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Exploring the Suwannee River Valley Florida

On a warm fall day, aqua-colored springs flow gently along, as a small, brown otter peaks out from under a submerged log. The playful creature has spotted kayakers drifting down the crystal- clear river and has decided to play hide-and-seek with them. The kayakers see the otter and the game is on, in the Suwannee River Valley's picturesque Ichetucknee Springs.

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The Suwannee River Valley consists of Columbia, Suwannee and Hamilton County. These wonderful counties represent the "Real Florida" and boast several of Florida's incredible state parks with scenic rivers, hiking trails and campgrounds that border charming towns, museums and numerous outdoor activities. It is within the tranquil valley that families, couples and individuals will find a perfect and non-stressful way to re-connect with nature and explore northern Florida's greatest natural treasures.

State Parks: Ichetucknee Springs and Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center

Florida's pristine Ichetucknee Springs State Park is located in Columbia County, west of Jacksonville. The Ichetucknee is fed from eight major springs to create the six-mile river that is a stunning aqua-blue in color; it is so clear, you can see the fish swimming beneath you in this verdant paradise. Numerous fish and wildlife, such as river otters, turtles, ducks and Great Blue Herons, are visible in and along the river throughout the year. Moreover, this thriving habitat resembles a picture-postcard of shady trees and wetlands that is perfect for tubing or kayaking down on a warm, lazy day.

The best way to explore the river and wildlife is to kayak its length. Hidden gems are easily missed if you can't paddle into various coves or remain stationary to spot manatees or birds of prey searching for food along the river banks. The Prime tubing season is from May until early September. To spot manatees, the winter months are your best bet. Bring your camera! Water equipment may be rented outside the park.

One of the ideal state parks for families, hikers, bicyclers and kayakers to play and stay is the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, located in White Springs on the banks of the Suwannee River. The state park pays tribute to one of America's most influential composers, Stephen Foster; and commemorates Florida's tremendous cultural traditions in a beautiful forest and serene setting. Within the park and close to the canoe launch by the river, there are five scenic cabins to rent, although cabin is an understatement and they are by no means considered rustic.

These small houses proffer large, wooden wrap-around screened-in porches with swing chairs and rockers to sit and enjoy the woodland setting. The interiors feature floor to ceiling stone fireplaces with glossy wood floors, a modern kitchen, dining room table, comfortable living room and cozy bedrooms with nice beds and furniture. The bathrooms reflect all the modern necessities. The cabins are reasonably priced and great deal for vacationing in the great outdoors without roughing it.

If you're a tried and true camper and your barrier to mother nature is just a tent, or your preferred woodland habitat is an RV, the park offers 45 beautiful oak-shaded campsites with full camping amenities and showers, as well as primitive group sites and a small area for youth camping. In addition, there is Craft Square with different buildings that feature demonstrations of blacksmithing, quilting, stained glass making and much more for visitors and campers. Next to the craft buildings you'll find a fantastic gift and grocery shop where you can play pool, eat pizza, but camping necessities, guitars, lap throws and even local honey. Stick around during Christmas and visitors are dazzled with six million lights adorning the park and craft houses.

This isn't all the park has to offer; throughout the year, Stephen Foster State Park presents a fabulous host of events that range from creating quilt squares to the wildly popular Florida Folk Festival.

Adjacent to the campgrounds in the park stands the magnificent brick designed Carillon Bell Tower and Stephen Foster Museum. The impressive and sweet sounding 97-bell carillon chimes out Foster's songs throughout the day and can be heard all over the park. Located across from the bell tower is the remarkable and fun museum that was created to honor Foster and his music. It features exhibits, history and detailed, colorful dioramas of Foster's songs, including Old Folks At Home that was written about the adjacent Suwannee River, which made it famous.

Canoe or Kayak down the Suwannee River and then Enjoy the Music

After a visit to the wonderful Stephen Foster State Park, you'll most likely want to canoe or kayak down the famous Suwannee River. The river runs about 266 miles from southern Georgia through northern Florida and is part of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail that runs about 170 miles and begins in White Springs. The trail is a system of hubs and river camps spaced about a day's travel apart for either a day trip or a multi-day exploration on the Suwannee.

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Although there is paddling through different portions of the river and at certain times of the year due to the height of the flow, an excellent section to paddle is the middle portion from Live Oak to Branford. This section of the river is shaded with tall, fragrant pines and cypress trees, as the river meanders through captivating and changing scenery; it makes for a comfortable paddle as well. Moreover, one of the interesting characteristics of the Suwannee is its color, a dark tea hue that is caused from tannic acids resulting from decaying plant material.

The best attractions for paddlers and hikers along the Suwannee River are the river camps. Paddlers who plan multi-day trips rent screened sleeping platforms that are secluded, yet the sites provide electricity, ceiling fans, restrooms, showers and primitive camping sites. The grounds are lush and peaceful providing visitors with a unique experience. These sites are much more private then a regular car-campground and are located at least 10 miles away from established parks and campgrounds on the river. The river camps are accessible from the river or hiking trails only.

The hubs along the Suwannee are towns and parks with access to the river and surrounding areas where visitors, aside from canoeing and boating, can bicycle, go horseback riding, drive or hike. This diverse system makes the best of the river, parks and towns.

One of the most fun and popular attractions along the Suwannee Wilderness trail is the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park. This family-friendly environment provides 800 plus campsites (great for RVs), modern cabins with cable TV and kitchens, a full service restaurant that features nightly music entertainment, arts and crafts village country store, putt-putt golf, swimming pool, hiking and canoeing right alongside the river. Add to all of this, the park is also a live music arena and voted the best live music venue.

With music festivals occurring throughout the year, check the parks events calendar to see when your favorite musicians are performing.

The Spirit of Suwanee is an original music park and one that provides an enchanting atmosphere to appreciate and participate in nature and music. For additional information, visit Or, the Wanee Music Festival.

Wherever you explore in the Suwannee River Valley, from the amazing state parks, to swimming in cool, fresh springs you will find the perfect combination of activities and events to delight the entire family. And, go explore the charming towns, such as White Springs where you can take a historical walking tour, or Lake City where a delicious lunch at Desoto Drug Store will carry you back in time to a simpler pace. There is an adventure waiting to be experienced. For additional information go to Suwannee River Valley.
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Patrice Raplee is an experienced travel photojournalist and editor of Travel Excursion and Seattle Spotlight for Positively Entertainment magazine. In addition, she writes a monthly travel column for the award-wining site Offbeat Travel and is a regular guest on Travel radio talk shows. She is a member of North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA), International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA) and the Recording Academy. Her photographs and articles have appeared in numerous international publications, as well as NW newspapers such as the Seattle Times, the Stranger and Seattle Weekly. Patrice travels the globe to cover destinations that feature fascinating culture, art, culinary, history and soft adventure.

Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author

Updated: August 7, 2016

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