Remote, picturesque and rural, northwest Florida is a long way from major population centers. But that’s what it takes to get off the beaten path.
The payoff for your drive is a land of crystalline natural springs for swimming, the pristine Suwannee River for kayaking and multiple parks and springs within an hour’s drive, including the state’s top tubing river at Ichetucknee State Park
Two of the region’s state parks make excellent bases for exploration:
- Lafayette Blue Springs State Park, about 80 miles southeast of Tallahassee in Mayo. It has a terrific spring for swimming and some of my favorite Florida park cabins.
- Suwannee River State Park, 40 minutes north of Lafayette in Live Oak. It has campgrounds as well as river-front cabins and interesting historic features.
Both parks are on the Suwannee River and close to multiple springs to explore. We stayed at the cabins at Lafayette Springs State Park, and most of this article will focus on Lafayette and its environs. But if you’re a camper, or if Lafayette’s cabins are booked, you’ll want to look into Suwannee River State Park as your base.
Effective January 1, 2024, Florida residents will have a 30-day head start to book campsites and cabins at Florida State Parks, reducing the reservation window for non-residents to 10 months in advance. This new law does not apply to state forests, national parks, county or municipal campgrounds, which have their own rules.
The springs at Lafayette Springs State Park
You reach these gorgeous springs via wooden stairs that take you from the bluffs down to the level of the Suwannee.
Lafayette forms two pools of water, each lined with limestone rocks, surrounded by hard packed earth and separated by a natural limestone bridge. (Note that spring conditions are dependent on water levels at the time you visit; we visited at low water levels.)
The pools are not deep and are shaded much of the day. It’s a terrific swimming hole, sort of a Tarzan fantasy pool, with fish and turtles visible in the clear water. The water is a crisp 72 degrees year round.
The spring run is very short. The spring water is held at a level slightly higher than the river by a small man-made rock damn along the Suwannee River and this creates a lovely waterfall effect as the clear water cascades into the river and joins the orange tannic water of the Suwannee.
On the bluffs above the springs, there are shaded picnic grounds and facilities. This side of the park is quite compact — there are at most 30 picnic tables.
The spring actually originates in the woods above these spring pools. A nature trail, whose entrance is near the primitive campground, winds through the woods past two other springs that are surrounded by vegetation and viewable from above.
Paddle the Suwannee River
I don’t know if there is a bad section of the Suwannee to paddle because I have loved every part I’ve experienced. This section of the Suwannee was especially quiet and picturesque. Even on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, we had the river to ourselves.
The Suwannee has high banks with cypress trees and a rocky shoreline. The limestone rocks form interesting caves and crevices, but the highlight is exploring the springs along the way.
Large waterfront homes and cabins are tucked discreetly on the bluffs overlooking the river, but they don’t make the Suwannee feel developed or commercial.
The river has a gentle current that wafts you along and occasional shoals that speed you up. It is definitely a river for one-way paddling with the current. It’s wide enough that you will paddle much of the time in the sun.
We rented our canoe from the Suwannee River Rendezvous outfitters. They are a large operation nearby, located along the banks of the Suwannee. The complex includes an RV park, cabin rentals and canoe and kayak rentals plus Convict Spring, a spring rimmed with a concrete ledge that had a bit of an algae problem when we visited.
The folks at Suwannee River Rendezvous recommended their six mile trip, where they drive you to the Highway 51 bridge and you paddle back to their property. They also will provide livery service for personal kayaks and longer trips are also possible. You can do the trip in three hours and the paddling is easy. We spent longer because we loved exploring along the way.
The staff member who dropped us off described the springs and stops along the way, and they were all terrific.
At the midway point, you stop at Peacock Slough camp site, one of the fabulous paddle-in campsites that are part of the Suwannee River Wilderness State Trail system. The stop is a good place to use indoor restrooms and shaded picnic tables. It is on the bluff overlooking the Suwannee, and you couldn’t find a prettier place to spend time.
We were really impressed with the facility: The campground includes individual screen houses with electricity, ceiling fans and running water. This would make wilderness camping pretty comfortable.
Here’s our story about kayak camping on the Suwannee River.
The next stop along the river is Telford Spring. It is clearly marked as private property with “no trespassing” signs. Nevertheless, the outfitters told us to stop and look around, and we were glad we did.
It is a natural spring bubbling up and passing through several pools before it goes under rocks and emerges in the river as an upswelling of water. We waded in the spring, all alone in a magical place.
With the water level low, it is a little tricky to find a place to tie up your kayak and clamber onshore. We found the best place was actually just after the spring. Just beyond here, there is a second lovely spring you can also visit.
Next along the river is a very strange sight: a huge bridge disconnected from the banks in the middle of the river. This rusty relic is a railroad swing bridge from the 19th century that was purchased from Brazil and used for a few decades in the early days of Florida railroads. It is a strange and photogenic site.
Our final stop was a small spring called Bathtub Spring, roughly six miles beyond the Highway 51 bridge. To find this spring, you listen for running water, then tie up and climb over some rocks. When you do, you find yourself in a little Shangri-La, with clear water bubbling from a spring surrounded by moss-covered rocks and shaded by towering trees.
