Grammi and I were going to met up with our daughter and her husband for a long weekend camping trip in north Florida. It was going to be about a six hour drive. That is a long day of driving for us while towing the camper. So we decided to split up the drive and departed a day early, stopping near the midway point.
Unlike most states, Florida’s peak season for camping is during the winter months. It is practically impossible to find a campsite on the spur-of-the-moment in a state park this time of year. Needless to say, we were surprised and delighted to find an available site for one night at O’Leno State Park. It helped that is was in the middle of the week.
O’Leno State Park is located on the banks of the scenic Santa Fe River about 30 miles north of Gainesville. It is a popular location for canoeing, kayaking, bicycling, hiking, fishing, picnicking, and of course…camping. Developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930’s it became one of Florida’s first state parks in the 1940’s.
There are two separate campground loops. Both loops have water and electric hookups. A dump station is located just off the main road inside the park. There is a bathhouse centrally located at each loop but we did not go inside to check them out. We stayed at site #44 on the Dogwood loop located near the park’s entrance. Tucked back in the woods, it was a bit unnerving navigating the trailer between the trees and around the washouts on the narrow dirt road. The Magnolia loop is located closer to the river. The road through this loop is wider. Both areas give a rustic feeling one might expect from camping in the forest. On the downside, the campsites were narrow and definitely too close to each other, but despite the feeling of group camping it was well worth staying.
We arrived around two o’clock in the afternoon. When we checked in, the park ranger told us that all but one hiking trail was closed due to high water caused by recent rains. We found our site and quickly set up. We had the rest of the afternoon to explore so we went down to the river. There we found a large parking area near a playground and picnic area. There were some small buildings and historic displays located nearby. We walked down to the river. It was overflowing its banks and moving swiftly. The swimming area was roped off and a sign was posted indicating it was closed. A small observation dock was underwater and also roped off. We saw a pole with markings indicating high water levels from past floods so obviously this area is prone to flooding.
We found the starting point for the River Trail. This popular 1.5 mile trail was the one the park ranger said was open. We hiked along the river to the sinks. The sinks is where the Santa Fe River disappears underground. That’s right…the Santa Fe River comes to a place within the park where the water swirls around and then disappears underground. I’m accustomed to seeing springs in Florida bubble up from the ground creating streams and rivers. There are a ton of them in Florida. But to see it go the other direction was odd to me. The river continues to travel underground for about three miles before emerging again on the surface. Our hike ended when we crossed a suspension bridge returning us back to where we began.
The next morning I sat outside and quietly watched the shadows creep across the ground as the sun began its daily ascent. The birds joyful song brought the dawn of a new day. It felt good to be camping again. I like this park. It has an old Florida feeling that I knew as a young boy. I hope to come back soon and spend more time here.
It was a leisure morning for us. No hurry to pack up right away. There was plenty of time to get to our next destination to meet with our daughter. Grammi and I took a stroll around the park and found a geocache in the process. It always gives us a satisfying feeling of accomplishment when we find one.
The rest of the week should be fabulous. The weather is supposed to be perfect.
So until next time…happy days and safe travels.
One thought on “O’Leno State Park and the Disappearing River”
Glad you are camping again! We will be later in the month. I never heard of a disappearing river. Enjoy the time with your family!