Columbia County is rural and filled with natural freshwater springs, rivers, and friendly people. Lake City, once called Alligator, is the county seat and was the first home of the University of Florida—bet you didn’t know that! Fort White is the other large town in Columbia County.
At this point, I’m starting to feel like the proud parent of a baker’s dozen. And you’ve just asked me who my favorite is! All these counties are my “favorite”—it just depends on what day you ask! Suppose you want to be outside in the Florida sun, breathing in the freshest air in the South, with a big ole smile plastered across your face. In that case, Columbia County is the place you ought to be. Sshhhh, don’t tell the others.
1. Rum 138
Rum 138 is the go-to spot for kayaking, paddle boarding, or canoeing the Santa Fe River. They will sell you equipment, or just rent it to you for the day. They will even shuttle you to the river (and back again!) And there is an art gallery that features regional art created by local artists.
It is an excellent venue for performers too. On the back of the property, there is a stage, built to look like a cave! I missed the Sweet Sounds of Jamaica Music Fest by three days! So be sure to check their events calendar, then you won’t be sad (like me.) Food is available on the grounds only during live music events.
Rum Island is so named because of its sweet water spring. Add sugar cane, and you have the perfect place and product for a prohibition business. Maybe this is why Al Capone had a place just up the road!
2. Plaaaay Ball!
Maybe you’re headed to Columbia County for a big sports tournament. The Southside Sports Complex is a 500-acre soccer complex, but it doesn’t stop there. There are 26 diamond fields for softball and baseball. Youth sports events draw teams from up and down the east coast. When I say it is a big place, you don’t have to take my word for it. Just look at the parking lot. Southside has 827 paved parking spaces, but don’t panic. You won’t have to walk a mile to the field; they are spread out in four different locations, close to the various activities (and they do run a tram.) If you’re in the area, check out their schedule—you just might watch the next Hank Aaron playing!
3. Marion Street
Marion Street is a hot spot for locals, serving lunch and dinner. It is a bistro and brewhouse, but it has a fine selection of mixed drinks and wines, too. On Saturday nights, local musicians perform a variety of music genres.
4. Sugar, Sugar!
I happened upon the Sugar Dessert Shoppe by accident. Like Bob Ross says, it was a “happy little accident.” The shop is in the same strip mall as Phish Tails Restaurant—how convenient! It has a display case that is sure to delight, and the chocolate bombs are, well, da bomb! Stop in and see what Holly is up to. She’s always trying out new ideas, and you may be lucky enough to taste one! Don’t live anywhere nearby? No problem, she ships!
5. Float on Down the River
Ichetucknee Springs State Park has lots to offer. You can paddle the river in a rented kayak or canoe, stand up and paddleboard, or just float along on a tube. Your choice. They don’t call it Florida’s Natural Lazy River for nothing! You can spend the night (or all week) at the park in a cabin. There is an interactive display in the Education and Exhibit Center so you can learn more about Florida’s natural spring waters.
The Ichetucknee Head Spring is a National Natural Landmark. Along with eight other springs, it feeds the Ichetucknee River and keeps the water at a comfortable 72 degrees. You can swim or snorkel at the Head Spring or Blue Hole Spring, both at the North Entrance. Blue Hole also offers scuba diving year-round, but you must be cavern or cave certified.
You’ve heard the term, “Share the road” which means cars must share the road with bikers. Well, in the springs you have to “Share the spring” when you paddle in from the river you have to watch for divers who pop to the surface unexpectedly.
There are two “planned” trips available at the park. You can paddle 3.5 miles (about 2 hours, depending on how fast the river is running) and take the shuttle back to the North Entrance. Or, you can take the extended trip for more experienced kayakers and go down the Ichetucknee into the Santa Fe. This 9-mile (4-6 hour) trip ends at the bridge at William Guy Lemmon Memorial Park in Suwannee County.
