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Leave behind the well-known Florida destinations and head to a quieter, more rural experience in Natural North Florida.
One where your bliss is kayaking down meandering rivers, cooling off in refreshing luminous-blue natural springs, and catching your own scallops off the Gulf coastline.
In the era of concern for health and safety in quieter locations, these are the places in Florida your family can feel safe and comfortable traveling through!
When you visit North Florida, you’ll escape the typical Florida crowds and welcome in space and serenity.
During our one week road trip through the Natural North Florida region we explored the regions of Suwanee Wilderness Trail, Cedar Keys, Steinhatchee River, Wakulla Springs, and Monticello.
We experienced some of our favorite Florida adventures and family moments so far on our greater US road trip and were stunned we had not heard of this area before.
Despite traveling the globe for 22 years, I still manage to find places that amaze me and keep me tapped into the magic of newness, awe, and wonder.
Our Natural North Florida road trip podcast
We share our highlights and stories from our Natural North Florida road trip in our podcast.
Where is Natural North Florida?
Natural North Florida is an area that encompasses incredible natural diversity between Gainesville to the east, Sopchoppy to the west, Cedar Key to the South, and the Florida-Georgia state line.
It’s an area that sits between the capital, Tallahassee, and Jacksonville on the Atlantic Coast.
Part of the joy of our travel blogging lifestyle, is we can be introduced to areas we have never heard of before, and so we can share their less-charted hidden secrets with you.
It was one of those family roads trips that gave us memories we’ll talk about together forever.
Here are our suggestions for the best things to do in North Florida.
Explore the Suwanee Wilderness River Trail
The Suwanee River begins in the Okeefenokee Swamp in southeastern Georgia and travels 246 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.
The Timucuan Indians felt the river was sacred to the Sun God who brought color to the flowers of the earth. Its river offers nature lovers the grandeur of unspoiled old Florida and the beauty of outdoor adventure.
The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail begins in White Springs, Florida’s first tourist town and is an area that offers exploration of small towns, state parks and natural springs.
The river continues for 170 miles through towering pines, stately cypress lining the riverbanks, high limestone outcroppings, salt marshes and gently slowing banks as it widens on its approach to the Gulf of Mexico.
For those seeking a unique adventure you can enjoy a multi-day adventure canoeing the river stopping at the river camps spaced a days’ travel apart.
We’re saving that adventure for another day, on this short trip we visited a few of the star attractions in the Suwanee River Wilderness Trail.
Suwannee River State Park
The Suwannee River State Park is located near the town of Live Oak and offers some of the best backcountry canoeing opportunities in the state.
This Florida State Park offers beautiful hiking trails through the woods along the river and encompasses historical ghost towns, and Civil War battlements, and remnants of a 19th Century steamboat.
Take the easy Suwanee River Trail which runs for just under a mile along the riverbank and offers beautiful views of its rapidly running waters and the pretty live oaks with Spanish moss dripping over the banks.
You can then continue along the Balanced Rock, which toppled into the water years ago, and is now only visible when the water is low.
As it was high, we turned back via the Lime Sink Run trail which is just under a mile and takes you past a unique Florida freshwater spring and weaves in and out of a hardwood forest lush with a variety of plants and wildlife.
Take your mosquito repellant!
Swim at Madison Blue Springs
About a 20-minute drive from Suwannee River State Park, is what has been dubbed by USA Today, “the best swimming hole in the US” and one of the top north Florida attractions!
We did not experience the full glory of Madison Blue Springs State Park and its typical luminous blue color due to rising river levels and darker color water, but that did not stop us from loving this refreshing way to cool off from a hot Florida day.
Give your lymphatic system time to adjust to the 68-degree year-round temperature. After the initial shock it’s divine.
There is a strong current that will push you out to the edge of the Withlacoochee River and you can walk back around the perimeter of the spring and enjoy the views.
Take your float and just chill out. There are picnic tables in the area if you wanted to make a whole day of it. This was one of our favorite things to do in North Florida.
Other North Florida’s Natural Springs:
Unfortunately, there had been a bit of flooding just before we arrived, which meant many of the springs were closed due to what is called a brown out.
As you can imagine the rising river levels took away the glory color of the pristine springs.
And because of COVID some of the boardwalks were closed.
