HIGH SPRINGS — A few miles northwest of Gainesville, the Santa Fe River runs deep. So deep, it disappears. Poof! It’s gone. Three miles later, it pops up out of the ground as if nothing ever happened.
The staging for this phenomena takes place at O’Leno State Park, one of the state’s first state parks and developed by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, which put the unemployed to work developing Florida natural resources for the public to enjoy.
The disappearing river winds its way south from spring-fed Lake Santa Fe in Alachua County. When it reaches O’Leno State Park, it takes its dive into a sinkhole to flow through underground caverns several miles to the appropriately named River Rise Preserve State Park.
From that point until its junction with the Suwannee River, the Santa Fe moves leisurely along, fed by more springs on one of the most scenic paddle trails in the state.
The first thing my wife and I noticed upon arrival was how spacious and inviting was the campground.
But access to the sites, especially in the Dogwood Campground, was a little tight. We didn’t have any trouble navigating our 25-foot travel trailer through the Magnolia Campground, but I could definitely see a few tricky maneuvers would have been required in Dogwood Campground.
The individual sites in both campgrounds are outstanding with lots of privacy afforded by low growth and dense forest offering plenty of shade.
“I love the trees!” was my wife Kathy’s first comment as we were setting up camp.
The forest consists of a variety of hardwoods, including tall (but not sprawling) oaks peppering the forest, both in the campground and elsewhere in the park.
There are about 60 campsites at O’Leno — 27 in Magnolia, 26 in Dogwood and 5 tent sites — all with water and electric hookups, in-ground grills and picnic tables with centrally located bath houses. Two sites are handicap accessible, site 4 in Magnolia and site 47 in Dogwood. Backpack 3 miles to primitive lake camping.
Hammocks are allowed in site nos. 33, 34, 37, 39, 40, 42, 50, 52, 53, 54, 55, 57, 58, 59, 61. Pets are allowed (on a leash) throughout both campgrounds. A dump station and trash dumpsters are located off the main park road.
We visited in June and easily reserved a site a week in advance. When I checked campsite availability for August and September, plenty of sites were available, with the exception of Labor Day Weekend. When I looked further forward toward’s the end of the year, more than half of the campsites were available on most weeks and weekends.
Reservable up to 11 months in advance online through ReserveAmerica or by calling (800) 326-3521 (8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.) or TDD (888) 433-0287.
Hiking to “The River Sink”
This is a great little hike, not very challenging, and it has a lot of wow factors over the course of its 1.3 miles, and there are several trail segments that will let you cut your hike short of make it longer.
These shady trails wind through upland forest and along the river bank to the sink, where the river abruptly “ends” in a large pond where it sinks underground.
But even cooler are the rapids leading up to the River Sink and a few “lakes” that seem to pop up out of nowhere in the forest. These lakes, especially Lake Ogden, are thought to be fed by the underground river, giving them a unique distinction of having no surface outflow and adding a little mystery to your hiking.
The rapids along The River Trail add another level of coolness and will cause you to pause and reflect on your surroundings, especially if you haven’t seen rapids in awhile. They are not very common in Florida by any means.
The trail also introduces you to a series of natural “levees” that have been carved out of landscape by flood waters. More “cool” factor!
A wooden suspension bridge that crosses the Santa Fe River is your access point for the network of trails, and if you take it all in, you’ll exit into the site of the Civilian Conservation Corps buildings that date back to the 1930s.
The River Also Rises
The Santa Fe stays underground for about three miles before re-emerging in O’Leno’s sister park, the River Rise Preserve.
River Rise Preserve State Park has over 35 miles of multi-use trails available for hiking, biking, and equestrian use, and one of those trails will take you back into the woods where the Santa Fe re-emerges from its underground hideout.
There are three gated entrances to the preserve. The one you want to access the River Rise is on US 441, south of the entrance to O’Leno State Park and north of High Spring.
The second entrance located on Bellamy Road, off of US 441 north of High Springs (and north of the US 441 entrance). The third is off of US 27 and allows access to the west portion of the River Rise trail system and equestrian camping. You must visit or call the O’Leno State Park ranger station at (386) 454-1853 to pay entrance fees and obtain the gate combination.
There are no launch points for kayaks or canoes within the preserve, but you can paddle up there from points downriver. (See below)
Swimming and Kayaking
O’Leno State Park has a designated swimming hole just below the suspension bridge. Check the park’s web site before you go, though, because this is very finicky section of the Santa Fe River with substantial changes to the water level, drying up or rising above flood stage. As a result, the swimming hole and kayak opportunities can change very quickly, so you should visit the park’s website before your visit for updates on the status of the river.