6. Enjoy the Music Man
OK, maybe you won’t be as lucky as me, but it happened like this…(really! I can’t make this stuff up!)
I was staying at the Lake City Holiday Inn—very nice, by the way—and on my second night, I was standing out front waiting for my host to pick me up for dinner. I noticed a guy checking into the hotel with a guitar case on his luggage cart. Naturally. I said, “What time’s the concert??” And he says, “What time do you want it?” Always a fast thinker, I said, “7:30! I’m going out for dinner now, but I’ll be back by then.” It turned out he was on his way to record a conga track for his new record. (THE best conga player, Wayne Maxwell, lives in Florida—who knew!?) and he wanted to practice that night anyway, so he asked the bartender if he could set up and play for free that night. Of course, she said yes! So that is how there was a private Jo Clark’s Paul Jones Concert! To hear him for yourself, just check out Bootleggers Music Group!
I’m from South Carolina, and he is from Ohio, but his daughter graduated from The Citadel in Charleston, SC, last year. I know ONE person at the Citadel, and she will graduate this year, and…wait for it…they were in the same company! What are the odds??
Moral: ALWAYS talk to strangers!
Now, about the hotel. It was fresh, clean, quiet (well, except for the concert, which they cut off at 9:30 so it would be quiet for the residents.) There was a large indoor pool, and you could order breakfast. And there was a nice bar with beer, wine, and even mixed drinks…and live music that night! *smile*
7. Take a Tour and Pick Your Brew
Repeat after me: Oatmeal Raisin Stout. Just remember to repeat that to your bartender. Oh. My. Goodness. It is so delicious. Like dessert in a glass (or a can if you buy some to bring home! Not that I did that!)
Halpatter Brewing Company in Lake City has a remarkable variety of beers. Holly and Jonny Frazier run the brewery. I’m a self-proclaimed wine lover, but I did a full tasting at Halpatter and found more than one tasty brew to refill my glass! They have a helpful menu that lists all the beers—nearly 30 in all! And the list also shows two columns of numbers: the ABV (alcohol by volume) amount and the IBU (International Bitters Unit.) Now, for the first time, I know why I don’t like beer—it is too bitter! Casey helped me discover that I was a happy drinker as long as that IBU was under 20!
Suppose you happen to have a tea-totaler in the group (or a designated driver). In that case, they also make a mean cream soda and a pretty tasty root beer! Interesting tidbit: Halpatter means alligator in Seminole, and the brewery is named for Halpatter Tustenuggee, the best known Seminole Indian in the area.
There is a lite fare menu, too, so you don’t have to rush off to get dinner somewhere else. And most weekend nights, there is live music outside on the bandstand. So go, stay, and enjoy! It’s a short walk back to The Blanche.
8. Spend the Night with Blanche
No, Blanche isn’t a person; she is a fabulous, recently renovated hotel in downtown Lake City. She has been a landmark for over 100 years. Downstairs areas are used for gatherings, meetings, dinners, receptions, or dances, with access to a lovely outdoor courtyard. There are separate retail spaces along the front and side of the block. There is a grand stairway that people “rent” to use for portraits. Upper floors hold business offices, conference rooms, and hotel rooms.
9. Down Upon the River
The Suwannee River flows lazily through the three-county area of Suwannee, Hamilton, and Columbia. The area is known as the Suwannee River Valley. There are outfitters who will rent equipment to you, or plan the entire day and provide everything, including a guide. You can spend a day on the famous river while soaking in the sights of old Florida.
The 246-mile Suwannee originates in Georgia and flows to the Gulf of Mexico. 170 of those miles make up the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail and connect preserves and wilderness areas to Florida State Parks.
The Suwannee has so many twists and turns you lose your mental “map” of just where it is and where it’s going. My artist friend, Ann, invited me to come back and visit her when she could take me on a long hike in the woods behind her house. That turned out to be a major hiking trail along the Suwannee. What a beautiful place to live! And there was a small waterfall there. I’m keeping this one our little secret!