Based upon our research, these are the Natural North Florida springs we have listed for a return to this area:
- Ichetucknee Springs State Park – popular for tubing runs and kayaking.
- Manatee Springs – firs magnitude spring offering snorkeling, summing and up-close views of manatees.
- Fanning Springs – blue-green spring waters under ancient live oaks dripping with Spanish Moss.
Stay: Music Festival Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park and Campground
The Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park and Campground is 800 acres of outdoor camping fun situated along the banks of the Suwanee River.
Not only does it offer primitive and powered camping, it has miles of hiking and horseback riding trails, disc golf course, and canoeing and kayaking on the river.
You can also stay in cabins here like we did in our 2-bedroom cottage.
Suwanee is not just a place to pitch your tent, it’s rated as one of the US’s top outdoor music venues. It hosts several outdoor music festivals each year, plus regular concerts, and campfire pickin’ session.
You know we love our live music here and so have pegged this as a place to return to once the live events start again.
We loved our little self-driving tour of the massive property and finding things like outdoor amphitheater and stages, beautiful fishing lakes, hidden campgrounds, the river, and this gigantic troll.
Is this not the coolest artwork you’ve ever seen?
Friends let’s meet up here one year for camping and live music and troll hunts!
If you’re looking for a place to eat, while based near or at Live Oak, the following two places are recommended.
Big Wood BBQ & Grill
We were impressed by the size and quality of the food here. We all chose something different: blackened shrimp, baby back ribs, and rib eye steak, and sliders – all were fantastic.
I was impressed by the quality of the grilled vegetables and baked potato – the seasoning on it was perfect.
If you love friendly Southern charm, you will love dining at Dixie Grill.
The owner Charles walked around to greet each person with a fist pump, a chit chat catch-up, or a conversation to discover more about you (if you’re clearly not from round here).
You’ll find good home-cooked southern meals and generous portions to get you through the day.
“Slow. Manatees around here.”
The sign on the dock outside my hotel room instantly told me I was in a cool place.
I hustled everyone out of the room to wander the beautifully manicured lawns of the Fiddler’s Resort on the banks of the Steinhatchee River.
We soon learned that swimming alongside the manatees are alligators and bull sharks and we’d not be joining them!
But we certainly wanted to join the Key West boats cruising up and down the Steinhatchee River with music blaring and laughter ringing out.
This place gets me.
If you’re looking for places to visit in north Florida with the perfect blend between adventure and relaxation in a stunning natural setting, you get that in Steinhatchee.
Scalloping in the Gulf of Mexico
In Steinhatchee, we had what the girls dubbed, “the most fun ever!’ We went scalloping out in the Gulf of Mexico with Captain Mike, a private charter captain.
This is one of the best places in Florida to visit for scalloping, an area known as the scallop capital of the US. Every year from June to August, people can free dive for scallops in the grassy shallows.
We spent four hours snorkeling among the turtle grass, spying the scallops camouflaged and grabbing them with our hands. Pretty soon you get the hang of it and can spy their mouths opening and closing.
There are limits on how many each person can catch, and we didn’t even come close to that, making sure we only grabbed as much as we could eat.
I loved the closer connection it gave me to nature. You have a much deeper appreciation for where food comes from when you go to the effort of catching it yourself.
It also gave me a deeper sense of gratitude and honor for the scallop that gave me something to eat. This is a practice indigenous cultures have around the world – taking time to bless and honor each animal that gave its life so we may eat.
Captain Mike was a fantastic guide with an easy going, friendly nature.
He took us to a sand bar on the way home – again waist deep, where we could swim and hunt though the sand for sand dollars.
Thankfully, he was able to find a couple and we got a closer look at these beautifully designed animals.
Captain Mike organized for our sea scallop bootie to be shucked back at the marina, and then Fiddler’s Restaurant at our resort cooked them up or us and we enjoyed them with a cold drink and live music on the newly built deck overlooking the river.
Recreational scalloping starts on June 15 and ends on Labor Day.
This is definitely one of the best things to do in Florida with kids!
Stay: Fiddler’s Resort
We enjoyed the simplicity of our stay at Fiddler’s Resort. The resort is laid-back and blends in beautiful with the stunning natural setting of its Steinhatchee River location.
