Enjoy a North Central Florida Road Trip to Small Towns, Springs and Preserves

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Have you considered a North Central Florida road trip? Once you’ve explored Florida’s Space Coast and experienced historic St. Augustine, it’s time for a more off-the-beaten-path experience in the Sunshine State.

Guest contributor, Cheryl Rodewig, shares the small town vibe, delicious eats and fun things to do in North Central Florida. Save this itinerary for your next boomer road trip!

In a state beset with tourists, North Central Florida often escapes the crowds. It’s not quite Central Florida, where Orlando reigns supreme, but it’s not really North Florida (Jacksonville to the Panhandle) either. It has its own identity, a blend of Southern culture and wide-open nature, that you could miss if you’re breezing down I-75 too fast.

On this North Central Florida road trip, you’ll see the best of the region, including the college town of Gainesville and some of the Sunshine State’s prettiest parks. The drive from Micanopy north to High Springs isn’t far, but there’s plenty to keep you busy for 3-4 days or longer.

Here’s an easy itinerary for outdoor-loving road-trippers passing through North Central Florida.

Downtown Micanopy

Art gallery in downtown Micanopy. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

Remember the cute small town in the 1990s romcom Doc Hollywood? That’s Micanopy, population under 600.

Head downtown, where antique shops line the street. You can hunt for treasures to your heart’s content at Mosswood Farm Store, where “everything old is new again”.

Then stop into Coffee N’ Cream, a local favorite for nearly 20 years, to escape the heat and grab lunch. The light, refreshing chicken salad is their specialty, and it’s even better followed by a slice of homemade banana pudding, trimmed with cream and big enough to share.

The chicken salad and banana pudding at Coffee N Cream is the perfect blend of healthy and indulgent. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

From there, continue your stroll down Cholokka Boulevard. You can admire the stately Herlong Mansion, now a bed and breakfast, or stop into the free Micanopy Historical Society Museum (website) with its circa 1930 Coca-Cola mural painted on the outside. The building itself dates to the 1890s.

Boomer Travel Tip

Wrap up your shopping and sightseeing by 5 p.m., when most places downtown close up for the night.

Paynes Prairie, Piadines and Pizza

View from the observation tower at Paynes Prairie in Micanopy. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

Just five minutes north of downtown walk on the wild side at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park. The 22,000-acre landscape looks like it’s borrowed from the Midwest. Bison and wild horses roam the prairie along with alligators. Towers and boardwalks unfold sweeping panoramas.

If you want to see bison, try the Cones Dike or Bolens Bluff trails. The park has eight trails total and they encompass several miles, so you can spend hours seeing it all. If you’re short on time, try the 50-foot observation tower on the Wacahoota Trail for incredible views.

After you’ve worked up an appetite, head to Blue Highway, hands-down the best spot for dinner in Micanopy. Open till 8 p.m., this beloved pizzeria serves thin crust and Sicilian pies with almost any topping you could want: mushrooms in cream sauce, spicy sweet peppadews, Cedar Key clams and more.

Looking for gluten-free dough or vegan mozzarella? They’ve got you covered.

A piadine from Blue Highway is a great to-go meal, like the Italian version of a taco. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

The salads are also standout entrees as are the unique piadines. As the menu explains, a piadine is an open-faced Italian flatbread sandwich that you eat folded in half like a taco. Get the roasted lamb piadine with mint pesto aioli and be amazed.

Checking Into Gainesville

Drive 15 minutes north to Gainesville, where you’ll check in at the SpringHill Suites. There are plenty of lodging options in town, but as roadtrippers, we always prefer hotels that offer rooms with kitchenettes, a complimentary breakfast buffet, free parking and amenities like a 24-hour gym. The SpringHill Suites in Gainesville delivered on all of that, and the hospitality was top-notch as well.

Our suite at SpringHill Suites in Gainesville was clean, comfy and spacious. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

We also appreciated the location. While you’re just minutes from downtown, it’s also right off the interstate. This makes accessing parks and springs (and quick trips back to the hotel to clean up after hiking or swimming) particularly convenient.

