North Florida Paddling

The Santa Fe River and the Withlacoochee River
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Florida offers some of the best flatwater paddling in the U.S. This goes for the north as well as the Everglades in the south. Even though the north is not tropical—with many winter days in the chilly 20s— it still has a long and languid season to enjoy the scenery, wildlife, and solitude of its many isolated rivers. Two rivers, the Santa Fe and the south Withlacoochee, stand out in the crowd. . .

The Santa Fe is one of the most beautiful and unusual waterways in north Florida as well as being of considerable historical interest. It serves as the county line for Alachua County, dividing it from the neighboring counties of Bradford, Union, and Columbia. It begins in the Santa Fe lakes in the extreme northeast corner of Alachua County, flows through Santa Fe swamp, and then veers in a northwesterly direction toward O'Leno State Park where it goes underground.

The Withlacoochee River, South , is said to have been named after its sister river to the north, but the two rivers are separated by many miles and bear little resemblance to each other. The southern Withlacoochee, one of Florida's finest touring rivers, is over 100 miles long with 84 miles of good canoeing trail. While there is a great deal of development along some of its banks, there are also long stretches of beautiful and remote wilderness. In addition, the characteristics of the river are continually changing so that every day of paddling presents a new and different river experience.

Santa Fe River

For its first eighteen miles, the Santa Fe River is a tiny meandering stream that is not navigable. At Worthington Springs it becomes minimally canoeable for the very determined, and at S.R. 241, just a few miles above O'Leno State Park, it becomes a pleasant stream for even the novice paddler. At O'Leno,, the river goes underground in a lazy whirlpool and follows subterranean passageways for some three miles to River Rise State Preserve. When the Santa Fe returns, it is as a generously-sized river some 75 to 100 feet wide. This area, from O'Leno to River Rise is owned primarily by the state of Florida, either as O'Leno State Park or as the River Rise State Preserve and is laced with excellent hiking trails. The natural bridge provided by the Santa Fe at this point was one of the primary crossing points offered to Indians and early settlers. As a result, several very old roadbeds including Bellamy Road and Wire Road cross this area. Many interesting artifacts have been discovered by hikers on these trails.

From the river to the confluence of the Suwannee, the Santa Fe is said to have over three dozen springs, many of them of the first magnitude. The Ichetucknee River, a tributary of the Santa Fe, is a paradise of crystal clear springs. Because of its popularity with tubers, it is better known and more highly populated. The terrain surrounding the Santa Fe possesses almost every plant community known to the northcentral Florida area. It has sandhills, swamps, flatwoods, and hardwood hammocks. The protection of the state-owned land has made a refuge for deer, turkey, otter, bobcat, and other animals indigenous to north Florida.

Worthington Springs to State Road 241 (A-B): 6 miles

Difficulty: Strenuous
Scenery: Good
Counties: Union, Alachua
Access: From the town of Worthington Springs, travel south on S.R. 121 to the bridge. Access is on the northwest side of the bridge off a sandy, deeply rutted road.

Trip Description: At one time Worthington Springs was the site of a hotel, swimming pool, bathhouse, and recreation hall. Nothing remains now except the ruins of the concrete pool that contains the spring. The pool is located in a low wooded area on the north bank of the river just below the put-in.

Although the river is 50 to 75 feet wide at this point, clear of obstructions, and flowing at a leisurely pace, its canoeable appearance is deceiving. Shortly below S.R. 241, the river begins to be obstructed with willow trees that offer a challenge in maneuvering as the lazy current picks up speed. After practicing in the small willow tangles, the paddler will be prepared for the more technical, Confusion Willow Swamp. The channel splits again and again as it enters a mile long tangle of willow trees. This section of the Santa Fe should only be paddled in normal to high water in the winter when the branches are bare by those determined canoeists who want to paddle a river from its highest put-in point.

State Road 241 to O'Leno State Park (B-C): 5 miles

Difficulty: Moderate
Scenery: Good
Counties: Union, Columbia, Alachua
Access: From the town of Alachua proceed north on S.R. 241 for ten miles to the bridge across the Santa Fe. Access is on the northwest side of the bridge off a poorly maintained road.

Trip Description: After emerging from the willow swamp above S.R. 241, the river becomes deep and slow and is a dark tannin color, like strongly brewed tea. The banks are steep with occasional swampy areas and rare, small sandbars on the curves. There are a few houses scattered on this section and some pastureland on the higher banks.