Rooms have a screened in porch and grassed sections outside filled with giant jenga, corn hole, swinging chairs and fire pits.
Staff are friendly and accommodating and have lots of insights on the surrounding area.
Another must not miss in Steinhatchee is the nightly live music outside on their new, spacious deck overlooking the water.
Both artists we saw were incredible and the perfect way to end a glorious day in North Florida enjoying the sunshine and natural beauty
Eat: McDavid’s Cafe
Grab your traditional Southern breakfast at local’s favorite McDavid’s Cafe. Be sure to grab a box of warm cinnamon donuts on your way out.
The girls were delighted to have these to snack on during our scalloping trip. (And okay, the next day too as we drove to Wakulla Springs!)
Explore Wakulla Springs State Park
Wakulla Springs is one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world. Its sapphire waters are abundant with wildlife including manatees, alligators, turtles, deer, and birds.
The cypress mangroves rising out of the swamp gives it an eerie and ethereal feel and it will feel familiar to you.
Hollywood loved its primeval setting and filmed scenes from Tarzan and the Creature of the Black Lagoon here.
We were so disappointed we could not take the glass bottom boat to tour the springs, recommended as one of the top things to do in north Florida. We could only glimpse at its beauty in the distance through the boats lined up on the jetty. It was closed due to COVID.
There is a small swimming section out the front of the historic Wakulla Lodge, which was built in 1937.
The water is a refreshing 70 degrees and there is a diving platform for extra fun. As it was COVID, we chose to swim in our own quiet area. The jungled canopied views surrounding it were stunning.
Staying at Wakulla Lodge for a couple of nights was a tranquil experience and the food in their dining hall was excellent.
Gulf Beach: Alligator Point
If you want a warmer ocean swim, a thirty-minute drive from Wakulla Springs will take you to Alligator Point with this white sandy beach on the Gulf Shore.
The water is the typical brown color this region is known for, but still wonderful for swimming and snorkeling among the grassy beds.
Tiki bar lovers will enjoy grabbing an afternoon drink from the Oasis Tiki Hut just down the road at the small marina.
We highly recommend stopping in at The Sieneyard Rock Landing on the way home for delicious seafood on the water.
Time it for sunset and be sure to reserve a table!
Historic and Charming Monticello
Monticello was the perfect end to our natural North Florida road trip and an opportunity for us to get to know the historical and cultural heartbeats that make up this beautiful region.
This charming, historical town is located 24 miles east of the state capitol, Tallahassee and has a population of just 2,000.
It’s the seat of Jefferson County, which is known as the Keystone County for its unspoiled beauty and mild climate offering the ‘keys to quality living.’
We discovered a place full of adventure, unique and pristine beauty, historical and educational experiences, and a community focused on supporting local businesses and a vibrant lifestyle.
You can read more about the wonderful things we did in Monticello.
Here are two of them we loved the most and are definite do not miss on our Natural North Florida road trip. They are some of the best adventures we’ve had in the USA.
Airboat Ride on the Wicassa River
The Wacissa River is a first magnitude clear, spring-fed stream that is fed by about 20 springs at its headwaters at Wakulla Springs.
Just seeing the beauty of this region is enough to satisfy you, but we highly recommend exploring the springs and the river by kayak or, as we did, airboat – it’s one of the coolest things to do in north Florida!
One of the unique things to do in Florida is an airboat ride.
We joined Captain Brad Cooley from 5 Rivers Adventure who took us on an 11-mile airboat adventure zig zagging over the eelgrass and bright green lilies covering river, navigating through narrow channels canopied by Spanish moss cypress and oak trees, chasing egrets and bald eagles, and fast diving alligators.
It was an exhilarating adventure made all that much better by Savannah’s tight grip on my arm and squeals of equal terror and delight. The Wacissa River captured my heart.
It’s truly one of the most pristine and beautiful places in Florida (and the USA) I have visited.
You can read more of this adventure, and the next one, in our in-depth post on Exploring the Wacissa River.
Kayaking the Slave Canal
We traded our airboats for kayaks and set off on a thrilling and challenging adventure through the Slave Canal, which connects the Wacissa to the Aucilla River.
The Slave Canal was originally built by the slaves for plantation owners to transport cotton down to the Gulf. Blocks of limestone remain and are a reminder along the way of the arduous work forced by slaves.