Fishing in the local rivers means pulling in Large Mouth Bass, Suwannee Bass, Mullet, Blue Gill, Sun Fish, and Channel Catfish. Fishing in Alligator Lake has similar offerings, with a few freshwater catches.
11. Natural Cuban Cooking – Food Truck Café
The TKO Cuban Café is a food truck. You can’t miss the red truck in a vacant lot in Fort White. It is a great place to stop on your way to paddle the Ichetucknee River. And they have several items that are easy to carry out and eat in just one hand. And don’t forget dessert—the maduros (sweetened fried plantains) are a delight!
12. Dining Out
Phish Tails Bar & Grill is a favorite spot with locals. They have a wide selection of dishes for lunch, from phish philets to mahi bites to a chicken topped salad.
Prohibition! I know, it sounds like it should be a bar, and it is, but it is also a great place for small plates. It is a “fine drinking” establishment with entertainment and food. And, it is right in The Blanche! How’s that for convenience? The oysters on the half shell were divine, and the wine selection made me smile!
13. Visit a Local Gallery
The Gateway Art Gallery is an exhibit center for over 50 North Florida artists and artisan crafters. You will find paintings, sculptures, mixed media, photography, pottery, and jewelry in the shop. Plus, you’ll meet some of the artists because they take turns working in the gallery!
Each holiday season, the gallery also holds reception for new galley openings and a large Mistletoe Magic Craft Market.
Local artists also offer classes, which are announced before the beginning of each month. Recent learning opportunities included alcohol ink painting, acrylics, woodcarving, and jewelry making.
When I visited, I was captivated by beautiful metal wall hangings. I was invited to meet the artist, Ann Opgenorth, who cuts the metal, welds the shapes using Oxy-Acetylene welding, and then paints the finished products. She is also a talented sculptress, artist, stained glass craftswoman, and quilter! I shadowed her for a day while watching this amazing woman work. And, she is a fascinating conversationalist, too!
14. Shopping on the Square
On the square around town, there are several eclectic shops. Furnishings on Marion sounds like a furniture store, but it holds farmhouse and antique furniture, gift items, jewelry, and even goat’s milk soap. Stop in and browse!
Just up the block is The Blue Goose Studio, where you will find those one-of-a-kind gifts. From handmade soap to hand-painted furnishings to the kitchen sink, you will have a great time looking through the nooks and crannies of the store.
15. Walk Up an Appetite
Walking and hiking trails criss-cross the county. At Ichetucknee Springs, you can hike to Blue Hole Spring two ways—along the river or by way of Pine Ridge Trail. The park’s North Entrance has three trails to pick from, and at South Entrance, you have two choices. All offer a variety of birdwatching since it is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. You will have a chance to spot water birds, American kestrels, pileated woodpeckers, and barred owls. You’ll also see lots of turtles.
Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park has a one-mile trail. It has interpretive signs that follow the battle lines. You can get in your exercise, enjoy nature among the longleaf pines (and look for several colonies of red-cockaded woodpeckers,) and expand your mind!
At Alligator Lake, there are twelve miles of trails that start near the restrooms or playground and wind along the lake and through 1,000 acres of wetlands and forest. The longest is the Montgomery Trail loop that begins at the canoe launch and circles the lake.
Of course, you can always just stay in town and use the pedestrian lanes to walk around Lake DeSoto. And you can set a line here and try for a bass or bluegill!
16. Eating on the Square
There are also several spots for a meal on the square around town. Stop in at Frankie’s Place. This locally owned restaurant is in the old DeSoto Drug Store. The Italian cuisine is fantastic!
