The Santa Fe River serves as Alachua County’s northern border. The river begins in Santa Fe Lake, flows through Santa Fe Swamp, and then heads northwesterly into O’Leno State Park. For its first 18 miles, it is a tiny stream that is not navigable. The natural bridge provided by the Santa Fe (where the river goes underground for three miles) was one of the primary crossing points used by Indians and early settlers. Several old roadbeds, including Bellamy road and Wire road, cross this area. The Santa Fe is fed by over three dozen springs, many of them first magnitude. The Ichectucknee River feeds the Santa Fe. A tributary of the Suwannee River, the river snakes past hardwood hammocks and river swamps.
Over 100 crystal-clear springs feed the river along the way, which produces water that remains 71 degrees year round. Alligators, turtles and wading birds are quite often seen along the river. The most paddle-able portion of the river runs for a distance of 26 miles.
The gorgeous Ichetucknee River — in my opinion the most beautiful river in all of Florida — feeds into the Santa Fe, which allows paddlers to paddle up into the Ichetucknee.
The river passes by Poe Springs, an Alachua County-owned park; Ginnie Springs, a world-famous private resort for snorkelers and divers; and Rum Island (a county park). Other prominent springs are Lily Spring, Blue Spring, Naked Spring, Devil’s Eye Spring, Columbia Spring, Rum Island Spring, and July Spring.
Water along the river is a dark tannin “tea color” due to the natural process of leaves decomposing in the clear water.
Schools of gar, mullet, bream, and bass are commonly seen. Giant oaks and cypress are found lining the banks of the river.
Downstream are two named “siphons,” where the river water is being sucked from the river into the underlying aquifer.
A pleasant way to end a Santa Fe River paddle is to head for the nearby town of High Springs, a historic little town which contains antique shops, lovely historic homes, a walkable main street and a few delicious restaurants.
On a Labor Day weekend, we paddle from the Rt 27 bridge to River Rise (where the Santa Fe emerges after traveling downstream for a short distance. From Rt 27 bridge/boat launch to River Rise is a 3-hour paddle (coming back from River Rise to the Rt 27 bridge is 1-2 hours). River Rise is about 40 minutes upstream from Rt 441 bridge.
Along the way, we are surprised to see whitewater waves coming from a tributary on the north side as we near the 441 bridge. It is Columbia Spring — a 2nd magnitude spring with a STRONG current that took me three tries to overcome as I paddled into the boil. Closer to the Rt 27 bridge (just downstream from Columbia), we see that the Santa Fe is flowing INTO a tributary via a “siphon” — a crack in the limestone that brings water into an aquifer.
Most of the Florida’s major siphons lie along the Santa Fe River. The opposite of springs, siphons are features where water flows directly from the surface back underground into the aquifer. The six known siphons along the river drain an estimated total of 337 million gallons of water each day. The named siphons along the Santa Fe are downstream from where we paddle on this day, and have names like Big Awesome Suck and Little Awesome Suck. The siphons range from a gentle draining action to a strong sucking action evacuating vast amounts of surface water into the aquifer.