O’Leno State Park and three more Florida Springs

Our next destination was O’Leno State Park, less than a two hour drive from Silver Springs. This was our first visit to O’Leno, one of Florida’s oldest state parks. The park is located just a little north of Gainesville, near the town of High Springs, and close to several of Florida’s springs.

The campsites are arranged around a loop. Despite some overhanging trees we had no problem navigating the narrow road through the campground. Our site was at the end of the loop and our patio area faced the woods, not the back of another camper.

As soon as we got set up we started exploring. One of the focal points of the park is a swinging bridge over the Santa Fe River. Now, I don’t usually like walking across a swinging bridge but this one was very steady and I’m proud to say I went all the way across the river and back!

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Swinging Bridge over the Santa Fe River at O’Leno State Park

We followed the trail beside river for a few minutes before returning to our campsite.

The next morning fog made everything look eerie.

Later that day we hiked the River Trail to the Santa Fe River sink where the river disappears underground. The river rises back above ground about three miles away in River Rising State Park and can be seen by hiking or horseback riding about 2 miles each way.

Wild dogwoods were blooming all through the woods.

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Wild dogwood in the woods at O’Leno State Park

Florida has more springs than anywhere else on earth. Springs are huge underground caves and caverns that formed naturally to hold water.  From O’Leno it is easy to visit multiple springs in one day.

Ichetucknee Springs State Park is a popular destination for tubing down the crystal clear Ichetucknee River. When we went tubing there with our kids many years ago we never even saw the river’s headspring. On this trip we stopped to see the headspring before exploring the rest of the park.

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Itchetucknee Springs

When the weather is warm, the park fills up quickly with people coming to tube down the river. We did it with our kids twice and I remember the huge parking lot was full of cars. On one of our tubing trips Henry and our son donned their scuba gear to dive the whole way while my daughter and I lounged in the tubes enjoying the float. The most fun part was hearing people yell as they hit the 72 degree Fahrenheit water. On a hot day, after the initial shock the water feels wonderul.

It was too early in the season for tubing on this trip and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. At the end of a short trail was an overlook and boat ramp with a nice view of the river. The only other person we saw was kayaking down the river. He told us he paddled up river and was floating back down.

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Kayaker on the Ichetucknee River

The next day we visited two more springs where we dove during our scuba diving days. Our first stop was Troy Springs State Park. The water was high and closed for diving. When we dove there back in 1987 the spring was located on private property. When the state park was created they added ramps down to the spring to make it easier for divers to get their scuba gear to the spring.

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The high Suwanee River raised the water level at Troy Springs

We also dove at Ginnie Springs in 1987. It is a privately owned park that has been expanded since we were there.

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Ginnie Springs, FL

A fire in the fire pit was a great way to relax after all that wandering.

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A fire in the fire pit is a great way to relax at the end of the day

I’m glad we discovered O’Leno State Park. It was a great place to end our latest Florida adventure.

 

Wandering around Silver Springs State Park

After our four hectic days in Daytona we enjoyed a relaxing week at Silver Springs State Park. Up until the last day the weather was perfect for getting out and exploring the park.

There are two entrances to the state park. The main entrance (also called the historic entrance), on highway 40, is the location of the world famous glass bottom boat tours, a boardwalk trail, kayak and canoe launch and rental, a restaurant, meeting rooms, and paved trails on the beautifully landscaped grounds. The other entrance, on highway 35,  leads to the campground, several hiking and biking trails, a day use area, The Silver River Museum, and a cracker village.

A trailhead next to the Silver River Museum is the starting place for the swamp trail and the river trail. We chose to explore the swamp trail first. This two mile loop trail took us through a lush tropical forest before crossing a boardwalk over the swamp. At the end of the trail is an overlook on the Silver River.

Another day we walked on the river trail to a different overlook on the Silver River. We returned by way of the river field loop which meanders along the Silver River before meeting back up with the main trail.

We chose to drive to the main entrance instead of taking the 2 1/2 mile walking and biking trail. From the Ross Allen Boardwalk Trail we could watch the kayakers paddling out to Silver River. From the paved paths beside the springs we were able to look down into the crystal clear water. We continued along the path next to the river and stopped at another overlook before following the path beside gardens blooming with azaleas.

One day we drove about 30 minutes to Juniper Springs Recreation Area for a swim and a picnic. Swimming in the 72 degree water was a great way to cool off on a warm day.

Relaxing at the campsite one day, we spied this gopher tortoise munching on the grass.

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Gopher Tortoise, Silver Springs State Park

On Saturday morning, the Friends of Silver River State Park had a pancake breakfast to raise funds for their organization. After breakfast we took a tour of the cracker village, a replica of a 19th century settlement, and the Silver River Museum. The term “cracker” refers to the people who settled in Florida.

The Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center is a program of Marion County Public Schools. During the week, the museum is closed to the public while school children are attending classes. On some weekends, the museum is open to the public. The well done exhibits cover the history of the area from prehistoric days to the present.

We had planned to rent a canoe and paddle on the Silver River on our last day but we changed our plans when cold weather moved in. On our visit last year we took a glass bottom boat tour so we decided to skip it this year.

