White Springs: Florida's Original Tourist Destination
By Nancy Moreland
Set among forests and a famous river in rural Hamilton County, White Springs, Florida doesn’t conjure the image of a bustling tourist town. As the town’s Vice Mayor Walter McKenzie describes it, you had to be there. “In the late 1800s and early 1900s, White Springs was the number one tourist destination in Florida because of the springs, which were thought to have medicinal qualities. There were 16 major hotels, a movie theater, bowling alley and four trains bringing people in each day.”
With the advent of automobiles and the construction of Highway 41, the town continued to prosper. “Highway 41 was the I-75 of its time,” McKenzie explains. Years later, when the real I-75 came through, tourism dwindled. “White Springs is a town that time passed by. It’s a living testament to a heritage other towns have lost.”
Even as McKenzie acknowledges his town’s sleepy side, he’s upbeat about its future. “Things are looking up for White Springs, now that heritage and eco-tourism are in demand.”
It’s easy to experience White Springs for yourself. The town is less than 30-minutes from I-75 and about 20 minutes from I-10.
Hiking through History
To understand McKenzie’s point, start at the best known attraction. Encompassing 800 acres and some of north Florida’s most interesting scenery, Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park pays homage to a 19th century composer who never set foot on Florida soil. In his defense, Foster did immortalize one of our most impressive rivers. Legend has it that Foster, seeking a melodic name to complement a composition, found the Suwannee River on a map and incorporated it into Old Folks at Home. You’ll hear this and other Foster songs on the park’s 97-bell carillon tower. It’s the centerpiece of the park, but keep exploring. “The park offers a good day’s worth of entertainment,” McKenzie says.
Begin your day perusing exhibits at the museum and watching craftspeople demonstrate skills essential to survival on the Florida frontier. Next, engage in White Springs’ favorite pastime: nature tourism. The eight-mile Hammock Loop trail treats cyclists and hikers to unique topography and scenery. If you’re into canoeing or kayaking, plan ahead. This stretch of the Suwannee is only navigable about six months a year, due to water levels. In springtime, wild azaleas bloom along the banks. Any time of year, unique rock formations and wildlife sightings make a Suwannee float memorable.
Visit over Memorial Day and you’ll experience toe-tapping fun at the Florida Folk Festival, a weekend’s worth of concerts, craft demonstrations, holiday lights and shopping. Call ahead to reserve a site in the park campground or in one of its five riverside cabins.
Excursions in Nature
When it comes to state parks, White Springs is doubly blessed. Few places in Florida compete with the scenery at Big Shoals State Park. When river water levels are right, experienced paddlers meet their match on the state’s only Class III rapids. Throughout the year, 80 foot limestone bluffs framing the river afford dramatic views. To immerse yourself in the park’s natural beauty, hike, bike or ride horses on its 28-mile trail system.
Combined, the Big Shoals State Park, State Forest and Wildlife Management Area comprise the Big Shoals Public Lands. Bordering the Suwannee River, this area offers 33 miles of trails to explore. Birders take note: Traveling along County Road 135, watch for the Big Shoals Trail at the Big Shoals entrance. This excellent birding trail follows the Suwannee to a wet lowland area frequented by songbirds such as the Hooded Warbler and Acadian Flycatcher. Black-crowned Night-Herons are often seen along the river. If you’re in the parking area at dusk, you may witness a nocturnal spectacle as hundreds of bats leave a large bat house in search of insects. This area is part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail.
Note: Seasonal hunting is allowed in Big Shoals. Before using the trails speak to a park ranger to make sure conditions are safe.
If you’re more interested in finny creatures than feathered ones, pack your fishing pole. You might hook a bass, bream, crappie or other freshwater fish in the tannin-colored Suwannee. Need to restock your tackle box? Rooster’s Outfitter’s Bait and Tackle in White Springs sells a good selection of gear, including fly fishing items.
Next to Rooster’s on Bridge Street, American Canoe Adventures gets folks geared up for the great outdoors. Leading day and overnight trips for more than two decades, this family-run guide serve helps paddlers of all skill levels experience the Suwannee River.
White Springs may be small (pop. 800), but biking is big here. In fact, cycling is what first brought Walter McKenzie to town in the 1990s. “The trails here suit every taste, from technical mountain biking along the riverbanks to road biking on miles of county roads.” Cycling is promoted by Suwannee Bicycle Association which is headquartered here. Part of the community for over 30 years, the association posts maps on its website and hosts bike-related events each year.
Local Color, Culture and Cuisine
As you enter town, you may wonder about those colorful signs gracing the sides of vintage buildings. In 2015, the town joined the Florida Quilt Trail and gradually added more quilt paintings ever. Take a moment to admire the designs and read the plaques accompanying each mural.
As the name implies, local favorite Fat Belly’s serves up traditional Southern food in all its calorie-rich glory. To broaden your palate (but not your waistline), drive 20 minutes east to Live Oak. On Duval Street, you’ll discover not one, but two, fine dining experiences. The family-run All Decked Out serves fresh seafood prepared by a French-trained chef. The 406 on Duval serves just about anything a discerning diner would desire – from filet mignon to a brace of quail.
When the occasion calls for an upgrade to camping or cabins, consider White Springs’ newest lodging option. Built circa 1920, Mrs. Kendrick’s Cottage was the former home of a lady by the same name. Married to the town dentist, she downsized from her larger residence to the cottage after her husband passed away. New owners Julie Williams and Scott Gay painstakingly renovated the cottage to create a happy marriage of modern comfort and vintage charm. The thoughtfully curated, peaceful dwelling showcases the work of local artisans. A pleasing blend of old and new, it features a chef’s kitchen, tongue and groove ceilings and hardwood floors. The rocking chair porch personifies what makes White Springs special. “Sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee, you are close to nature. You hear birdsong and relax, free from the bright lights and noise of the city,” Julie Williams says.
With onsite storage for kayaks and bikes and a washer/dryer, the cottage is ideal for outdoor enthusiasts who want to pamper themselves at the end of an active day. Even better, it’s just five blocks to Stephen Foster State Park and three blocks to American Canoe Adventures.
The cottage sleeps four comfortably. Rates are $120 on weeknights and $145 on weekends with a two night minimum.
Theme parks and beaches have long since eclipsed White Springs as Florida’s top tourist destinations. Yet the qualities that first attracted tourists to this tiny town on the Suwannee still endure. To find them, just stroll a leafy trail, float the famous river or pedal down a quiet country lane. Relax and repeat. You’ll soon wonder why you didn’t discover White Springs sooner.
For more information, visit the City of White Springs’ website.