Gainesville Gardens

Start your morning early walking the garden paths at Kanapaha Botanical Gardens. In the peak of summer, you can see the world’s largest water lilies blooming, but the gardens are lovely year-round.

Butterflies at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

Next, stop by the Butterfly Rainforest at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Hundreds of butterflies surround and sometimes land on you as you wander through the conservatory. Tropical flowers, waterfalls and tiny, blue-feathered birds darting across the floor complete the idyllic scene.

Al Fresco Lunch at 4th Avenue Food Park

Green matcha with strawberry coconut cold foam and dried strawberries, shown in front of the 4th Ave Food Park mural, is just one of the season drinks Opus Coffee created this year. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

You could eat indoors for lunch, but it’s Florida, so make the most of that sunshine at the 4th Avenue Food Park (website). This trendy food park has great variety with a local focus, including:

●      Opus Airstream, with locally roasted brews, teas, organic syrups and creative, seasonal drinks

●      Humble Wood Fire, where handmade bagels get dressed up with carrot “lox,” cashew cream cheese, local eggs, salmon and more

●      Feliz Flavors, small-batch ice cream including Latin-inspired flavors like the delicately sweet and refreshing guava

●      Sublime Tacos, Mexican classics stuffed with creative proteins (think short ribs, Angus steak, fish and tempeh)

●      Satch Squared, decadent Detroit-style pizza with a thick yet fluffy crust covered edge to edge in brick cheese and sweet tomato sauce

●      Baker Baker, especially popular for sweets but with a few standout savory options, such as the cheddar scone

●      Fehrenbacher’s Artisan Sausage, a world of cured meats, from Mexican chorizo to Moroccan lamb sausage

Those with dietary restrictions won’t miss out. Whether you’re looking for gluten-free pizza or vegan ice cream, it’s here.

I recommend sampling dishes from a few restaurants. Satch Squared’s Motor City pie (pepperoni and hot honey) was the most satisfyingly indulgent take on pizza I’ve ever tried.

The street-style shrimp tacos from Sublime Tacos, meanwhile, are fresh and light. And Humble Wood Fire is a must for their loaded Vegan Lox bagel.

A vegan lox bagel, Motor City pizza, shrimp tacos and guava ice cream made the best and most eclectic meal we had in Gainesville. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

Be sure to get at least one of the drink specials at Opus Airstream. They’re always whipping up something clever to surprise guests.

Some of this year’s specials: Strawberry Fields Matcha, topped with strawberry coconut cold foam; La Horchata, a frothy triple espresso cinnamon confection; and Witch’s Brew Lemon Fizz, a color-changing blend of La Croix, matcha, raspberry, lemonade and lavender.

Grab a picnic table and dig in. There’s also an interactive mural plus live music on the weekends.

A Sinkhole and a Swirl

You’ll find one of Florida’s strangest natural wonders in a state park right in town. A National Natural Landmark, the collapsed sinkhole at Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park (website) is 120 feet deep.

As you take the 132-step staircase down, you’ll see mini waterfalls running down the plant-covered sides. At the bottom, a still green pool fills the sink.

Stairs down into the sinkhole. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

After your climb back up, drive two minutes down the road to refresh yourself at another unique Gainesville spot. Yo3 Metro is unlike any frozen yogurt shop you’ve tried before.

They have all natural popping boba tea, smoothies, baked goods, froyo affogato and more. Plus their yogurt flavors are unique. Try a swirl of taro for something light.

Caramel sea salt is another customer favorite. We loved their stevia-sweetened froyo.

Going Downtown

If you only have one evening in Gainesville, spend it downtown.

Enjoy dueling pianos, arcade games or perhaps browsing the cozy independent bookshop. After a day of park-hopping, it’s great to have nothing planned besides moseying down Main Street and taking in the sights.

For dinner, slide into The Top. Opened in 2000, this trendy restaurant serves up good times and a mean burger.

You might try the chili-espresso rubbed Widow Maker with local grass-fed beef, smoked Gouda, white cheddar, mushrooms, fried onions and bacon. Or nosh on the Mastodon with vegan barbecue sauce.

Sub in a black bean patty or a Beyond Burger to go vegetarian. Unless it’s Tuesday, in which case, tacos are a must.

