Wednesday, January 18, 2012


O’Leno State Park is 25 miles north of Gainesville, so it might seem strange to include it on this blog, but it would be a disservice if I failed to do so this week. It is one of my favorite places in Florida and we just celebrated my 41st birthday by camping there for the fifth time in seven years:

O’Leno borders River Rise State Park, and for all intents and purposes they are a single preserve whose preeminent feature is the Santa Fe River. While the Santa Fe’s tea-colored water and lazy current make for a classic Florida waterway, it also has a couple features not normally associated with Florida -- a population of beavers and section of rapids. Right now, however, its water level is so low that the rapids are kaput:

The Santa Fe does something unusual by dropping below the earth in O’Leno, then flowing underground before re-emerging in River Rise. Although you can hike to both the sink and the rise from the end of O’Leno’s park road, the only way to really experience the preserve is by staying overnight. This allows you to lie under the stars and listen to the wind in the trees. It also allows you to walk the 13+ miles of trails on your own schedule, rather than having to leave home hours before daybreak just so you can arrive early enough to finish hiking before the gates close.

O’Leno’s most popular route is the River Trail, a 1.4-mile loop that begins at a suspension bridge near road’s end. If you want to walk it clockwise, cross the bridge and turn left, but if you want to go counter-clockwise, turn right before crossing. The trail is marked by yellow blazes and is very easy to follow. Here are Sarah and Erika on the bridge during a prior visit:

Across the bridge, the River Trail’s clockwise course begins by travelling along a bluff over the Sante Fe. This is a good place to keep an eye out for gators and waterfowl in the water below. Eventually it turns away from the river and passes through a transitional zone with pine/palmetto woods on the left and an oak forest on the right.

A few minutes later, an obvious (but unofficial) path on the right leads down into a low-lying area where you will find a spot densely filled with cypress knees. On a visit in 2008, we dubbed this “the field of knees”:

The same day we did the dubbing, Sarah clutched one of the knees and posed for this mock shock photo:

And now, three days ago, she reenacted the scene. I have to admit it chokes me up to see how much she has gown in what seems so scant a period of time:

Anyway, as the River Trail continues to make its way to the river sink, it travels across a rumpled landscape with quite a few ups and downs -- more than enough to keep you interested even though the heights are not soaring. You will also pass a couple of slender lakes, including Ogden Lake, which is pictured below:

These are not oxbow lakes, but as you can see, they have that riverine look that brings oxbow lakes to mind. And there is a good reason for this: They are parts of the Santa Fe’s underground passage that have been exposed by the earth above them collapsing. One clue of this fact is that the lakes all have a slow, but perceptible, current; another is that they are all located at the bottom of depressions.

When you arrive at the sink, don’t expect it to look anything like a river flowing into a cave. Rather, it is a spot where the undercurrent drops slowly and imperceptibly into a hole in the river bed, and it looks like the Santa Fe has simply come to an end. The sink resembles a putting green because of how much algae coats its surface, as you can tell from this picture of my friend Jason standing beside it with his kids, Carson and Lexie, during that 2008 visit I mentioned earlier:

Branching off from the River Trail is Paraner’s Branch, a 3.7-mile trail which heads out onto the “natural bridge” (as the land above the river’s subterranean route is called) and passes several lakes that are the result of sinkholes filling with water. At its southernmost point Paraner’s Branch turns back at a roughly 45-degree angle, and from this apex the Sweetwater Trail stakes off on its own, leading 1.9 miles to a backcountry campsite complete with a fire ring and privy. This is a good destination if you want to try backpacking in the Sunshine State.

Beyond the campsite, the Sweetwater transitions to the River Rise Trail, which travels 4¼ miles to, of course, the place where the river emerges from underground. I have never hiked all the way there, mostly because it’s too long of a dayhike to work into a family camping trip with young kids. I do take no-kids-allowed backpacking trips, however, and one of these days I would like to take one to the rise.

O’Leno has two developed campgrounds accessible by car from the main road. One is called the Dogwood Loop, the other the Magnolia Loop, and I have stayed at both.

The Dogwood is closest to the park entrance and circles through an old, large sinkhole that the forest has reclaimed. This lends actual topography as the road gains a bit of elevation from beginning to end. All the campsites are on the inside of the loop.

Conversely, the Magnolia is level with all its sites on the outside; and it is located near the end of the park road, not far from the parking lot which marks the park’s day use area. There is a playground in the Magnolia, which makes it a better option for families, and don’t let yourself think that a playground automatically detracts from “the natural experience.” When Sarah and I were standing in it on Friday , an owl flew right over our heads, and during a trip in 2009 she found this lizard on the playground and named him “Fun”:

As a father, I prefer the Magnolia because of the playground. As a hiker, I prefer it because it is within walking distance of the trailhead which grants access to all the paths described above. And based simply on my personality, I like that the Magnolia’s sites are, for the most part, more spacious and more private than those on the Dogwood.

But back to hiking. O’Leno has a geologically interesting trail called the Limestone Trail, which departs from the park road roughly halfway between the two campgrounds. It is a 0.6-mile loop that passes a pond and leads to yet another big, old, since-reforested sinkhole (come to think of it, there are so many of these here that it’s amazing the whole park hasn’t caved in!). When you get to the hole, you will find a limestone outcrop hanging over its edge, imparting a feeling of elevation and making it seem like you are standing somewhere further north:

You will also see signs for the Dogwood Trail, which totals almost miles and comes close to connecting the campgrounds. It is not a bad trail, but if you have to choose one to skip, this is the one because it parallels the park road so closely that you could walk its entire distance and feel like you never really went anywhere. (Although, having said that, I did once walk it as night fell, and that did feel adventurous because every darkening tree suddenly looked mysterious and every noise in the brush suddenly sounded scary).

O’Leno is a place you should definitely visit, and I recommend staying a few days so you can mix your active time with your down time. Here is an example of the latter from this past Sunday, taken from my camp chair while Erika read a book in the hammock:

Happy Trails!

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