of sandy beaches and brightly colored condominiums. But for anyone willing to venture to the interior of the state, there’s an entirely different Florida that exists between the beaches. In the central region of the state, natural freshwater springs bubble up from the aquifer and create hidden oases tucked away in the forested wetlands along the Suwannee and Santa Fe Rivers. Gilchrist County is the location of five such springs, and there’s nearly a dozen more within driving distance – earning us the moniker Springs Capital of the World. 

If you’re ready to start planning your Florida Springs vacation, read on to discover the best places to stay while you’re here.

Campgrounds

Campgrounds are the go-to choice for travelers to our area. We have five parks located across our rural county, each suited for interests such as swimming, paddling, snorkeling, cave diving, boating, and wildlife viewing. Read on to see which park is right for your trip. 

Hart Springs Park and Campground

This campground is home to the largest spring-fed swimming area in the state. It also has a splash pad for the kids and separate primitive/RV camping areas. There is a paved trail connecting the RV campground to the spring area, making it easy to bike back and forth. You can even take a walk on the half-mile boardwalk to see where the spring merges with the famed Suwannee River. You can make a reservation at the Hart Springs website.

Otter Springs 

Otter Springs Park offers a perfect base camp for exploring Florida’s nature coast. There are a limited number of cabins available for rent here in addition to RV and tent sites. The swimming area at this park is smaller, but there are plenty of opportunities for fishing, paddling, and hiking. Learn more at ottersprings.com

Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park

Florida’s newest state park is a nature-lover’s dream! There are five named springs onsite, but only the largest one is open to swimming. The other named springs offer a glimpse of Florida at her wildest – a great location if wildlife viewing is on your bucket list. The campground features 23 campsites and you can make camping reservations online.

Ginnie Springs

Popular with college students, this park has everything you need for a good time on the water. You can rent snorkeling, tubing, or paddling gear from the general store; save time by filling out your rental waiver online. If cave diving interests you, Ginnie Springs offers three stunning dive sites; gear rental is available onsite. For camping information, visit their website.

Ellie Ray’s RV Resort

Ellie Ray’s is located on the north end of the county, right on the Santa Fe River. RV and tent sites are available here, along with cabin rentals. The onsite restaurant, Sturge’s, features daily food specials and live music throughout the week. There are several springs within a short driving distance, making this a great base camp for a spring-hopping trip. 

AirBnB’s

AirBnB’s are a great choice for families who don’t enjoy camping or travelers who want more privacy than a campground offers. Follow the links below to view a sampling of AirBnB locations near our springs.

Charming Cedar Log Cabin

Historic Small Town Bungalow

The Cracker Shack

Spacious Country Home

Little Critter’s Farm

Wherever you choose to stay, we’re certain that Gilchrist will become your family’s favorite location for exploring Florida’s springs.

Need help planning your trip? Email [email protected] with questions!