I am hired by the City of Gainesville directly out of graduate school to work as a comprehensive planner in the Department of Community Development in March 1986 (in 1986, the city population was about 75,000). It turns out to be a fortunate decision, as Gainesville has served well as a convenient staging area for a number of adventures I enjoy on a regular basis. My favorite spots in the Gainesville area, in no particular order, include:
Ichetucknee River. A series of springs discharges 233 million gallons of water every day, and creates Ichetucknee River. Most users of the river use the river by floating down it on an inner tube. It is the most gorgeous, sparkling river in Florida. Shuttle for tubers runs Memorial Day through Labor Day. Midpoint float takes 1.5 hrs. Full length takes 3.5 hrs. Can also kayak or canoe or snorkel the river.
North Central Florida contains one of the most astounding concentration of springs in the nation, if not the world, which explains why the National Geographic featured the springs of the area in early 1999. About 45 minutes from Gainesville.
University of Florida. In 1853, the private Kingsbury Academy in Ocala was taken over by the state-funded East Florida Seminary. The Seminary was moved to Gainesville following the Civil War. In 1905, the institution was renamed as the University of Florida. In 2001, with about 46,000 students, the University is today the fourth largest university in the nation. There are approximately 4,000 full-time faculty in 20 colleges and schools. More than 100 undergraduate and more than 200 graduate programs are offered. Professional degrees are awarded in dentistry, law, medicine, pharmacy and veterinary medicine. The university is home to the world’s largest citrus research center and has cooperated with Spain to build the world’s largest telescope. The campus contains a historic northeast quadrant (which boasts several buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. See photo upper right), Lake Alice (home to several alligators) and Medicinal Gardens, Century Tower (a 49-bell carillon which rings on the daytime quarter hour), a cutting edge Bat House (where at dusk each day, thousands of bats emerge for their nightly feeding), the Museum of Natural History, the Harn Museum, the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, the University Art Gallery, historic buildings, and major intercollegiate sports. The football season is from August through November. Basketball is December through February. Baseball is February through May. It is best to rollerblade or bicycle to see the campus.
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. A 62-acre woodland and meadow park is the home of butterflies, herbs, humming birds, and sunken gardens. The state’s largest herb garden and collection of bamboo is also here, as is a pretty water lily pond. Very attractive, romantic walk. The Gardens are best seen in the spring or summer. The gardens border the 250-acre Lake Kanapaha. The word “Kanapaha” comes from tow Timuqua Indian words that mean “palmetto leaves” and “house.” Collectively they refer to thatched dwellings that were the homes of the original human inhabitants of the forests bordering the lake.
Devil’s Millhopper and San Felasco Hammock. Devil’s Millhopper is a huge sinkhole containing a dozen small waterfalls that can be enjoyed as you descend 232 steps to the bottom of a 120-foot deep, 500-foot wide sinkhole. It was formed when an underground cavern roof collapsed, creating a bowl-shaped cavity. The Millhopper is a National Natural Landmark that has been visited since the 1880s. It contains plant species rarely found in Florida. Nearly every major forest type native to north Florida is found in the 6,500-acre San Felasco Hammock. This preserve features limestone outcrops, sinkholes, champion trees, and numerous ponds, creeks, and marshes. Many rare plants thrive at the preserve. Wildlife includes bobcat, birds, gray fox, white-tailed deer,and wild turkey.
Suwannee River. I have canoed, kayaked, and mountain biked on or near this historic river. Quite impressive. A large river with coffee-colored water. This fabled river, made famous in the song by Stephen Foster, flows more than 200 miles across Florida from its origin in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia to its destination in the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, it is fed by more than 22 major springs-many of which offer diving, snorkeling, picnic, and swimming opportunities. Along the way are Big Shoals and Little Shoals, the only river rapids in Florida. The river flows through pristine river swamp with tall cypress, oaks, pines, and palmettos. Along bends in the river, you often find white sand beaches, many of which make excellent camp sites, which I have previously camped on. Wildlife includes deer, otter, alligator, hawks, great blue heron, osprey, and beaver. Limestone outcrops line the banks. Ancient ocean fossils in the limestone are evidence of a time when the shoreline extended further inland and the sea covered much of present-day Florida.
Parts of the Florida trail and a network of off-road bicycling trails parallel the river. The off-road bicycling trails, all of which I have bicycled, include 11 separate riding areas featuring a variety of forest ecosystems, palmetto thickets, pine forests, oak hammocks, and cypress swamps. Find old beaver dams, hidden springs, and glimpses of the blackwater Suwannee River along mountain bicycle trails that are second only to the Santos trails in all of Florida.
