Last updated on January 13th, 2022 at 05:13 pm
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 happened.
The staging for this phenomena takes place at O’Leno State Park, one of Florida’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.
When the river reaches O’Leno State Park, it dives into a sinkhole and flows through underground caverns several miles downstream to the River Rise Preserve State Park.
From that point until its junction with the Suwannee River, the Santa Fe moves at a. leisurely pace, fed by more springs, creating one of the most scenic paddle trails in the state.
Hiking to The River Sink at O’Leno State Park
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. Trail segments allow you to cut your hike short or 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 and disappears.
Even cooler than the sink are the rapids leading to it, 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 hike.
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, a rare sight in Florida.
The trail also introduces you to a series of natural “levees” carved out of landscape by flood waters to protect against future flooding.
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 for hiking, off-road bicycling and equestrian use. One of those trails will take you into the woods where the Santa Fe re-emerges from its underground run.
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 Springs.
The second entrance is on Bellamy Road, north of the US 441 entrance. The third is off 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 into the preserve from points downriver. (See below)
Swimming and kayaking at O’Leno State Park
O’Leno State Park has a designated swimming hole just below the suspension bridge that is popular in summer. There are no lifeguards, and the swimming area is closed in winter.
This is a finicky section of the Santa Fe River that experiences substantial changes to the water level. As a result, swimming and kayaking conditions change quickly. Visit the park’s website or call the ranger station at 386-454-1853 for updates.
There are two canoe/kayak launches with access to the northern, upriver leg of the Santa Fe River. 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 upstream outside of the park and downstream into the park, as far as the swimming area.
Another option I highly recommend is below the park, and below the River Rise. The launch is 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.
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 paddlebaords and 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.
O’Leno State Park features a spacious campground
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 that 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. There is a dump station in the campground.
Backpack 3 miles to primitive lake camping.
Hammocks are allowed in sites 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.
O’Leno has 16 historic cabins intended for groups but available to individual campers when they are not reserved for groups. This is a great option for large families.
The cabins vary in size and include a bunkhouse style that sleeps 6-8 (bathrooms in separate building) as well as two-bedroom cabins with bathrooms and kitchens. None of the cabins have air conditioning or heat.
All of the cabins were built in the 1930s by the CCC. RVs and tents are not allowed in the cabin area.
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Museum
Between 1935 and 1936, the CCC cleared land, built roads and trails, and constructed many of the buildings found in the park today. A small museum dedicated to the history of the CCC is located in the cabin area. Open 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
Camping at O’Leno State Park
Campground RV/tent sites are $18 per night, plus a daily $7 utility fee and a one-time $6.70 booking fee. Sites can be reserved up to 11 months in advance online or by calling 1-800-326-3521 after 8 a.m. If you are trying to reserve a site the same day, call the ranger station at 386-454-1853.
Cabins vary between $25 to $150 per night plus tax, depending on the cabin, plus a nonrefundable $6.70 reservation fee. Cabins are not available online. Contact the ranger station directly at 386-454-1853 to make a cabin reservation up to 11 months in advance.
Fees for backcountry primitive are $5 per person per night and are first come, first served, payable in person at the ranger station.
O’Leno State Park, 410 SE O’Leno Park Road, High Springs, FL 32643. Phone: 386-454-1853. Day visitors fee: $5 per vehicle. (Included with camping). Pets are OK and alcohol is permitted only within the confines of your campsite.
Notes: On occasion, I camp at O’Leno without a reservation because of its proximity to I-75, but on a recent trip, I arrived after 2 p.m. and the ranger station was already closed. Call ahead early in the day for same-day bookings.
O’Leno’s campground is popular with summer visitors to nearby Ichetucknee Springs State Park.
O’Leno State Park is one of my favorite overnight stops when traveling into or out of Florida on Interstate 75 with my RV.Bob Rountree, author
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
Hotels.com: Hotels in or near High Springs, Florida (Sponsored)
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Bob Rountree is a beach bum, angler and camper who has explored Florida for decades. No adventure is complete without a scenic paddle trail or unpaved road to nowhere. Bob co-founded FloridaRambler.com with fellow journalist Bonnie Gross 12 years ago.