The Best Things to Do in Union County Include a Lake

View of the boardwalk over Lake Butler
Enjoying beautiful Lake Butler on a Sunday afternoon

Natural North Florida’s Union County may be Florida’s smallest county, but it delivers big with a fantastic diversity of activities. It is a perfect day trip from Gainesville with a laid-back atmosphere, Rails-to-Trails walking trails, historic buildings, fishing, and a freshwater lake. But get there early—there’s a lot to do!

Splish, Splash! Watery Fun on A Local Lake

For years I’ve watched people standing up on what looks like a wide surfboard and use long, easy strokes with a paddle to move across water. It looks easy enough, and I saw my chance to try out this activity on a calm, quiet lake! My new friend Sara Spires Owen offered tips and lots of encouragement. I was soon standing up and paddling. (Ok, I was pretty shaky—but I stayed upright and dry!)

Woman paddleboarding on Lake Butler
Visiting writer, Jo Clark, enjoys her first paddleboard attempt
Two women renting paddleboards using PADL technology
Paddleboard Rental Stand

Lake Butler (the town) has the unique feature of an unmanned paddleboard rental rack at Lake Butler (the lake.) Thanks to the new technology of PADL, you just scan the code with your phone and follow the steps to rent a board. They make it easy to try out this sport! Visit their website for a discount on your first paddle on the lake!

TIP:  Check the direction of the wind. I happily paddled out into the middle of the lake before realizing I would be paddling against the wind to return to shore!

Lake Butler also boasts a city park with a playground, a splash park, grills, picnic shelters, and docks. If you bring your own boat, you can take advantage of the slips available at Lakeside Park. The wide sidewalk surrounding the area is handicap-friendly.

View of the Lake Butler Splash Park-water is spraying everywhere!
Splash Park at Lake Butler’s Lakeside Park

Union County is dotted with lakes, like Dowling Lake. The free boat ramp and parking are tucked away on a long stretch of country road. Fishing in Florida does require a license, available at the Courthouse for $17.50. The lake is not stocked, but you can hook a Large-Mouth Bass or a Brim.

View of Dowling Lake, with the sky reflecting in the water
Dowling Lake

The county is bordered by the Santa Fe River, offering even more water sports locales. Access is free at Worthington Springs. Try your skills in the river angling for a Suwannee Bass. Oh, my! My mouth is watering, and my tummy’s growling!

View of the Santa Fe River from the Union/Alachua Counties bridge
Santa Fe River forms the county line between Union and Alachua Counties
Walking Tours of Lake Butler

Walking the streets of Lake Butler, you’ll see historic buildings. I’m partial to the 1891 James W. Townsend House, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996. Compare local structures to preserved photos. You may find that some things don’t change. Well, except for the horse and buggy!

Don’t miss visiting the Union County Historical Society on Main Street, conveniently located near the trailhead. Even the building that houses the museum is historic—built about 1900, the Townsend-Green Building is one of Lake Butler’s original buildings. Once upon a time, the first floor of the building was The City Drug Store. Lake Butler’s history doesn’t stop with the photographs and relics in the museum. The town has the distinction of being the county seat of three different counties! Back in 1893, when the first town jail was built, they didn’t anticipate much crime!

When your feet give out, you can take a break at the Veteran’s Memorial. Sit awhile and enjoy the view of stained glass in the New Beginnings Apostolic Church next door.

Enthusiastic walkers will enjoy the trail that starts in town, complete with a small playground, several historic buildings from a pioneer settlement, restrooms, and free parking.

Fun Fact:  Lake Butler is the home of Jay North, the original Dennis the Menace! You might bump into him at the market!

Walk the Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail

The original Norfolk-Southern Railroad railbed and right-of-way provide a home for a multi-use path. You will see people walking, biking, rollerblading, and even horseback riding. The straight, flat, paved trail in Lake Butler is a part of the more than 30-mile-long system, spanning four counties Bradford, Clay, Putnam, and Union.) A convenient parking area is located at the trailhead. Ultimately, this trail will connect with others forming the 101-mile Lake City-to-St. Augustine Rail Trail. All these trails are a part of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.

Small wood and log structure with tin roof - probably a farm shed or chicken coop originally
Relocated historic barn

Exploring this picturesque trail offers visitors a chance to spot black bears, deer, bobcats, and turkeys, as well as the less-popular snakes and even alligators. Even a short walk along the trail allows a view of historic buildings, photogenic barns, and wildflowers along the creek.

Picturesque old weatherd barn with red tin roof, glimpsed from walking trail
Barn viewed from the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail

Travelers who make the roughly 30-mile trek to Keystone Heights can connect to a spur trail. This allows them to travel seven more miles to Gold Head Branch State Park, which offers many amenities and recreational opportunities, including camping and an equestrian trail. A review on Trip Advisor commented, “Beautiful Trail, Hidden in Plain View.” They couldn’t have described it better!

The Dark Side

True Crime buffs will want to cruise by the Florida State Prison, home of the state’s only Death Row. Ted Bundy, Danny Rolling, called “The Gainesville Ripper,” and other notorious criminals’ last days were spent here. Giuseppe Zangara, whose attempted assassin of President Franklin D. Roosevelt resulted in the injury of four others and the death of Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. Cruise by slowly, but don’t stop and get out of your car for a closer look—it is a heavily guarded, maximum-security prison, after all!

Public hangings were abolished in 1923. That year the Florida Legislature ordered the state’s prison systems to begin using electrocution for executions. A year later, Florida executed its first inmate in the electric chair. Nicknamed Old Sparky, the three-legged oak chair built by inmates, was still in use in 1998.

Donn Pearce, a safecracker, had an “inside view” of chain gangs and Florida prison history. Pearce admitted to having been a poor safecracker, and he was arrested for burglary in 1949 at age 21. Convicted and sentenced to hard time, “back when hard time meant hard time,” he served his sentence at Raiford. Raiford is the nearest town, so the prison is often referred to by that name.

Pearce turned that experience into a novel, Cool Hand Luke (yes—the movie that starred Paul Newman.) In the book, he recounts the story of a fellow inmate—the “legendary” Cool Hand Luke.

Interestingly, the prison was forced to generate its own power for executions when the local power company refused to provide power to carry out the death sentence. Since 2000, lethal injections have been used. Currently, there are 16 convicts on “Death Row.”

Eating Spots in Union County
Long table in the market
Spires Market’s Community Table

The Community Table is located in the back of Spires IGA Market. Feeding folks in the area since 1890, you still place your order at the counter and claim a seat at the table with locals. The market is famous for its fried chicken, so the meat-and-two makes a great meal. The BBQ is cooked in-house.

Tip:  Arrive early to avoid the lunchtime lines.

Laredo Mexican Restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily, but it is closed on Sunday. On weekdays from 11-2, they have lunch specials.

The newest foodie haven is Gigi’s Cuban Café. Open weekdays 8-5, I hear they serve a mean espresso and Cuban sandwich. Sadly, they are closed on weekends, so I left hungry!

Festival Fun in the Florida Sun

Union County will be celebrating its 100th anniversary on October 3, 2021. There will be special events throughout the week and fireworks on (or close to) that date. To find more information and specific dates, check the county’s website or the town’s page.

There is the annual Lake Butler Christmas Parade to look forward to on December 18. And if you feel the need for speed, you can enjoy a nationally sanctioned drag boat race on Lake Butler in the spring of 2022!

I’m already plotting a visit for July 4th! I can’t wait to see their big fireworks display over Lake Butler. Have camera—will travel! See you at the lake!