The Suwannee River is about a 1-hour drive from Gainesville.
Downtown Gainesville. Starting in the 1990s, downtown Gainesville has seen a resurgence. A very walkable place. Nice restaurants. Impressive cultural events. Pleasant collection of bars-including a brewpub that makes its own microbeer. Enjoyable library. Remarkable 5-story Union Street Station building built in the late 1990s and containing offices, residences, and retail.
Hippodrome Theatre. Alternative movies. High quality plays. It is the only professional theatre in North Central Florida-housed in an extremely impressive, classical building. Originally the downtown post office for Gainesville.
Matheson Museum. Center for cultural and natural history of the area. Features over 18,000 Florida postcards, 1,200 stereo-view cards, and a variety of prints, maps, and items of historical significance. The restored Matheson House (built in 1857) is next door, as is a native plant botanical garden
Morningside Nature Center. Large, 278-acre city-owned nature park. Old, historic “cracker” home and working “Living History” farm displays the lifestyle of a farmer in North Central Florida 100 years ago. There are barnyard animals, an 1840 cabin, a turn-of-the-century kitchen, an heirloom garden, and a barn. The park contains boardwalk and trails through a sandhill, cypress, and longleaf pine forests. More than 225 wildflower species and 130 bird species, mammals, and reptiles are found at the park.
Cumberland Island. Cumberland Island is just off the Jacksonville coastline. Pleasant for boating, fishing, hiking, camping, beach-combing. About 2 hours from Gainesville. 45-minute ferry ride to the island.
Cedar Key. Pleasant historic town. Nice for canoeing, kayaking, sea fishing. I joined my parents in chartering a fishing boat for shallow ocean fishing there, and caught ice chests full of delicious sea bass in a day of fishing. Also available is beach walking. About 1.5 hours from Gainesville.
Crystal River manatee snorkeling. Allows you to swim with and pet these large “sea cows”. Very pleasant. Very easy-even by young children. Very close to Cedar Key on the west coast of Florida.
Micanopy. Very pleasant, small, walkable historic town filled with antique shops. Micanopy is Florida’s second oldest town, and is about 15 minutes south of Gainesville by car.
Newnan’s Lake. A large, 6,000-acre lake on eastern border of Gainesville. Has nearly dried up due to the 4-year drought here as of January 2002. When at normal levels, a great lake to canoe or kayak or bike alongside. Lots of gators, wading birds, osprey, eagles.
Flamingo Hammock. At 250 acres, Flamingo Hammock is a semi-commune with 8 homesteads. A very nice forest with trails, a creek, a treehouse, and a sinkhole. Contains the 10 acres I formerly owned, and which I spent time reforesting for 10-12 years. This link shows photos I shot of the 10 acres I owned.
Prairie Creek. Nice creek at the SE corner of Gainesville that I have canoed a number of times. Nice, short canoe or kayak trip through a creek forest. The creek connects Newnans Lake, Paynes Prairie, and Orange Lake. This two- to three-hour trip twists and turns through a floodplain forest. Along the way is an area of open pines on the eastern edge of Paynes Prairie. A dike constructed in the 1940s by the Camp family to block the creek from flooding into the Prairie now re-routes the creek through an area of cypress trees.
Ginnie Springs and Paradise Springs. Ginnie contains crystal clear water-Jacques Cousteau has said that it is the clearest water he has ever seen. I have dove and snorkeled these springs several times. It is 72 degrees year round. Year round snorkeling, scuba diving. Can be reached by car, kayak, or canoe. Ginnie is about 40 minutes north of Gainesville. Paradise Springs is about 2.5 hours south of Gainesville, and features a 110-foot “chimney” that I have descended into as a scuba diver.
Poe Springs. A 197-acre county-owned spring near Ginnie Springs along the banks of the Santa Fe River.
Biven’s Arm Nature Park. A 57-acre city-owned park with 1,200 feet of boardwalks, and a mile of nice hiking trail through a forest.