Boomer Travel Tip

If you’re visiting on the weekend, ask about their specials.

Wind down the night with a few rounds of pinball at the on-site arcade bar. There’s even a jukebox and old-timey photo booth. Or belly up to the bar (with all-day happy hour Sunday) for a cocktail or craft beer.

Bonus Day in Gainesville

SweetBerries also features a variety of local art. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

If you have a second day to visit Gainesville, here are some more options in town.

●      Haile Village Farmers Market: Visit Saturday mornings for artisanal treasures and live music. The scenic Haile Village community is charming and walkable.

●      SweetBerries: Salads, soups, sandwiches and wraps served fresh make this quick-service restaurant the ideal stop for a satisfying lunch. Their deli sandwiches are delicious, particularly the Kansas City Roast Beef on grilled focaccia. It’s a bit healthier, too, which is nice when you’re park-hopping. We weren’t hungry enough for frozen custard, but if you read the rave reviews, you’ll be wiser and save room.

●      Depot Park: If you ask locals their favorite park, most will probably name this one. Besides the playground and splash pad, there’s a conservation area with wetlands, a waterfront promenade, and a pavilion and open lawn for picnicking. I recommend getting your lunch to go and eating here!

●      Free Fridays: May through October, head downtown Friday nights to the Bo Diddley Plaza for a free outdoor concert. Kick back with everything from R&B to reggae.

Tubing and Kayaking the North Central Florida Springs

Floating down the Santa Fe River on an Anderson’s Outdoor Adventures tube trip. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

Now it’s time to head north to discover some of Florida’s best springs. From Gainesville, drive up I-75 for about 30 minutes toward the city of High Springs.

There are several springs in this area, and to experience them, you need to get out on the water. You can rent everything you need, including a kayak, paddle board, canoe, tube or even a pontoon boat from Anderson’s Outdoor Adventures. The best part is that they shuttle you up-river so you can paddle or float your way back downstream to where your car is parked.

Swimmers in Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

If you have the time, visit multiple springs. One of AOA’s most popular trips lets you kayak or canoe past eight incredible springs on the Santa Fe River. These include:

●      Poe Springs, also a park and a great place to swim

●      Rum Island Spring, named for the bootlegging history of the river islet

●      Mermaid Springs, petite and pretty, would easily accommodate a couple mermaids

●      Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park, beautiful azure springs plus concessions, picnic tables and restrooms if you need a break

It takes 4-6 hours, depending on the current and how long you take with stops — the springs are great for quick swims along the way. If you want something shorter, you can do the five-mile trip that starts at Rum Island Park.

For a more leisurely trip, try tubing. You can still be dropped off so you float down-river. It takes only a couple hours or so, and it’s a classic Old Florida experience everyone should try at least once. We highly recommend it.

Boomer Travel Tip

Bring water and lather on the sunscreen on your Florida springs adventure.

Swimming in North Florida Springs

Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park has one of Florida’s prettiest springs. Photo by Cheryl Rodewig.

If you just want to swim, both Poe Springs and Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park (website) are great. AOA is set up at each of these parks as well, and both have a nominal parking fee. If you can only do one, I recommend Gilchrist as it’s more scenic.

Trees reflected in the clear spring water at Ichetucknee State Park. Photo by Donna Hull.

From Gilchrist Blue Springs, you can easily hit another state park less than 30 minutes up the road: Ichetucknee Springs State Park. Here, you can swim in the Blue Hole or enjoy one of the nature trails, including a boardwalk, riverfront trail and longer two-mile loop. You can also begin your kayak trip down the Ichetucknee River from here.

All the springs are a refreshing 72 degrees year-round. Don’t miss the opportunity to check this outdoor adventure off your Florida bucket list!

Note: The Alachua County VCB and area businesses assisted with my visit, which helped with research but doesn’t influence my opinion.

Extend your trip to Northern Florida

After swimming in springs and watching wildlife, it’s time to head north. You’ll discover more off-the-beaten-path Florida fun on a Big Bend Scenic Byway road trip. Explore beaches, climb lighthouses and discover more wildlife in the Florida panhandle.

Scratch those itchy travel feet!

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