17. It’s A Family Affair
Like I’ve said, the people in Natural North Florida are just downright friendly. The “love thy neighbor” kind of friendliness. When I was spending time in Jefferson County, I crashed a Chamber After Hours gathering (yes, I admit it—it was tons of fun, too!) Anyway, while chatting with all those friendly folks, I was “ordered” to go get morning doughnuts at Johnston’s. When I met Mr. Johnston a few minutes later, he learned that I was headed to Lake City the next day. His excitement was evident, and he said, “Then you have GOT to stop and see my friends Dell and Cindy Dicks at Fifth Generation Farms!”
I’m so glad I got that tip. The “farm” is actually a big store—the farm is down the road a piece (as we say in the South). Delbey and Cindy Dicks have lots of their own produce and meats. They also partner with other family farms and local businesses to carry an extensive list of specialty products. Everything from raw honey to peanuts to clam chowder to wine!
I visited just before Thanksgiving, and they were sampling all the tasty items you could order for your own “home-cooked holiday.” It was all delicious, but I kept reaching for “just one more” cornbread casserole and *sigh* another piece of Pecan Praline Pie! Is your mouth watering yet? Oh, and their pulled-pork BBQ? Well, some of it made it to my next stop!
They have another generation coming along nicely. I see a name change in the future!
18. Life in the Slow Lane
Take a ride on one of the two on-road bicycle trails. You can use the bike lanes to circle Lake DeSoto downtown. It is a popular spot for biking. You will probably spot this family of ducks on your ride.
Another popular biking spot is Alligator Lake, with several paths, and a loop around the entire lake.
19. Enjoy an Alligator Hunt
Alligator Lake is nearby, with most of it inside the city limits! Yes, it has alligators (this is Florida), but on this fine fall day, there wasn’t a single one in sight. I did spot a snake, but mostly I was there to enjoy the walk and birding. The anhingas were having a great afternoon fishing, and the egrets were taking it all in. The lake has a small boat ramp, and there is a 2-mile walk on the dike.
20. Mr. B’s BBQ
Open 7 days a week, for lunch and dinner, Mr. B’s is a favorite among locals. The servings are large, so if you are paddling the next day, those extra ribs will feed you and your friends at lunchtime. (Take my word for it!)
21. Osceola National Forest
A cypress swamp and pineland preserve of more than 200,000 acres lie between Columbia and three other counties, Hamilton, Bradford, and Baker. But about half of the forest is in Columbia. The forest includes campsites and trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.
22. Historic Battlefield
The Battle of Olustee was fought here in February 1864. The battle resulted in nearly 2,800 soldiers’ deaths, mostly Union soldiers. To learn more about this historical place, you can read about it or come to the battlefield in February for the re-enactment. History comes alive when you see it in action on President’s Day Weekend. Scenes for movies such as the 1989 movie Glory have been filmed during the re-enactment The Olustee Battlefield Interpretive Center displays artifacts from the battle and shows a short video.
23. Historic Church
The Falling Creek Methodist Church and Cemetery are near Falling Creek Falls. The log church started its life as a Baptist church, and in 1866 the Methodist congregation took over the building. In the 1880s the log church was replaced by the wood frame building you see today. The church is still holding regular services and visitors are welcome.
24. Falling Creek Falls
At Falling Creek Falls, you will view one of Florida’s few waterfalls. Falling Creek Park has picnic tables and an elevated boardwalk which gives you excellent views of the 12-foot waterfall. The water is stained sweet-tea color by the natural river tannins and spills over a limestone ledge.
There were very few people at the falls when I visited with my artist friend, Ann. She says that very few people come because they don’t know there is a beautiful waterfall in Florida!
25. Join in the Festivities
Events are plentiful in Columbia County and the surrounding area. Spring R Us tries to keep them all corralled on their website, so periodically check their listings! Some of the highlights to watch for are:
- Olustee Battle Festival & Re-enactment
- Florida Gateway Pro Rodeo
- Gateway City Craft Beer and Wine Festival
- Infinity Con
- Suwannee River Jam
- Florida Folk Festival
- Suwannee Hulaween
- Columbia County Fair
- Old Tyme Farm Days
- Festival of Lights