Nature and history lovers, there’s a perfect Florida weekend getaway destination without the crowds you expect from a Florida vacation. How does three days of local restaurants, alligator sightings, hiking past waterfalls, kayaking, swimming and history museums sound? If that defines the perfect Florida weekend vacation to you, pack your hiking boots and bring the bathing suit to Columbia County, Florida, on the northern state border with Georgia. Here’s a perfect 3-day guide to Florida’s Gateway.
Day 1: A Taste of Old Florida
Start your first day in Columbia County at Shirley’s Restaurant in the county’s largest town, Lake City. If you feel like you’ve stumbled upon an authentic country restaurant, that’s because you have. Inside, you’ll find wooden booths and walls full of vintage license plates from around the country, but the cuisine is pure Southern and Florida inspired. For breakfast, you may want to sample the old-fashioned eggs, cornbread, hash browns and grits, or maybe the country-fried steak. And try the fried green tomatoes—a true Southern recipe.
View of Alligator Lake, Lake City, FL
After fueling up, it’s time to hit the great outdoors at Alligator Lake and Park. The 80-acre park is a fantastic place to get a sense of unspoiled Florida. It’s filled with wild palm trees, untamed wetlands and rich wildlife. While hiking or biking down the park’s trails, you’ll get a glimpse of the surrounding area where the Seminole tribes lived centuries earlier. You’ll likely spot turtles, armadillos, a variety of birds, and of course, alligators (they keep their distance, and you should, too). You can also explore Alligator Lake by canoe or boat, where it’s perfectly acceptable to bring the bait and tackle.
Marion Bistro & Brewhouse, Downtown Lake City, FL
After a morning of alligator spotting, head back to Lake City for lunch at Marion Street Bistro & Brewhouse. Here, it’s rustic-meets-country style with mounted deer heads on brick walls and wrought-iron chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Marion Street Deli has a fully stocked bar, but the menu is the real treat with a wide variety of dishes like French onion soup, brisket and crab cakes. Healthier options are also available, like the Power Bowl (full of veggies), fish tacos and freshly harvested oysters.
Rum Island Spring and Park, Fort White, FL
In the afternoon, outdoor adventure continues at Rum Island Springs. Columbia County is known for its fresh-water springs, so grab your bathing suit and take a dip in Rum Island’s crystal-clear spring where you can watch the fish swim below you. The park is rich in vegetation, making it a perfect destination to enjoy the wild and wonderful Floridian landscape. (You also can rent canoes or kayaks from Rum 138 Outfitters and explore more of the Santa Fe River.)
Next stop: the Osceola Gun Range. Assisted by a certified guide, you and your friends or family can learn the best shooting techniques using paper targets and a pistol. Try out everything from simple handguns to assault rifles.
Day 2: For the Love of History and Culture
Day two in Columbia County should begin with a quick breakfast (familiar names like Panera Bread can supply you with breakfast sandwiches to go) because you’ve got a morning at Falling Creek Falls ahead of you. If you love history, you’ll appreciate the fact that the park was an original settlement for the early pioneers from South Carolina. Bring your camera and park by the trailhead, and in less than a mile you’ll arrive at a the perfect spot to see the “root beer” colored waterfall surrounded by limestone rocks. It’s considered a true natural marvel of Florida.
Falling Creek Falls, Columbia County, FL
Continue your outdoor adventures at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. If you’ve heard the famous classic song, “Old Folks at Home,” you’re familiar with its songwriter, Stephen Foster, who wrote about the area’s legendary Suwanee River. Inside the park, there’s a mansion-turned-museum featuring exhibits of the late songwriter’s personal possessions and original music sheets. Head over to the craft center and get a sense of how the early pioneers spent their days with live demonstrations of blacksmithing, quilting, stained-glass making and more. While in the park, explore miles of trail by walking or biking.
Museum at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, White Springs, FL
Your final spot before a late lunch should be Big Shoals State Park (approximately 13 minutes away). The largest whitewater rapids can be found in this park shrouded by limestone rocks and 28 miles of hiking trails. You can opt to skip the Stephen Foster Folk Center to spend a full morning tackling the rapids at Big Shoal by kayak.
When it’s time for lunch, head to Ken’s Bar-B-Que in Lake City for a rack of ribs. This is an old-school barbecue joint with red gingham tablecloths, so other delicious must-try menu items include pulled pork, fried fish and fried chicken.
After lunch, time for a visit to the Lake City Columbia County Historical Museum nearby, where you’ll see local artifacts from the 1870s including diaries, Civil War memorabilia, clothing and more. The museum is located in an Italianate mansion that once belonged to the prestigious Vinzant family whose belongings still reside in the house. Most of the rooms are immaculately preserved, offering a true glimpse of the Victorian era.
Lake City-Columbia County Historical Museum, Lake City, FL
Spend the rest of your afternoon at Gateway Art Gallery, which is just a five-minute walk away. Browse through gorgeous exhibits of paintings made from talented locals. You may purchase your favorite piece or join a workshop (depending on the schedule) to make your own masterpiece. The workshops are all taught by local artisans.
Keep it simple for day-two dinner after a busy day and visit Sal’s Italian Deli, which has a menu of traditional New York-style dishes, like pastrami sandwiches, hot corned beef, meatball parmesan subs, lasagna and pizza. Order items with quirky Mafioso names like “The Soprano” and “The Godfather.” Then, end the night with a plate of tiramisu.
Day 3: Venturing South
Before heading home on your final day, you have a few stops to make in southern Columbia County, the first being Ichetucknee Springs State Park. In a county known for its gorgeous springs, this is arguably the area’s most popular. The park’s crystal-clear river runs for six miles, and it’s the place go during the summer for swimming, snorkeling, tubing, kayaking and hanging out with friends. Keep in mind that the park has a designated campsite (Ichetucknee Springs Campground) and cabin rentals (Ichetucknee Hideaway Cottages) if you’re looking for a place to park it overnight. RVs are welcome for camping overnight on-site as well.
South End of Ichetucknee Springs State Park, Fort White, FL
Before taking off for home, you need to do two things: 1. Pick up a few souvenirs, and 2. Grab lunch at one final local-to-Columbia-County spot. Stop at Webb’s Antique Mall in Lake City to find some cool take-home gifts or items for yourself: Think country-style goods like vintage signs and Bavarian beer mugs. Like most antique malls, the inventory is always changing (and is often unexpected).
And before leaving, head to the Great Outdoors Restaurant in High Springs for burgers, fish tacos, BBQ pulled pork nachos or salad while enjoying “the great outdoors” on its massive patio. The restaurant has a fireplace, towering palm trees, and a fun Florida camping-style decor with paddles and canoes for decoration.
If you go…
When it comes to staying overnight in Columbia County, there are plenty of options. Several hotel properties like Home 2 Suites, Holiday Inn & Suites, Comfort Suites and Hampton Inn receive high praises from reviewers. For Florida camping options, try any one of the designated campsites at O’Leno State Park, Lake City Campground, Ichetucknee Springs Campground and more. Those who are traveling with RVs can park their vehicles at Kelly's RV Park, Casey Jones RV Park, and Lake City RV Resort, Just to name a few.