Continued from Region 7 North Central Florida:
Passing through Marion County, you might think you’re in Kentucky, given the miles of white fences and grazing horses. Hundreds of thoroughbred horse farms are located here, earning Ocala and Marion County the title “Horse Capital of the World.”
Marion County’s family attractions include deep springs, drag racing, and world-famous thoroughbred horses. The city of Ocala is near the site of a historical Timucua village called “Ocale,” meaning “Big Hammock.” Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto first recorded Ocale during exploration of the southeast in 1539.
Just outside of Ocala, Silver Springs State Park is celebrating more than 100 years of thrilling visitors with views of crystalclear waters through glass-bottom boats. Tourists first arrived by stagecoach and steamboat in the late 1870s to marvel at one of the largest artesian spring systems in the world, still one of the last uninhabited spring runs in the state. Today, Silver Springs is a 350-acre nature park that includes the Silver River and undeveloped Florida wetlands teeming with native wildlife. Hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, glass-bottom boat rides, camping, cabins, special events and concerts are available through a public/private partnership.
At other nearby attractions, vacationers can see antiquities at the Marion County Museum of History and Archaeology and trace the history of drag racing in a museum owned by legendary racer Don Garlits. Marion County also boasts the vast expanse of the 378,000-acre Ocala National Forest. Hiking and biking trails offer a variety of opportunities for visitors to explore the largest sand pine forest in the world.
In Citrus County, visitors can actually see manatees every day at the nearby Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Enjoy a relaxing boat tour as part of your admission, see native animals and visit the park’s underwater observatory in the main spring.
The tiny village of Suwannee offers access to the famous river of the same name. Swamp cabbage salad and deviled crab are just a couple of local specialties made from the delicious Gulf bounty harvested daily and delivered to this old-fashioned port.
Drive inland to visit Fanning Springs on the Suwannee River for a refreshing dip in clear, cool water. Snorkeling gear gives you an up-close look at a variety of fish here.
Cedar Key is a quiet island community, located in Levy County, which offers bed-and-breakfast inns, small boardwalk shops and fresh seafood in local restaurants, making this an enjoyable destination. Once one of Florida’s most prominent ports, visitors now find a quiet, rustic fishing village and artists’ community. A group of fragile islands just off the coast were protected in 1929 as the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.
Also in Levy County is the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, a 54,000-acre undeveloped river delta between Chiefland and Cedar Key that protects the ecosystems and coastal marshes of the Suwannee River. It is one of the largest protected delta systems in the United States.
On the banks of the Suwannee, Manatee Springs State Park features one of Florida’s largest springs, as well as plenty of chances to view manatees and other wildlife in their natural habitats. The spring produces an average of 100 million gallons of clear, cool water daily. In Chiefland, bargain hunters will want to take in the area’s largest farmer and flea market on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Head inland to the city of Gainesville, home to the sprawling University of Florida campus,and a surprising number of natural attractions along with accommodations and other amenities. The university’s Florida Museum of Natural History, one of the largest natural history museums in the country, has nine permanent exhibits and several special exhibits. The museum’s Butterfly Rainforest is a living exhibit that features hundreds of free-flying butterflies and birds along with other animals, turtles and fish.
At Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, a wooden boardwalk takes you down 120 feet into a bowl-shaped limestone sinkhole to a miniature rain forest. Small streams trickle down the steep slopes of the cavity and lush vegetation thrives in the shade of the walls.
Just south of Gainesville in Micanopy is the 21,000-acre Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a unique savannah designated as a National Natural Landmark. An array of wildlife and livestock, including alligators, bison, horses and more than 270 species of birds, live in the 20 distinct biological communities here.
Nearby, in Cross Creek, tour the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, where the author penned her famous work The Yearling in 1938, earning her the Pulitzer Prize.
Out on the Gulf, fishing is good along the coast called the Big Bend, because the coastline is largely made up of shallow saltwater estuaries rather than sandy beaches. On the coast in southern Taylor County, the fishing village of Steinhatchee, reminiscent of the old Florida “Cracker” days, offers several good restaurants and accommodations, ranging from fish camps to the charming Victorian-style Steinhatchee Landing Resort. The beautiful Steinhatchee River and the Gulf of Mexico provide a backdrop for canoeing, boating, fishing and summertime scalloping.
The fishing and timber industries make up the lifeblood of Dixie County. On the coast you can deep-sea fish for grouper, red snapper or kingfish at Horseshoe Beach. This isolated fishing community of about 200 permanent residents offers many private island beaches.
In Taylor County, just south of Perry, is the Forest Capital Museum State Park, a 13-acre Florida park and museum that recounts the history of the forest industry as well as the wildlife of the forest. Taylor County also has the most undeveloped land open to hunters in the state and is popular with birdwatchers.
East of Taylor County and “way down upon the Suwannee River” is the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, honoring the famous American songwriter. Visitors can see quilting, blacksmithing, stained glass making and other crafts in Craft Square while listening to Foster’s music ring from the park’s 97-bell carillon. Hiking, biking, canoeing and wildlife viewing are available, as is a full-facility campground. The last weekend in May, the park hosts the Florida Folk Festival.