Payne’s Prairie. I have canoed, hiked, watched birds, and picnicked on this 21,000 acre wildlife sanctuary- home to 800 species of plants and 350 species of animals (photo at right). I have hiked La Chua Trail to the Sink, the Wacahoota Trail, bicycled Cone’s Dike Trail and Chacala Trail (which includes Chacala Pond and miles of wooded trails). Features a nice visitor’s center. With ponds and three lakes, Paynes Prairie is a wintering area for many migratory birds such as the sandhill crane, and home to hundreds of Florida alligators, as well as wild horses, hawks, otters, deer, gopher tortoises, bald eagles, and a herd of American Bison. This nationally prominent preserve is covered by marsh and wet prairie vegetation, with many acres of open water. There are numerous hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding trails in the preserve, which I have used a number of times. During the 1600s, the largest cattle ranch in Spanish Florida operated here. Contains the most dense concentration of eagles south of Alaska. Huge gator population that you can easily see up close when walking La Chua trail, which leads you to a popular destination for alligators hanging out in the sun-Alachua Sink. Along the La Chua trail, gorgeous views emerge as you descend into the Prairie basin. Once on the basin floor, I’ve nearly always found that I have an up-close and personal view of hundreds of Florida alligators along a trail lined with marsh vegetation and numerous birds.
Overlooks in multiple locations. Paynes Prairie was historically called the Alachua Savannah because in 1774, well-known artist and naturalist William Bartram wrote a detailed description of the area in which he called it the “great Alachua Savannah.” Within this Natural Landmark, 20 distinct biological communities are found, including wet prairie, pine flatwoods, hammocks, swamp, and ponds. Most of the life Bartram described still flourishes here today.
Paynes Prairie South contains other attractions, besides the Visitor Center:
Cone’s Dike Bison Trail Ride
I have bicycled this six-mile trail, which begins at the Visitor Center and runs through mixed forest and prairie habitat. This trail occasionally offers encounters with the Paynes Prairie bison herd.
Chacala Trail Bicycle Ride
Features a series of loops up to eight miles in length. When I bicycled it, the trail passed through pine flatwoods, mixed forest, scrub, sandhill, and baygall communities.
A 16-mile paved bicycle trail running from Gainesville to small town of Hawthorne. Can be rollerbladed. Trailhead is at the historic Boulware Springs. The Boulware Springs park features a restored water works building that was Gainesville’s first source of water several decades ago. The trail weaves its way through the north rim of Paynes Prairie through a canopy of huge oak trees, xeric scrub, horse pasture, and prairie. Along this portion of the trail, I have enjoyed overlooks and spur hiking trails into the Prairie basin. At the mid-point, a wooden bridge crosses Prairie Creek just south of the 6,000-acre Newnans Lake. From here, the trail passes through the Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area, pine forests, and pasture. Initially, this stretch of railroad was planned to be part of a network connecting New Orleans and New York. During the 1850s, the railroad was constructed from Fernandina to Cedar Key, providing a land route between the Atlantic and the Gulf, thereby eliminating the tricky passage through the Florida Keys. The railroad was to play a major park in the founding and history of Gainesville.
Thomas Center. Very pleasing, historic building. It is a beautifully restored Mediterranean/Italian Renaissance structure listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It contains 1920’s period rooms, local history exhibits, banquet rooms, performance space, art galleries, and meeting rooms. Now contains city offices. Formerly a hotel. The Thomas Center is surrounded by the lovely Thomas Center Gardens.
St. Augustine. My favorite town in Florida. Extremely walkable, historic town on east coast of Florida-first city established in the nation. Very nice pedestrian mall. Impressive, historic fort surrounded by moat. Gypsie Cab Company restaurant on Anastasia Boulevard just east of bridge is excellent. Cayman Island Seafood is also good. About 1.5 hours from Gainesville.
Manatee Springs. Popular place to swim and dive. About 45 minutes west of Gainesville.
Haile Village Center. Brand new village center built mostly in the 1980s and 1990s. Andres Duany calls it the best example of a new “new urbanist” village in North America. Extremely walkable. Especially important to visit if you are interested in urban design.
Town of Tioga. Nationally recognized new urbanist town at west edge of Gainesville.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings home and Cross Creek. Author of The Yearling. Her home is a museum of Marjorie’s home and her farm/yard. Her cracker style home and farm, where she wrote The Yearling, is a preserved historic site. Nearby Cross Creek is a comfortable paddle.
O’Leno State Park. Attractive, state-owned forest with hiking and biking trails. Located along the banks of the Santa Fe River. The park contains a number of sandhills, river swamps, sinkholes, and hardwood hammocks. O’Leno encompasses a part of the Santa Fe River. Within the park, this portion of the river disappears and flows underground for over three miles before re-emerging at the surface. The park was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. A suspension bridge built by the Corps still reaches across the river. Can be canoed or kayaked up to “River Rise,” where the river goes underground. About 45 minutes north of Gainesville.
Juniper Springs. Gorgeous, intimately-sized, spring-fed, crystal clear river great for kayaking. 4-6 hour paddle. About 1.5 hours from Gainesville.