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Glass Bottom Boats, Silver Springs State Park

 

 

 

Four NASCAR Races in Four Days

Whew! Just reading the title of this post makes me tired again. It was four days of non stop action in Daytona. We arrived in the campground on Thursday before the Daytona 500 and hit the ground running. After we set up the fifth wheel we hopped on a shuttle for our first trip to the Daytona International Speedway.

Number one on my bucket list was to attend an appearance by Sherry Polex, an ovarian cancer survivor who works tirelessly to promote ovarian cancer awareness and works with the Martin Truex, Jr Foundation to raise money for childhood and ovarian cancer. After wandering around the midway and buying some souvenirs we headed to the Toyota Racing Experience for her appearance. After the interview was over, she took a lot of time to sign autographs, pose for pictures and talk to the fans. You can learn more about Sherry at SherryStrong.org

The Duel at Daytona that night was the first of the four races we attended.

Friday we enjoyed lunch with a water front view at Caribbean Jack’s Restaurant before heading to the race track for the Gander Outdoors Truck Series race.

Saturday morning the United States Air Force Thunderbirds flew right over our campground during their practice. When we made a run to Publix Saturday morning for a few groceries what did we find but Kyle Busch’s #18 M&M truck and car in the parking lot! Oh, the M&M’s were buy one get one free in the store so of course we came out with two bags!

Saturday afternoon we were once again in the stands for the Xfinity Series race.

The Daytona 500, also called the Great American Race, kicks off the NASCAR season in February every year. Pre-race activities began early in the morning before the race. Fans who purchased a Fan Zone pass were down on the field for a close up view. This year country singer Jake Owen performed for the crowd before the driver introductions. The crowd loved the flyover by the United States Thunderbirds.

Drivers, start your engines!

The race was exciting and it was close at the finish line. The winner was #11 Denny Hamlin.

By Monday morning we were exhausted. What better way to relax than to take a leisurely drive down highway A1A.  Lunch at Racing’s North Turn Restaurant in Ponce Inlet was followed by a walk on the beach and a drive to see the Ponce Inlet lighthouse.

After the excitement of Daytona we were ready for a quiet week at at our next destination. Stay tuned.

Wandering around Saint Augustine

It’s been over 40 years since we last camped in Anastasia State Park. We were camping in a tent with our kids and back then you could drive on the beach.

Today there is no more driving on the beach in the state park. Instead, there is a huge parking area with walkways over the dunes and a wheelchair accessible beach mat to the beach.

It was chilly, foggy and raining during most of our stay. On the first sunny day we went exploring. After a drive south on famous highway A1A, we headed to the Saint Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.

Founded in 1893, the Alligator Farm started out with just a few exhibits of Florida reptiles. It has expanded over the years to include not only reptiles but also birds and mammals from all around the world. Today, in addition to the educational shows and exhibits, it is also used for research.

As we wandered through the zoo toward the Native Swamp and Rookery to see the nesting birds (I posted about them here) we stopped to observe the many varieties of animal life.

We took a break for lunch and drove to the nearby Conch House Marina and Guesthouse to eat outside on their waterfront deck.

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Lunch with a view at Conch House Restaurant

After lunch it was back to the Alligator Farm to watch the 3:00 alligator feeding. Can you say feeding frenzy?

Our next stop was the Saint Augustine Lighthouse. Gorgeous views were our reward for climbing all the steps to the top.

When we weren’t exploring St. Augustine we enjoyed being in Anastasia State Park. Our campsite was surrounded on three sides by natural vegetation and the beach was only a 10 minute walk from our campsite. One afternoon we explored the nature trail near the campground.

 

 

Saint Augustine Alligator Farm Rookery

The next stop on our winter RV journey was Saint Augustine, Florida. We had a beautiful campsite in Anastasia State Park to call home for a few days. The weather was lousy most of the time but we picked a perfect sunny day to do some sightseeing.

At the top of my to do list was visit the Saint Augustine Alligator Farm Wading Bird Rookery. During nesting season wading birds come to nest in the trees in the Native Swamp at the Alligator Farm. The birds who nest here are wild and can come and go as they please. Although it was a little early in the nesting season there were a lot of great egrets and roseate spoonbills wearing their breeding plumage and some pairs were starting to build their nests.

The trees surround a swamp area filled with alligators. A boardwalk winds around the swamp giving visitors close up views of the alligators in the water and the birds in the trees.

The Great Egrets showed off their breeding plumage and pairs worked on their nests.

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Great Egret with breeding plumage at St. Augustine Alligator Farm Rookery
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Pair of egrets working on their nest
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Pair of great egrets at St. Augustine Alligator Farm Rookery
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Egrets at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Rookery
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You can take my picture now
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Great Egret Breeding Plumage

The Roseate Spoonbills were my favorite.

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Roseate Spoonbill at Alligator Farm
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Roseate Spoonbill at Alligator Farm Rookery
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Roseate Spoonbill at Alligator Farm Rookery
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Roseate Spoonbill at Alligator Farm Rookery
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Roseate Spoonbill at Alligator Farm Rookery
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Roseate Spoonbill at Alligator Farm Rookery
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Roseate Spoonbill at Alligator Farm Rookery
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Roseate Spoonbill at Alligator Farm Rookery

Coming up next, more about our St. Augustine adventure including other critters at the Alligator Farm.