The Santa Fe River in north-central Florida is a long way from my Fort Lauderdale home, but its combination of sparkling springs and natural beauty make it worth the trip.
Well-known for decades as one of the best Florida rivers to kayak or canoe, the Santa Fe has enough current that we could do a 15-mile trip in six hours and not be exhausted.
And there’s so much to see in the 15 miles! The Santa Fe offers a dozen springs along the way, plus places to stop and explore or have a picnic.
My favorite: A small unnamed spring off the main river where cypress knees created an intimate pond, a pool of perfection we had all to ourselves.
Because the Santa Fe has attracted folks in canoes and kayaks for decades, there are at least two major oufitters working out of the small town of High Springs.
We used Santa Fe Canoe Outpost, located on the river near US 441, 10 minutes north of High Springs. The knowledgeable staff had us in the water quickly and efficiently. We’ve also heard good things about Adventure Outpost, located at the main crossroads in town.
Kayaking the Santa Fe River: Basics
From High Springs, the Santa Fe starts wide and woodsy with a brisk flow. Immediately, there are so many turtles — often seven and eight together on a single log.
Beautiful cypress knees and trees line the shore on our right, while the left bank is higher with more oak trees and hardwood forests.
The river is a deep tea color, so when a spring joins it, there is a remarkable blending of clear colorless spring water and tannic river water.
Along the paddling route, the Santa Fe has a scattering of private cabins and homes, but they are unobtrusive and don’t hurt the wild and scenic nature of the river.
What may affect your serenity is GInnie Springs Outdoors, a privately owned recreation complex covering two miles of Santa Fe riverfront and generating a bit of a spring break vibe.
Depending on water levels, you might get to enjoy paddling through a bit of rushing water created by rocky shoals. It’s not whitewater, but it’s fun.
When planning your Santa Fe River paddle, outfitters offer trips of various lengths.
We opted for the longest – 15 miles from near US 441 to SR 47. Other alternatives were a three mile trip (90 minutes) or a 7-mile trip (three hours.) The longer you paddle, the more springs you encounter. For example, the 7-mile trip ends before you reach the Ginnie Springs section with its many beautiful springs.
Tip: For the longer trip, make sure you have a comfortable seat. We sat on an aluminum canoe bench the whole way and we wished we had a cushion.
Highlights of kayaking the Santa Fe River
The first notable springs you reach from High Springs are Poe Springs, a county park that is temporarily closed because it was hammered by the 2017 Hurricane Irma. You can paddle into the springhead, however, and admire it even though the park itself is closed. The spring is golden colored and when it re-opens, will be worth visiting for its boardwalks through the woods, observation deck and appealing swimming hole.
Shortly afterwards, you come to Lily Spring, marked with a rustic sign. This was the home of the legendary Naked Ed, a Santa Fe River fixture who is sadly gone from the river receiving medical care. (Local brewers honored him with a beer called Naked Ed Pale Ale.) For years, springs-lover Ed Watt surprised paddlers as he worked on the property surrounding the spring wearing only a loin cloth — or nothing.
Next on the route is Rum Island, but before you reach there, watch on the right for my favorite spot – that unnamed little spring that is actually part of Rum Island.
Rum Island is a free county park and a perfect place to stretch. There are picnic tables, portable bathrooms and a shallow, sandy-bottomed spring pool. Rum Island is the take-out point for some trips on the river. If you opt for one of these, consider paddling across the river to the next spring – beautiful Gilchrist Blue – before leaving the Santa Fe.
Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park is a new addition to the Florida park system, as the state recently purchased it from private owners. Thank goodness: The spectacular Big Blue Spring is now ours forever. It is just beyond Rum Island on the opposite side of the river.
One of the prettiest places along the river is the short, clear spring run up to the swimming area and springhead at Gilchrist Big Blue. There are actually four springs in the park, but three (Little Blue, Naked and Johnson) are in the forest, inaccessible by boat.
The swimming hole here has a platform about 10 feet above the water for folks who want to take a big plunge, as well as sandy banks for those who want to enter the water gradually. There is also camping in this state park.
Continuing downstream, you soon come to Ginnie Springs, which is operated by a local family and charges $14 admission for adults (more for scuba divers) and offers camping, tubing, kayak rentals and more
As long as you stay in your canoe or kayak, you are free to paddle up the spring runs at Ginnie Springs and I recommend you explore as much as you can reach.
This is a gorgeous property with its blue green springs, wooded shores and campsites. There are nine springs here, but not all can be reached by kayak. Do look for Devil’s Ear Spring, which is in the Sante Fe River and marked by an orange buoy, and two springs on the opposite side of the river from Ginnie Springs – July and Sawdust Springs.
After Ginnie, there are few springs along the Santa Fe through the take-out point at SR 47, but the scenery continues to be enchanting nevertheless.
High Springs is a good base
High Springs (population 5,350) benefits from visitors to its springs and rivers. It has preserved a historic core of Victorian and Craftsmen style buildings, some dating from the 1800s. Located about 20 miles northwest of Gainesville, you can feel the impact of the student population in its business district. It’s a livelier and more charming small town than many in this rural area of northern Florida.
We picked up a city map outside the Chamber of Commerce and took the suggested walking tours in the historic downtown.
One of those historic buildings – the 1895 opera house— has been transformed into an attractive restaurant with an outside patio and live music, The Great Outdoors. We had an excellent meal here with locally brewed craft beer. It’s at the main crossroads in town at 65 N. Main St.
A second night in High Springs we dined at Bev’s Burger Café, 315 NE Santa Fe Blvd., a small-town diner with great ribs and burgers.
Hotels and camping
Also downtown is Grady House Bed and Breakfast, a restored two-story Craftsman style house with a big front porch. Rooms start at $140.
High Spring has a few other lodging choices, including the inexpensive mid-century Cadillac Motel, where we noticed vans parked for a women’s kayaking tour group, and a moderately priced motel/B&B outside of town, the Rustic Inn B&B.
You can camp on the Santa Fe River at both O’Leno State Park, a Florida treasure with a scenic campground that is a Florida Rambler favorite.
Things to do near the Santa Fe River:
If you’re in the area, do not miss kayaking or tubing at beautiful Ichetucknee Springs State Park. We have the details here. It is a half hour drive from High Springs and is absolutely spectacular.
Nearby is another must-visit: O’Leno State Park and River Rise State Park, where the Santa Fe River vanishes, only to re-appear 3.5 miles later to meander along the route you paddle from High Springs.