Santa Fe River. Pretty river great for kayaking or canoeing. 2-6 hour paddle. About 30 minutes from Gainesville.
High Springs. Quaint, walkable, historic town with lots of antique shops. About 40 minutes from Gainesville. Staging area for many springs and creeks in North Central Florida.
Silver River & Springs. Clear water paddle on a swift river. Where Tarzan movies were filmed. Lots of monkeys and birds in forest along river. Very large spring has glass-bottom boat rides, jungle cruise. Silver Springs contains large water slide theme park for summer use. About 1 hour from Gainesville.
Santos Mountain Bike Trails. Extensive system of the best mountain bike trails in Florida. All skill levels. Through forests and sand pits. About 45 minutes from Gainesville.
Fernandina Beach. Near Jacksonville. Walkable, historic downtown. About 1.75 hours from Gainesville.
Rainbow River and Devil’s Den. Rainbow River contains very clear, colorful water full of alligator gar and wading birds. Pretty river. Nice for kayak and canoe paddles, and easy drift scuba diving. Devil’s Den is the most unusual geological formation I’ve ever seen. A collapsed sinkhole (a chimney provides sunlight down to the sinkhole lake), where you can snorkel and scuba dive. Breathtaking. About 45 minutes from Gainesville.
San Felasco Hammock State Preserve and Mountain Bike Trails. Large collection of mountain bike trails in a pristine state park forest. All skill levels. About 10 minutes from my house. Large collection of mountain bike trails in a pristine state park forest. All skill levels. The preserve features 10 miles of marked nature trails through 6,900 acres of forest. The preserve contains one of the finest examples of the climax mesic hammocks remaining in Florida.
Thelma Boltin Center. City-owned recreation and cultural building. I go here for monthly old-tyme-square, circle, and contra-dances, which I’ve attended each month for years.
· Horsefarms of North Central Florida. Marion County, just south of Gainesville, is horsefarm country. The County is graced with approximately 50 miles of extremely picturesque horsefarms along the famous “Horsefarm 100” bicycle route in Marion County. I have bicycled on rural roads through seemingly endless, yet gorgeous, horsefarms during a number of Horsefarm 100 events.
· Canopy Roads for Bicycling. I have found countless scenic bicycling routes through north Florida farms, forests, and small towns.
Bed & Breakfast lodging when I lived in Gainesville
Sweetwater Branch Inn. A spectacular, classy B&B. 800.579.7760.
Magnolia Plantation B&B. Very impressive, romantic, unusual Victorian. 352.375.6653.
Laurel Oak Inn. Recently renovated and converted into a B&B. 352.373.4535.
Herlong Mansion B&B. Enormous, impressive B&B in the heart of the very historic, walkable town of Micanopy. 800.437.5664.
There are many Seasonal Events in North Central Florida.
Good friends I had in Gainesville included:
Barbara McCain (via Complete Streets)
Chuck Flink (via Greenways, Inc)
Diane Del Gobbo
Donald Shoup (via The High Cost of Free Parking)
Ellen Baisley Nodine
“Hutch” Robert Hutchinson
Ian Lockwood (via West Palm Beach)
James Howard Kunstler (via Home from Nowhere)
Jill Lewis (via Bike Virginia)
Joesph Cunningham (via Freedom From Religion)
Margaret Downey (via Freedom From Religion)
Robert Steuteville (via CNU)
Victor Dover (via Dover-Kohl)
Favorite restaurants and pubs when I lived in Gainesville:
Market Street Pub
Wine and Cheese Gallery
Steve’s Café Americana
Great Outdoors Trading Company (High Springs)
An important, memorable attraction in the neighborhood is the collection of Duckpond Historic Homes. The neighborhood is extremely romantic and walkable, and filled with turn-of-the-century Victorian homes and the Thomas Center along quiet streets lined with Spanish moss-draped oak trees.
The bungalow I bought was the first house built on N.E. 5th Street, which was called Kentucky Avenue at the time. I spent a lot of time and money restoring the house, including installing a solar water heater on the roof, building a wood deck, re-doing the bathroom and kitchen, repainting the interior and exterior, and re-wiring the electrical system. In 2001, I did an exhaustive title search to assemble a history of ownership on the house that reaches back to when it was built in 1935.
On Halloween in 2001, Maureen and I bought a lovely home in the neighborhood. The “Kelley-Swords” house is rich in Gainesville history.
In the nearly 20 years I have lived in Gainesville, hurricane season had never sent the city “seasons greetings.” That is, until 2004, when the Hurricane Train paid us a visit…