Natural North Florida – My Days as a Blogger


by Jo Clark


ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Travel writer Jo Clark talks about what to experience in Natural North Florida. Watch here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on Spreaker, PodBean, or SoundCloud.

I’m a travel writer. That means I explore an area, do exciting things, take lots of pictures, and then write about it. What a great job!

When I became Florida’s blogger, I knew next to nothing about “Natural North Florida.” What little I knew involved a couple of childhood trips to visit cousins in Pensacola, July Fourth weeks in Daytona, and one road trip from South Carolina to the Keys.

What a difference a month makes! Natural North Florida consists of a 14-county group, most of which don’t touch the Atlantic Ocean or the Gulf of Mexico. Most people pass through these counties on a highway, with maybe a restroom or gas stop as they head for points south—like amusement parks and sandy beaches. I say you don’t need to slow down as you pass through—you need to stop! You are missing some of the very best that Florida has to offer.

The spring water is clear and averages 72º, and Florida has more than 300 springs! Jumping in on a 90º day is quite a shock, but it feels warm on a cool winter’s day. That warmth is what attracts manatees in the winter. I did see a manatee during a November kayak trip, and they told me that was unusual. But I have high hopes for my March trip! My underwater camera is ready for some fantastic shots—fingers crossed!

Water, Water Everywhere
Florida is a surprising place. The picture in my head used to be of sandy beaches caressed by ocean waves. After spending time in Natural North Florida, though, both my head and my camera’s memory card are filled with photographs of springs, kayak and airboat trips on rivers, and boating and fishing on the glassy-smooth Gulf of Mexico. The area has over 400 miles of freshwater paddling trails and nearly as many miles of saltwater trails. My arms are tired just thinking about that much paddling! Anybody got a mini-motor I can borrow?


You can see buffalo and wild horses on a prairie (yes, in Florida!) in addition to alligators, dolphins, manatees, otters, osprey, and bald eagles. There are 11 forests and wildlife refuges, which contain over 360 miles of trails, allowing visitors to walk for days and days, gawking at the nature and natural beauty that is Florida.

Biking & Hiking Trails and a Historic Highway
Every county in the North Florida group has biking and hiking trails, for a total of 30. Some are built on old railroad beds. Many meander along a river or through old-growth pines, ranging in length from a few miles to 100 miles.

The Old Florida Heritage Highway starts south of Gainesville and weaves through 48 miles of moss-draped trees along natural, scenic areas. A downloadable “Dial & Discover” audio tour and a printable form is available at Gainesville Cell Tours.

If you’re feeling just a touch lazy, you can find a cave-diving, horse-training Frenchman with an Amish buggy—and he packs a mean picnic! Just sayin’!

Cedar Lakes Woods & Gardens is a hidden jewel that you access by a bumpy dirt road. Cedar Lakes is divided into 50 separate gardens. It is the vision of one man! He had images of lights dancing in his head too—Christmas in the gardens is magical!

Alachua County’s Kanapaha Botanical Gardens has several gazebos, perfect for that picnic you brought along. My favorite is near the 6-foot wide Giant Victoria Water Lilies. Kanapaha Botanical Gardens has a 1.5-mile paved walkway through the 68-acre park.

State Parks
These 14 northern Florida counties are home to 26 state parks (you might want to purchase an annual park pass!) The state-wide park map will help plan your trip. Paynes Prairie Preserve is a National Landmark. The La Chua Trail, a one-mile path at the park, leads to a sinkhole with a boardwalk and panoramic views of the prairie—and wild horses if you are lucky.

Ichetucknee Springs has on-site kayak and canoe rentals, a ferry service to the put-ins. They also have a grill to feed starving boaters.

Surround Yourself in History
There are chain hotels in the larger towns, but most of North Florida is, well, natural. Expect to find Mom-and-Pop motels, fish camps, RV Resorts (with cabins and lodges, not just places for campers,) Bed & Breakfast Inns, and even covered wagons! These are just some of my favorites (in alphabetic order *smile*)

In Lake City, the stunning Blanche has been offering up southern hospitality for over 100 years.

Built in 1845, Micanopy’s Herlong Mansion is elegant yet comfortable. Fresh cookies, afternoon glasses of wine, verandas, and a scrumptious breakfast—tempted yet? Or, if you’ve wondered what it would have been like to cross the country in a covered wagon, Keystone Heights RV Resort in Starke lets you spend the night in a covered wagon.

Putnam Lodge in Cross City had a Prohibition-era gangster resident! Suwannee River Rendezvous Resort & Campground has 1,500 feet of Suwannee River shoreline and kayaks for rent and a nighttime view of sparkling stars. There is an 1885 Victorian beauty in Gainesville; The Sweetwater Branch Inn offers rooms and entire cottages.

I know, you’re thinking wine should come from California, or Oregon, or even Virginia. But Florida grows blueberries—lots of blueberries—and they turn a lot of them into wine. Yes, it’s fruity, but they also grow muscadine grapes (also sweet and fruity). The wineries I visited mixed these ingredients with other varietals and came up with some tasty wines.

Alachua County grows 25% of Florida’s blueberry production. Two local wineries, Island Grove and Bluefield Estate, create blended wines using their fruits and traditional wines. I especially enjoyed a crisp green apple combined with Gewürztraminer. I’m thinking turkey or roasted chicken!

Natural North Florida has all this to offer and much, much more. I’ve spent over two months exploring and feel like I’ve just gotten started! So much to do, so little time!

Plan your Natural North Florida adventure at

Jo Clark is a retired business and computer teacher-turned-travel writer. An award-winning photographer and food and wine lover from South Carolina’s Grand Strand, Jo seeks off-the-beaten-path places with abundant wildlife, good food, and delicious wine! As Natural North Florida’s travel blogger, she is racking up quite a list of “firsts!” Born, reared, and educated in southwestern Virginia, she loves history, has edited two WWII books and co-authored several Civil War biographical volumes. She is a member of IFWTWA, TravMedia, and the Travel Writer’s University. Follow her adventures at

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