With the advent of Olustee Creek, the river widens to 100 feet and is deep with ten to fifteen foot high banks. There is a road and boat ramp at this point but it is on private property and is not a public access. Olustee Creek is said to be canoeable at very high-water levels.

It is slightly over a mile from the confluence of Olustee Creek to Interstate 75. There is no access but shortly below the interstate bridge there is a concrete boat ramp on the northwest side. This access is reached from U.S. 41/441.

Below the interstate the river narrows again and enters O'Leno State Park. It is now about 75 feet wide with banks four to six feet high. There is a rocky shoal that provides a little interest just above the takeout at the park. There are three shoals on the river below the take-out but the canoeist has to paddle back up river after running them, since the river goes underground shortly below the take-out downstream from O'Leno.

Take-out (C): From the town of Lake City, travel south on U.S. 41/441 for 16 miles to the entrance to O'Leno State Park. The park closes at sundown, so make arrangements with the ranger if you feel you may be late getting off the river.

U.S. 41/441 (State Road 25) to River Rise (D-D): 4 miles round trip

Difficulty: Easy
Scenery: Good
County: Columbia
Access: From the town of High Springs, travel northwest on U.S. 41/441 for about two miles to the bridge across the Santa Fe. Access is on the northwest side of the bridge. There is a boat ramp on the southeast side of the river. It is reached by turning left (west) onto a paved road just before reaching the bridge. There is also a canoe livery right at the river on the southeast side of the bridge. Canoe rental, shuttle service, and launching are available for a fee.

Trip Description: It is only two miles upstream from the U.S. 41/441 access to River Rise and since almost all of the property on both sides of the river is owned by the state, it is a remote and beautiful trip. The current is bracing paddling upstream, but canoeists can lessen the work by ferrying back and forth with the current to remain on the inside bends and by watching behind downed trees for eddys in which to rest. Very efficient paddlers make the trip in less than 45 minutes, less experienced canoeists may choose to rest more and take an hour or two. In any event, coming back downstream is a breeze and the scenery is worth the effort.

At River Rise, the river suddenly reappears from underground, about 100 feet wide and flowing swiftly. Several trails meet at this point and there is a pleasant grassy glade for picnicking or camping. The banks around the rise are four to six feet high and heavily wooded. Paddling downstream, the banks rise ten to twelve feet in places and are very swampy in others. Just above and within sight of the U.S. 41/441 bridge, a spring run on the left (south) bank indicates the entrance to Darby and Hornsby Springs. Darby Spring is just inside this run and the banks around it are private property.

Hornsby Spring is almost one mile further northwest up this run. The main spring is a part of Camp Kulaqua, a privately owned facility, that is highly developed with diving platforms, sliding boards, and retaining walls. It is probably best not to paddle into the springhead itself. The run is very beautiful, however, and there are several smaller spring boils along the way. Paddlers who chose to canoe up this run should be aware that Camp Kulaqua has a small private zoo and the roar of lions and tigers can be unnerving to the uninitiated.

U.S.41/441 (State Road 25) to U.S. 27 (D-E): 3 miles

Difficulty: Easy
Scenery: Good
Counties: Columbia, Gilchrist, Alachua
Access: From the town of High Springs travel northwest on U.S. 41/441 for about two miles to the bridge across the Santa Fe. Access is on the northwest side of the bridge. There is a boat ramp on the southeast side of the river, reached by turning left (west) onto a paved road just before reaching the bridge. There is also a canoe livery right at the river on the southeast side of the bridge.

Trip Description: The Santa Fe is wide at this access, 100 to 150 feet with banks varying from 5 to 12 feet high. The current is slow and the water is generally clear at low-water levels, 5 to 15 feet deep, and without sandbars. There are several shallow shoals and at low water there is a spot where the river divides and half of it disappears into a sink near the north bank. It reappears in a boil in mid-river a few hundred yards downstream.

U.S. 27 to State Road 47 (E-F): 10 miles

Difficulty: Easy
Scenery: Excellent
County: Columbia
Access: From High Springs travel three miles north on U.S. 27 to the river. The access is on the north side of the bridge.

Trip Description: This section of the river is very popular with canoeists and divers because of the vast array of beautiful springs. The river is occasionally shallow and the occurrence of rocky shoals makes it undesirable for large motorboats. In addition, low swampy terrain makes it unsuitable for housing developments and, for the time being, it is one of the loveliest spots in Florida.

