If you asked me five years ago what I thought of central Florida I would have said, scrub pines, rednecks, and old people. Now, I would say all those things PLUS ancient cypress swamps, crystal clear bubbling springs, lakes and waterways teaming with wildlife, and endless opportunities for outdoor recreation. All of this was reaffirmed last week during our stay at the lovely O’Leno State Park.
As one of Florida’s oldest state parks, O’Leno has an interesting history that dates back to the later half of the 19th century. Back then it was the site of a small logging settlement that the residents named Keno, to advertise the gambling game that was popular in their tiny commercial center. Eventually, the logging business declined, and the church-going settlers did away with both gambling and the sinful town name. Now called Leno, the small town flourished for a number of years before its eventual collapse when the new SF&W Railroad bypassed them in favor of nearby Fort White. By the start of the new century, Leno was a ghost town.
Fortunately, in the 1930s the scenic former town site on the banks of the Santa Fe River was chosen by the CCC to become one of Florida’s first state parks. Locals who had continued to use the area for swimming and picnicking called the site “Old Leno”, and soon after the CCC took over the name was shortened to O’Leno.
The park was originally intended to be a Forest Service Training camp for employees and youth groups, but it only ran for two summers before being turned over to another division of the park service. In 1940 it opened to the public as a campground and officially became Florida’s 5th state park.
Many of the buildings, trails, and roads used by campers today were built by the CCC way back in the 1930s. We explored a number of the trails, including the popular River Trail that follows the Santa Fe River to the famed “river sink” where it disappears underground.
The river flows along nicely for a number of miles before slowing and then vanishing beneath the ground in a natural sink area. The river then travels underground through a network of limestone caves before coming back up three miles later at the nearby River Rise Preserve State Park.
There is a trail that connects the two parks and one afternoon we tried to bike over to see the “river rise”. Except due to work we can’t get out and about until at least 4:30 on the weekdays which meant it got too dark and we had to turn around before reaching the area where the river re-surfaced. A Google image search shows that rise looks like a plain old pond instead of a mysterious spot where a river pops out of the ground, so I don’t feel too bad about not seeing it in person.
In addition to its ability to disappear underground, the Santa Fe River also makes for a great recreation spot. The roped-off swimming area next the picnic grounds didn’t see much action during our stay, but I imagine it’s a popular spot on a hot sunny day.
Next to a swimming area is a small spot for launching kayaks. You’re only allowed to paddle upstream, as the area where the river sinks underground is off limits to boats. They say it’s because the area is environmentally sensitive, but I suspect the real reason is that they don’t want any kayakers to get sucked underground! (I’m kidding, of course…or am I?)
One afternoon we enjoyed a short paddle past the cypress trees and moss draped oaks. The river was very shallow in spots and we got stuck a few times before coming to an area that required a short portage. Not knowing if we would have to repeat the task right around the next bend, we decided our paddle was over and turned around to float back down. Despite the shallow water cutting our journey short, we really enjoyed this lazy river, including the turtles we spotted along the way.
As for the campground, it was a classic Florida State Parks with large sites, lots of trees for privacy, well-tended grounds, and a clean and updated bathroom. We are always impressed by the Florida State Parks that we have visited over the years.
Our site was in the Magnolia Loop which is located about a mile-and-a-half from the park entrance not far from the river. There is another loop called Dogwood that’s up near the entrance. I didn’t take any photos of Dogwood, but in general, I would say Magnolia is the nicer of the two with sites that are bigger and far more level.
We never did get around to exploring the surrounding area. Which is too bad because I heard there are some great natural springs nearby. Also, the town of High Springs has a really cute two-block downtown that I drove past when making a trip to the library to print a document. I intended to go back with Tim later in the day, but we never got around to it. Someday we’ll need to go back and explore more.
That’s it for O’ Leno and northern Florida. Up next we continue to move south towards the Keys where we have some exciting plans coming up soon!