There are two canoe/kayak launches that allow access to the northern portion of the Santa Fe River, upriver from the swimming hole. One is accessible from the park’s main parking lot. You must paddle upriver and return from this launch. The swimming hole is downriver and off limits to kayaks and canoes.
A second launch is accessible from Bible Camp Road, off Sprite Road, north of the entrance of O’Leno State Park. Paddlers launching here may explore up stream outside of the park and downstream into the park, as far as the swimming area.
Another option that I highly recommend is below the park, and below the River Rise, about 5 miles south on U.S. 441, at the Canoe Outpost in High Springs. From this point in the river, all the way to the Suwannee and beyond, the river is outstanding and wide open to paddlers.
Although I haven’t paddled this section of river in several years, I have distinct recollections of a relatively fast-moving river (by Florida standards) and an especially scenic journey through colorful lowlands, picturesque riverbanks and a number of tributaries fed by sparkling clear springs.
While paddling up one such tributary years ago on the Santa Fe, we were dazzled by the beauty of our surroundings when our small group of paddlers stumbled upon an occupied makeshift lean-to nestled into picturesque sub-tropical foliage. A naked old man with gray hair down to his waist stepped out of the shelter to sit in a beach chair.
Florida does have its characters!
The Canoe Outpost is a busy concession on weekends, renting canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards, offering day trips, overnight adventures and monthly full moon excursions. They have shuttle service for those who bring their own kayaks, canoes or SUPs that will pick you up at various points downriver and bring you back to your vehicles. Visit their web site or call (386) 454-2050 for more informatioin.
For those that have their own shuttle plan, or expect to paddle upriver to the River Rise or downriver, there is a free public launch just past the Canoe Outpost on Boat Ramp Road, off 441. Parking is sparse, about six vehicles, so arrive early on weekends. It’s pretty much wide open on weekdays.
Add an extra day to your itinerary to visit nearby Ichetucknee Springs State Park, a popular tubing destination that is overwhelmed by crowds on summer weekend. Truly a blast, you can avoid the crush that often closes the park and make reservations with the park concession at (386) 497-1500.
In a nutshell…
O’Leno State Park, 47 RV or tent sites, 3 RV only, 5 tent only sites with water, 30 and 50-amp electric, picnic tables, fire rings, grills. Backpack 3 miles to primitive lake camping. Restrooms with showers, dump station, bicycling, birding, equestrian trails, kayak-canoe launch, fishing, geo-seeking, hiking, interpretive exhibit, museum, picnicking, playground, swimming, tours, wildlife viewing. Day-use fee: $5/vehicle. Camping Fee: $18 per night plus tax and $6.70 reservation fee.; Primitive camping: $5/person. 410 SE O’Leno Park Road, High Springs, FL 32643. Florida residents 65 and over or who hold a social security disability award certificate or a 100 percent disability award certificate from the Federal Government receive a 50% discount on base campsite fees. Proof of eligibility is required. The Ranger office, 386-454-1853, does not accept advanced reservations, although they will let you book available sites in person for same-day walk-ins. For advance reservations up to 11 months in advance, call 800-326-3621 or book online.
Group Camp, Perfect for Meetings and Retreats
The developed group camp at O’Leno State Park consists of historic buildings constructed by the CCC and has an overnight occupancy limit of 120 guests and includes:
- Three Leader cabins
- Thirteen sleeper cabins (each sleep 8 on 4 sets of bunk beds)
- Two bathhouses
- Dining hall with a full kitchen (includes tables, chairs, gas oven, dishwasher and utensils). Accessible ramp and restroom.
- Recreation hall
- BBQ pit
- Fire ring
- Basketball hoop, volleyball net and horseshoe court
- Craft building
- Concession building
The group camp can be rented up to 11 months in advance. A deposit of one night’s rental is required at the time of the reservation. Contact the ranger station (386) 454-1853 for information or to make a reservation.
O’Leno State Park: floridastateparks.org/park/Oleno
O’Leno Campground Reservations: ReserveAmerica
High Springs Canoe Outpost: santaferiver.com
River Rise Preserve State Park: floridastateparks.org/park/River-Rise
Ichetucknee Springs State Park: floridastateparks.org/park/Ichetucknee-Springs