Crystal clear immersion in a small-town oasis.
Half a mile from Ichetucknee's headwater spring is the Blue Hole, popular with scuba divers
Peter W. Cross
As Florida grew, hundreds of farming towns faltered as cities siphoned off the population. While many of those rural towns faded away, others reinvented themselves. One of those was High Springs, 24 miles northwest of Gainesville.
The Grady House B&B
Big Cypress Reservation
After the downtown district was depleted, it turned a corner in the 1980s when new residents arrived with fresh ideas. Entrepreneurs began buying up old feed stores and abandoned fix-it shops and started selling products and services aligned with outdoor activities. Antiques and collectibles were easy to find and dealers began setting up shop. Today, small cafés, ice cream parlors, gift shops, art galleries, a bakery, an olive oil vendor, restaurants, and outfitters like Adventure Outpost have added to the roster of Main Street merchants. A few blocks away, the family-owned and operated Priest Theatre is believed to be the longest-running movie house in Florida.
While it can take just a few hours to peruse the shops, it can take a full weekend to experience the parks, rivers, springs, and trails that surround the town. Using High Springs as a base, go out and explore Ginnie Springs Outdoors (ginniespringsoutdoors.com), just 10 minutes west of town. A dive shop carries gear, canoes, and kayaks for exploring the springs, caves, and Santa Fe River. Nearby, Blue Springs Park (bluespringspark.com) is one of 13 natural springs across the state with the name “Blue Springs.” This is the one that features five springs, two of which feed into the main pool whose silky white sandy bottom is dazzling in daylight. Canoe and kayak rentals are available for a trek along the Santa Fe River. Created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, O' Leno State Park (floridastateparks.org/park/oleno) is 6 miles north on U.S. 441. Also located on the Santa Fe River, the park features a full-facility campground, riverside picnic pavilions, hiking, geocaching, and canoeing.
Boat rentals are plentiful
When the day is done, head back to High Springs. After the daytrippers have departed and the streets are empty, you can walk through this quiet town and see an unusual sight—authentic Florida. highsprings.com
High Springs’ most popular lodging establishment, the Grady House was a one-time railroad boarding house before it was transformed into a 5-room bed and breakfast inn that includes a separate full-size cottage, which can accommodate a party of four. gradyhouse.com
Featuring 6 guestrooms, the Rustic Inn Bed & Breakfast is actually a 7-acre ranch offering plenty of peace and quiet, along with the chance to claim a front porch rocking chair to view the sunset. rusticinn.net
Consistently named the best restaurant in town, the Great Outdoors Dining Company features a little of everything including steaks, redfish, coconut shrimp, fried chicken, hot wings, tacos, salads, and fried green tomatoes, plus a full bar and live music. greatoutdoorsdining.com
Reflecting the look of the town, The Diner is a 1950s-themed retro dining spot serving up breakfasts, hamburgers, fries, shakes, meatloaf, fish dishes, pasta, specialty salads and sandwiches. 386-454-5775.
Ichetucknee River State Park
Although Ichetucknee River State Park is 20 miles northwest, it’s worth the drive to visit what may be the most popular river run in Florida. Climb atop an inner tube, stretch back, and let nature do the driving. Drifting along at 1 mph, the 3-mile crystalline stream is shaded by a canopy of oaks and bordered by pure Florida wilderness. floridastateparks.org/park/ichetucknee-springs