It’s best to take this trip with an experienced guide.
The Slave Canal is marked but you could easily get lost and despite the quickly moving water assisting your paddling, it’s quite a technical paddle as you navigate narrow spaces, fallen logs and the overhanging branches of ancient oaks, cypress and palmettos draped with Spanish Moss.
Keep an eye out of the alligators poking their eyes above the water watching you!
Step back into the days Hemingway roamed through Key West. Cedar Key on the Gulf Shore is one of the most unique north Florida beaches experiences that retains old world charm.
There’s no bling or over-development here. It doesn’t need it. It’s abundant with quiet, natural beauty and adventure.
We loved its small town, fishing village vibe and sloth-like pace. It’s about slow morning sunrise starts, gentle day time paddles, delicious seafood, and sunset views.
We have an in-depth post on things to do in Cedar Key.
Here are the do-not miss things to do in North Florida or your road trip stop in Cedar Key.
Kayaking the Cedar Refuge Islands
The Cedar Key National Refuge is an area composed of 13 offshore islands jutting into the Gulf Coast.
Cedar Key is nestled among many of these small islands 4 miles out into the Gulf of Mexico and about half a mile out from Cedar Key is Atsena Otie, which was the original village until a hurricane blew it down.
You can kayak over to explore the island. It’s an easy paddle over, and if lucky, you may have dolphins as your companions.
There is a small beach for swimming and remnants of the old pencil factory and cemetery. Those wishing for a longer adventure can paddle the extra 1.5 miles around the island and through the inner marshes.
Ambitious paddlers can go on to other nearby islands of the Cedar Key National Refuge. They are said to have nice beaches.
You can also explore these islands by boat. Put kayaking here on your list of fun things to do in north Florida!
Seafood at Steamers, Cedar Key
One of the best things to do in Florida is eat fresh local seafood.
Since 95% of farm-raised clams are harvested in the clean waters of Cedar Key, we recommend grabbing yourself a bowl of steamed clams in a white wine sauce at Steamers, a seafood restaurant.
Suspended on stilts over the water, you get prime Gulf views over Atsena Otie and other islands of the Cedar Key National Refuge.
There are large windows that allow for views if you wish to sit inside. However, to make your meal here a memorable experience, we recommend grabbing one of the nooks on the deck.
The outside deck is narrow so there are about four private nook areas where you can sit with front row seats of the view, the balmy breeze on your skin, and dolphins frolicking in front of you.
Cedar Key Sunset
You may get colors in the sky at Steamers for sunset. Otherwise you can run around the corner to the pink Beach motel for the best sunset views in the main area,
The local’s tip for the ultimate sunset was the Tiki Bar a little out of town. It’s an adults only bar, which is why its on our list for a future visit to Cedar Key (with babysitters!)
And Savannah has put her foot down and demanded we come back to Cedar Key for a much longer Florida Island beach vacation.
Stay: Harbor Master Suites with amazing sunrise views
Harbor Master Suites has front row stilted position on D Street with easy walking distance to everywhere.
We stayed in the two-bedroom, Pearl Suite with a living area and kitchen. We could not believe we had the entire top deck to ourselves.
We had a spot for morning coffee and sunrise views over the Gulf, a spot for afternoon drinks, and then another hidden screened in porch that overlooked the street for later at night when the ocean views were gone and the people watching just started.
Giving back to Natural North Florida
As part of the campaign partnerships we do with local tourism boards, we donate back to local non-profits or local businesses that support the environment or local communities we travel through.
As so many of our amazing memories from our Natural North Florida road trip came from our interactions with the exquisite beauty we found here, we donated to three causes that touched our hearts.
The Tall Timbers Research works to protect to conserve land in the Monticello/ Tallahassee Region. No Wal-Marts and subdivisions allowed! Only pure natural beauty.
The Fish and Wildlife Foundation of Florida works to protect the region’s outstanding animals and plants and the lands and waters they need to survive.
The North Florida Wildlife Center in Monticello partners with animal conservation projects around the world.
Our girls fell in love with the endangered lemurs thanks to our visit here and want to help protect them. You can learn more about that experience in our Monticello post.
Watch our Natural North Florida Highlights Video
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Florida with some natural beauty, charm, and fresh local cuisine thrown in, consider Natural North Florida!