One last Suwannee special thrill: jumping sturgeon. We visited in May, which is the start of the warm weather when sturgeon jump, but we thought this might be a rare sight. No. It happened over and over — probably 15 times during our paddle. These Gulf sturgeon are huge – 150 to 220 pounds. They jump straight up, then flop down length-wise, making a dramatic, resounding splash. It’s one of those “only in Florida” experiences I treasure.
Be Aware: Boaters have been injured when they collide with jumping sturgeon. Passengers have been hit while seated in a boat’s bow. What can you do? Wear a life jacket. For more information, visit this Florida Fish and Wildlife page.
Cabins at Lafayette Blue Springs State Park
Lafayette Blue Springs State Park cabins are expansive two-bedroom houses on stilts set in lovely quiet woods. (The cabins require a walk up stairs to reach them, but one cabin has an elevator to make it accessible to people with disabilities.)
They’re a short stroll to the Suwannee and the spring but the thick forest is all you see from the wraparound screen porch, which is its most spectacular feature.
Each cabin has an electric fireplace (a fairly silly contraption offering little of the ambiance of even a gas fireplace), a full kitchen, one bedroom with a queen bed, and one bedroom with twin beds. It would easily accommodate a family or two couples.
The only camping at Lafayette Springs is primitive camping primarily designed to serve paddlers stopping here overnight. You can arrive by car and tent-camp, but you need to carry your gear a short distance to the campsites. (There is a cart.)
Hiking in Lafayette Blue Springs State Park
The park has two entrances. The spring, picnic grounds, camping and cabins are all at the south entrance.
Lafayette Blue Springs State Park continues a few miles north along the Suwannee River. If you follow CR 292 north from Blue Springs Road, you’ll find the north entrance. just before CR 292 turns west. This part of the park is Allen Mill Pond, which has a spring hidden deep in the woods. The trail is unmarked but you can see it on the PDF map here and included above.
This area attracts very few people. At higher water levels there is a trickling stream form Allen Mill Pond, but on our visit, the pond was just a large brown body of water. The wooded trails, however, were beautiful – tranquil, full of bird song and wildlife. (We spotted two deer in our morning walk.)
This area has a maze of forest roads that reach the cliffs along the Suwannee Rivers to the south and to the hidden Allen Mill Pond Spring to the north. These trails are open to equestrians, hikers and bikers.
What’s near Lafayette Blue Springs State Park
The metropolitan growth that is so typical of much of Florida has not reached here. This is a rural area with small towns far apart and conveniences may be some distance. The accents definitely sound like Georgia; I heard more “Yes ma’am” and “No ma’am” in a few days than I have in a 40 years in Fort Lauderdale!
The nearby town of Mayo has a few historic buildings but also plenty of empty storefronts. There are a couple of good country restaurants. We ate at a barbecue place, Tumbleweeds Smoke House, 204 W. Main St., Mayo, (386) 294-2496, which is on the same block as the cute little Great Southern Biscuit Company, 152 W. Main St. Both get great ratings on Yelp.
The roads around here have little traffic and are very scenic. In late May we were thrilled to see many wildflowers. Other park visitors had bicycles, and we noted there’s a nice bike path along the road that leads to Suwannee River Rendezvous.
Within an hour of this location, you can visit a dozen different springs. (Florida’s springs are all threatened and you will find varying conditions from spring to spring. Conditions will vary with the weather, rainfall and water levels too.)
Here are some nearby springs and parks for those who want to plan a Florida spring-hunting getaway.
Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park. Twenty minutes from Lafayette Blue Springs State Park, this park was interesting, although the springs here (and there are several) are not the most scenic or crystalline or inviting for swimming. What makes Peacock Springs State Park special is something you can’t see – the elaborate network of caves that are under its surface. This park is a mecca for cave divers. We enjoyed the nature trail through the woods where we saw springs, sinkholes, karst windows and a variety of foliage.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park. About 45 minutes from Lafayette, Ichetucknee is in a class by itself with clear water and a six-mile spring run that provides the best tubing in the state. Here are Florida Rambler stories on tubing the Ichetuckneeand on kayaking the Ichetucknee in winter.
Madison Blue Spring State Park. About 40 minutes north of Lafayette, this spring blew me away with its natural beauty. On our visit, the spring was intensely aquamarine and the water quality was sparkling. There is short rocky spring run – so pretty! — to the Withlacoochee River, where you can watch the clear spring water meet the orange river water. All around the spring, a boardwalk gives you beautiful views. If you find the spring’s 72-degree water too frigid, you can swim or wade in the shallow sandy Withlacoochee, where the mix of spring and river water is warmer. This place is packed on summer weekends. There are attractive picnic grounds around the spring. (Note: You’ll notice the road to the Nestle Waters bottling facility next door; Madison Blue water goes into Deer Park and Zephyrhills bottles here.)
Troy Spring State Park. About a half hour from Lafayette, Troy Spring is another swimming hole, but it has an unusual feature popular with snorkelers and divers – a shipwreck. The remains of a Civil War-era steamboat are at the bottom of the springs, sunk there to avoid capture in 1863.
Suwannee River State Park. There are no springs here, but this park has miles of beautiful hiking trails and some interesting historic sites. It also has cabins and camping and would make an excellent base for exploring this region. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on Suwannee River State Park.
Lafayette Blue Springs State Park
799 Blue Springs Rd, Mayo, FL 32066
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.