There are a few houses scattered along the higher banks just below U.S. 27, but they are soon passed by. Allen Spring is located on the right bank about one and one-half miles downstream from U.S. 27, and at low-water level, a number of small, unnamed springs may also be seen. Across the river, on the left bank, a quarter of a mile downstream, is Poe Spring. A large spring boil flowing from a horizontal cavern with several smaller boils nearby, this spring forms a circular pool about 90 feet in diameter. It is connected to the river by a 175 foot run. At one time there was commercial development here but no evidence of it remains. It is still a popular swimming and picnicking spot, however. Poe Spring marks the beginning of lowland and swampy areas along the banks that are spotted with small springs.

Lilly Spring is located less than a mile from Poe Spring on the left bank. Jonathan Spring will be on the right bank just before reaching an island in the river. At the end of the island, watch the right bank for Rum Island Spring. The Blue Spring run will be seen entering the river from the left bank. Paddle 500 feet up the run to the spring. This is a privately owned area and canoes are not permitted to paddle over the spring vent. Nearby, in the swamp around Blue Spring are Little Blue Spring, Johnson Spring, and Naked Spring.

Less than three miles down river are July Spring on the right bank and Devil's Eye and Devil's Ear springs on the left. These springs discharge from a system of caverns and passages said to be more than 1,000 feet long and up to 95 feet deep. Devil's Eye and Devil's Ear are connected with July Spring across the river.

Just a quarter of a mile further is Ginnie Spring, a large oval pool that is 50 feet deep and is said to be undermined by an extensive cave system with some 1,000 feet of passages.

The area from July and the Devil springs to below Ginnie Spring is owned by the Ginnie Spring Corporation. There is an extensive private campground, boardwalks, and facilities for scuba divers.

A mile below Ginnie Spring one encounters the first of four rocky shoals across the river. The springs have contributed a considerable current to the river but none of the shoals are difficult to maneuver. An island just below the first shoal should be run on the southwest side.

The water on this section is clear at normal- to low-water levels with water weeds on the bottom and reddish-colored pebbles in the depressions in the rocks. Cypress and other lowland hardwoods are prevalent in the swampy areas. Campsites are limited both because of the posted property and the swampy terrain. In addition to the commercial campground at Ginnie Spring, it is also possible to camp at places where roads come down to the river or on unposted land on the north bank.

State Road 47 to U.S. 129 (F-G): 13 miles

Difficulty: Easy
Scenery: Good
Counties: Gilchrist, Suwannee
Access: From Fort White travel south on S.R. 47 for about six miles until reaching the Santa Fe River. The access is on the southeast side of the bridge.

Trip Description: From S.R. 47 to U.S. 129, there are roads and subdivisions very near the river on the right bank and one is seldom out of sight of a house. The banks begin to be higher, and there are three rocky shoals above the confluence of the Ichetucknee. These shoals limit large motorboat traffic for the first three miles, but after the Ichetucknee enters the Santa Fe, the river is likely to be crowded with a great deal of motor traffic including ski boats. There are several boat ramps along this section on the right bank.

Northbank Spring is located about one-half mile downstream from S.R. 47 on the right bank. Wilson Spring is one and one-half miles farther down and the boat ramp at Wilson Spring road is the last public access before the confluence of the Ichetucknee. After the Ichetucknee comes in, the Santa Fe widens even more and the river is deeper and less clear. Despite the presence of roads and houses, this is not a heavily populated area and there are a number of pocket swamps along the way that are teeming with bird life. One winter day, a group of canoeists saw an American bald eagle on this section.

U.S. 129/S.R. 49 to the Suwannee River (G-H): 2 miles

Difficulty: Easy
Scenery: Good
Counties: Suwannee, Gilchrist
Access: From Branford, travel east on U.S. 27 four miles to the intersection with U.S. 129/S.R. 49. Turn right (south) on S.R. 49 and continue two and one-half miles to the bridge over the Santa Fe. Access is on the northeast side of the bridge. Another access is at Sandy Point, one-quarter mile downriver from the S.R. 49 bridge on the north bank.

Trip Description: This trip is for those who want to say that they did the whole thing. This is a wide, windy stretch of river that is crowded with every kind of motorized watercraft. There are some interesting springs, however, including the Pleasant Grove Springs on the left bank just above the confluence with the Suwannee.

Take-out (H): There is no access at the confluence of the Suwannee and the Santa Fe, but there is a boat landing on the southside of the Santa Fe less than a half mile from the confluence. To reach it, cross the Santa Fe on the S.R. 49 bridge and drive south for one mile to the first graded road that turns right. Turn right and continue to the river.

© Article copyright Menasha Ridge Press. Photograph copyright Photodisc. All rights reserved.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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