Free Things to Do With the Family in Columbia County, Florida

Crystal clear, cool freshwater springs, a Civil War battlefield and one of Florida’s first tourist destinations all await you in Columbia County.

Millions of visitors touring the Sunshine State travel on Interstate 10 and 75 that both intersect about an hour’s drive west of Jacksonville and less than an hour north of Gainesville. If your family is seeking outdoor adventures and cultural experiences, Columbia County offers all that and more—and many of them are free!

Whether you’ve got a few minutes, a few hours or a few days in the county, here are a few suggestions for affordable family fun.

 

Short Stopovers

Falling Creek Falls, located only minutes north of I-10 Exit 301, provides families with a quick escape into nature. Park your car and stroll along a short trail into a forested area. You’ll find a sturdy boardwalk leading to an observation point with views of the creek. As you continue along the path, the falls come into view.

Stained by natural river tannins, the water looks like tea gushing over a limestone ledge. To hear the water crashing down into a rocky ravine amidst the lush landscape of native trees makes this a multisensory experience. Be sure to bring your camera to capture this tranquil scene. Exit the way you came in or complete the 0.6-mile loop that returns to the parking area. Restrooms, picnic tables and a playground make this a perfect pit stop for families. Park hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily (8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in winter).


One of Florida's only water falls, Falling Creek Falls, Columbia County.

 

In White Springs, a town situated just across the Suwannee River from Columbia County, visitors can see a piece of Florida history. Roughly a 10-minute drive east of I-75, the White Sulphur Springs Springhouse was one of Florida’s original tourist destinations, popular at the turn of the 20th century.

Based on a belief that the spring water had healing qualities— a legend that dates back to native tribes that inhabited the area before the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century—many travelers came here hoping to cure their ailments. The Springhouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. If you visit, park at the springs and explore the Springhouse for free, or continue on to the entrance of the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, where you can pay for admission to this popular attraction celebrating the composer of “Old Folks at Home” (the Suwannee River song)  and other well-known folk tunes.


The White Sulphur Springs Springhouse, located in histoic White Springs, Florida.

 

Full Days of Fun

Springs throughout the picturesque North Florida area draw families to Columbia County. Swimming, snorkeling, canoeing and kayaking can help you beat the heat and get closer to Florida’s natural beauty.

Rum Island Spring and Park, open year-round, offers free access to the spring and the Santa Fe River. The clear water and shallow, sandy areas are ideal for kids. Enjoy a picnic lunch, fish from the bluffs, or use the boat ramp to put your canoe or kayak in the water. Weekdays and early morning hours are the best times to visit to avoid peak crowds. 


Dive into the clear blue waters of Rum Island Spring and Park.
 

Home to a 19th-century trading post and ferry, Charles Springs is a small, remote spring for wading or swimming; it also features a natural limestone bridge. Bring chairs to relax on the bank as you soak in the Florida sun.

Alligator Lake Recreation Area is known for its 12 miles of hiking and biking trails through 1,000 acres of green space and wetlands south of downtown Lake City. Spanish moss drapes live oak and cypress trees here, providing a canopy for your adventures. Elevated boardwalks offer a safe vantage point over swampy waters where you might spot an alligator or two.

If your family is with a large group visiting Alligator Lake, you all will especially enjoy the covered picnic pavilions, a large, shaded accessible playground and a sand volleyball court. Use of the park is free and open to the public Tuesday through Sunday. The annual Alligator Lake Spring Fest in April is a free, family event featuring guided nature walks with birding and butterfly experts, plus other activities promoting the lake’s wildlife and water resources.


Alligator Lake Park features a varity of trails and adventures to get up close with Florida wildlife. 


Lake DeSoto welcomes locals and visitors alike to historic downtown Lake City. Pedestrian lanes around the perimeter of the lake make this a popular spot for walking and biking. You can cast a line in the lake if you are so inclined. How often can you catch bass or bluegill in the heart of a city? Spread out a blanket for a picnic lunch, and you might see a family of ducks, turtles or other wildlife roaming about.


Lake DeSoto is one of Columbia County's most scenic lakes, loacted in historic downtown Lake City.
 

Just a few blocks away, Lake City-Columbia County Historical Museum is where you can learn about the local history. Post Civil War muskets found in Lake DeSoto and other eclectic artifacts are displayed in a two-story home. Volunteers, dressed in period costumes, sing, dance and share living history demonstrations here each February as part of the Olustee Festival, a free, two-day arts and crafts show in downtown Lake City. It coincides with an annual re-enactment of the Battle of Olustee, Florida’s largest Civil War battle, which occurred Feb. 20, 1864. The re-enactment takes place at Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park on the very field where Confederate soldiers defended the invasion of Union troops in the woods of the Osceola National Forest.

Today, visitors come to the forest for the camping, hiking, horseback riding, and bird-watching trails nestled amongst the woodlands and swamps. Affordable camping rates are available at Ocean Pond, a natural 1,760-acre lake, or enjoy a day of recreational activities at Olustee Beach for only  $3 per vehicle.  Swim, bring a kayak to paddle among the Cypress trees, or launch a boat for fishing or waterskiing. The historic Olustee Depot serves as a welcome center to the forest. Open Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the restored passenger and freight station offers interpretive displays about the industrial heritage of the region. Admission is free.


Step back in time at Olustee BattleField Historic State Park.


Weekend Festivals

Columbia County knows how to celebrate. Two summer events in the area, the Wellborn Blueberry Festival and the Fourth of July, are as homegrown and family-friendly as they come. In early June, make the short drive west into Wellborn for a blueberry pancake breakfast followed by a parade, crafts, live music, car show, live animal show and unlimited blueberry treats.

For an Independence Day retreat, descend upon the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park for the annual Fourth of July Get Away. Free fireworks shows are held on the evening of July Fourth in downtown Live Oak and in Lake City at the Columbia County Fairgrounds. Bring your lawn chairs, let your children play on the inflatables and watch the magic unfold in the sky.


Fireworks light up the sky at the annual Fourth of July Celebration. 

With so much to do, it’s no wonder Columbia County is known as Florida’s Gateway. All roads lead to nature, history and memorable outdoor experiences for families, and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune.