11 Must-Do Activities in Historic Bradford County

A stream in the cypress swamp
Enjoy the natural beauty of Bradford County

One of Florida’s smallest counties, Bradford County, consists of 300 square miles. But they have packed plenty to do into their tiny spot of heaven! The county seat, Starke, is filled with historic buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. An interesting tidbit – the Arbor Day Foundation has designated Starke a Tree City. Come along with me as I spend an action-packed day there. 

1. Eat With the Locals

Start with a filling breakfast at Grannie’s Country Cookin’ in Starke. The place is packed with locals, so you know the Southern fare is delicious! Huge servings mean you won’t be hungry until mid-afternoon (if then!!) Grannie’s opens for breakfast at 5 a.m. and serves lunch until 3 p.m. 

2. Stroll the Streets of Historic Starke

Wander the streets of Starke to work off that breakfast. Starke, midway between Gainesville and Jacksonville, has about 6,000 residents. The Call Street Historic District encompasses nearly 120 acres and is home to more than 20 historic buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Walk along Jefferson, Cherry, Madison, and Temple Streets to soak up the old Florida feel. 

The Eugene L. Mathews Historical Museum is found in the old Bradford County Courthouse (also on the National Register.) The museum showcases historical items from Bradford County.

3. Play Pioneer

Have you ever slept in a covered wagon? Now’s your chance! You can spend the night (or the week) at the newest park in the county, Keystone Heights RV Resort. Tell Ken Loyd you want to stay in the wagon! Ken told me that the county hesitated to give him a permit to build because “they didn’t want another field crammed with RVs.” They need not have worried. This beautiful park has wide streets, large lots, and plenty of trees. The lakes have egrets fishing for their dinner. Fancy hotels would be put to shame by the clubhouse and pools! “Permanent” park residents have installed gazebos and screened porches—I can see why they spend so many months here.

As a matter of fact, the park is so sure of itself that they offer a guarantee: “If you come to Keystone Heights RV Resort and do not find it to be one of the most beautiful RV parks in Florida, we’ll give you a week’s stay for FREE.” Now that’s what I call a guarantee!

4. Improve Your Marksmanship

In Graham, Bradford Sportsmen’s Farm offers 25-, 50-, and 300-yard Pistol Ranges; an 850-yard Rifle Range; Fields; and Sporting Clays. It is off-the-beaten-path, but they have RV campsites available. Bradford’s offers courses in all types of shooting. Owners Pat and Chad Welch and their sons have a beautiful 200-acre farm, and they will happily arrange for marksmanship training. The farm hosts local, state, and national shooting competitions and other events throughout the year if you enjoy competition.

The road into Bradford’s is long and quiet

5. Lunch at the Grill

Lunch at The Downtown Grill will not disappoint! Owner Chrissy Thompson keeps things running smoothly while still stopping and chatting with all the customers. The Grill is open for lunch and dinner. Don’t turn down the gator tail nuggets or the onion rings – just sayin’!

Chicken Salad on a croissant with onion rings

6. Fly High

Visit the Keystone Heights Airport 42J. Airport Manager Maria Hitt loves coming to work every day, and she says every day is different. The airport was constructed during 

World War II by the United States Army Air Force. The land was a part of Camp Blanding, originally it was called Crystal Lake Army Airfield, but within months it was commissioned as the Keystone Army Airfield. At the end of the war, the field was acquired by the city of Keystone Heights. 

Today, Keystone Heights has a training school on the P-3, and pilots come from every corner of the world to this flight school.

International pilots attending class

The airport is convenient for pilots to make a stop for meals and overnight stays. They have a courtesy car, a 24-hour pilot lounge (complete with shower), and overnight tie-downs. They also have special events for the public to enjoy, and Tuesday is hot dog day. Yes, pilots fly in just for the hot dogs!

7. The Need for Speed

The Florida International Rally & Motorsports Park (The FIRM) operates from the corner of the airport.  The Firm’s Nitro Rallycross is the only race east of the Mississippi, and it is scheduled for December 4-5. So start planning your visit to see this event! Information about the event is on the Keystone Heights website. The races pit drivers who are racing in 600 horsepower supercars. The cars can accelerate faster than a Formula 1 car!

The FIRM provides family fun with motorsports that include road racing, rally racing, supermoto, go-karting, and 4×4/Offroading. If you don’t have a clue what any of that means, that’s okay! They also offer schools! Just to name a few, there are Rally Driving, Performance Driving Schools, Civilian Tactical Experiences, and Family Karting Days. There is plenty of information on the website, and of course, the gals in the office are always ready to help you!

These cars look like they’re sitting still – they are not!

8. Get Outdoors and Move!

The area is well-known for its undeveloped land, numerous lakes, and historical sites. Walking is a great way to spend your day and see the area.

Hike in the beautiful Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park. One of Florida’s first state parks, it is nestled in the rolling sandhills of Florida’s North Central Ridge. Gold Head Branch is home to one of the few remaining examples of old-growth longleaf pines. And with 600 acres, everyone will find things they enjoy—hiking, birdwatching, or nature photography. Five and a half miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail crosses the park. Little Lake Johnson provides a perfect spot for canoeing, kayaking, swimming, or fishing.

You can go for the day, or stay in your tent or camper. With luck, you may even score one of the park’s lakefront vacation cabins; some were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC.)

White-tail deer checks out my photography technique

9. BYOB – Bring Your Own Bike!

Pedal the Starke-Lake Butler Loop, a 61-mile route that passes through Starke as well as the small communities of Hampton and Brooker on its way to Lake Butler and back again.

If 61-miles sounds a bit much, start in Hampton and complete the 32-mile Santa Fe Lake Loop. This trail takes riders through the southern part of the county, past the Santa Fe Swamp Conservation Area, the town of Melrose, and Santa Fe Lake.

Starke-Lake Butler Loop

10. A Swamp With a View

Visit the Santa Fe Swamp Wildlife and Environmental Area. This remote 7,272-acre area is a floodplain swamp that feeds the upper eight miles of the Santa Fe River. Most of the acreage is dense swamp, but there are prime spots for fishing, wildlife viewing, birdwatching, horseback and bike riding, and hiking.

11. Not-to-Be-Missed Events Throughout the Year

Coming up December 9-11, the county will host Christmas On-Call Street. The event starts with a pageant at the high school Auditorium. The “royal family” from the pageant reigns over events and activities on the rest of the weekend. There is a live nativity scene and carriage rides through historic downtown. Celebrants can enjoy live music, the official Christmas Tree lighting, and, of course, a parade to usher Santa and Mrs. Claus into town for the holidays. Vendors are available for shopping and food purchases.

In March, the Bradford Agricultural Fair allows area youth to show off their 4-H and FFA projects, farm animals, and Fair rides. Local businesses display their goods.

April marks the season for the annual Bradford County Strawberry Festival—25 years and growing. More than 200 craft and food vendors set up, and 10,000 visitors from all over Florida and Georgia attend the festival, including a car show, kids’ activities, and all things strawberry!

I know that I need to return…I didn’t get to drive a car around the racetrack. I definitely have a need for speed, minus the flashing blue lights!