Kayaking the Splendid Santa Fe River in High Springs, FL

By:  Nancy Ferri

You may wonder if Floridians ever tire of the vast number of lakes, rivers, springs and miles of Atlantic and Gulf coastlines the state has to offer.  Are you kidding?  There’s a lot more water-loving escapades here than those splash park aficionados would have you believe.  Get ready to find adventure in North Florida.

Thirty minutes northwest of Gainesville, yep, the UF Gator fans Gainesville, lies the town of High Springs, population 6,000.  While it doesn’t boast the college-vibe of Gators, its residents are quite content keeping a rural and quiet low-key mood.  

O’Leno State Park

The opportunity arose for a 4-night stay at High Springs’ O’Leno State Park, constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and one of Florida’s first state parks.

Its 6,000 acres offers a campground consisting of 60 electric/water sites as well as two group primitive campsites.  A portion of the park provides an interpretative audio (via cell phone) tour of its historic buildings left from the by-gone town of Keno, a 52 ft. high historic suspension footbridge crossing the Santa Fe River, a CCC museum, nature center and miles of biking and hiking trails.  

The Santa Fe River actually disappears at a point within O’Leno State Park, an intriguing feature of this river.  It travels underground through limestone caverns called the Bellamy Cave system, only to emerge 3 miles downstream at River Rise Preserve.  The Santa Fe begins near Gainesville and runs west 75 miles before emptying into the Suwannee River.

Our trip’s main mission was to explore a small, yet sensational, portion of those 75 miles.

Paddling Guide

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection offers many excellent paddling guides.  Chart 2 on the site below shows the High Springs Boat Ramp at NW 210th Ln and our take-out spot of Rum Island.  Pages 5-6 offer a good explanation of the Santa Fe’s 26-mile paddling trail and all its access points.  https://floridadep.gov/sites/default/files/Santa%20Fe%20Guide_0.pdf

Herding Cats

There would be seven of us on our Santa Fe journey on this chilly, on-again / off-again light rainy morning.  We’d decided to plan our own shuttle from our start to end point.  As most people know, herding cats isn’t easy, thus we’ve often referred to our group in this manner.  What turns out as best intensions to begin early, ends up to generally be off an hour due to one or two “cats” unable to adhere to the herd mentality.  Today would be no different, but such is life.

My husband, Dave, and another friend would be the “shuttlers.”  We loaded the kayaks and set off for the High Springs Boat Ramp, 6 miles south of the state park.  Leaving the kayaks here, with me guarding them, Dave and friend drove to the end point, Rum Island County Park, another 7 miles south to drop off one of the trucks.  

The shuttle locations worked perfectly and our herd magically came together with everyone now at the High Springs Boat Ramp.  We were ready to depart for our 7-mile downstream paddle on the splendid Santa Fe River.

The Adventure Begins

The Santa Fe, like many North Florida rivers, is known to flood — at times.  The state park has a wooden beam near the river marking the years and flood levels since 1964.  The historic high was recorded at 67 ft. in 1948.  Winter months are usually not a time you have to worry about flooding.  

We’d been warned by park staff to stay to the right as we paddled.  For the most part we did, but we found a few large rocks to avoid that laid along the river’s bottom.

The river was quiet today.  The only people we spotted along our route were the 7 of us, which was fine by us.  With overcast skies today, the river took on a darker, tannin nature, however, when looking straight down from the kayak, you could see a clearness, the growth of water lettuce and long leafed grasses growing beneath you or glimpse a turtle swimming by.

We’d ventured less than 2 miles when we were honored to catch sight of two playful otters at the shoreline.  We sat watching the two popping up and down, swimming back and forth and even had one entertain us by sliding up onto a downed tree to stare ever so briefly at us.  I tried my best to get a photo, but otters are camera shy and fast, preferring to play “catch me if you can” the closer we’d paddle to them.

At Mile 3, we paddled under another river access point, the Hwy. 27 Bridge.  While the river may have a stronger current at times due to higher water levels, today proved to be more of a “lazy river” ride, allowing us an easy paddle stride and time to take in the beauty, search for wildlife and be on the lookout for the many springs we’d pass along our way.

During this 7-mile paddle we’d pass 11 springs located in the Santa Fe as shown on the river map at High Springs Boat Ramp.  Florida’s vast amount of fresh water springs is a natural phenomenon all to its own.  Understanding the aquifer system and its importance to this state, is one worth googling to truly appreciate “real Florida” and why preservation of the aquifer is invaluable for its ecosystem.

Some springs were barely noticeable while others would provide a bump or spin to the current.  We’d yell out, woo hoo, as our kayaks moved just a little swifter, or gave us a little twist and turn as we rode over one of these unknown springs bubbling beneath us.  

Poe Springs

The largest spring on our journey we encountered at Mile 6, Poe Springs.  Poe Springs is a county day-use park for those wishing to cool off in the crystal-clear waters.  From Poe Springs flows 45 million gallons of 72-degree water daily into the Santa Fe River.  Our plan was to paddle into Poe and have a look-see at this 25 ft. deep spring.  The park did not appear to have anyone there on this chilly, dreary day so it seemed a great time for a little exploration.

Several of us paddled with all our might against the gurgling spring water rushing out into the river, however, we weren’t able to paddle very far.  As much as we tried, we were unable to get beyond the limestone outcropping beneath us. We were convinced had the water been up by a mere 6”, we’d been able to enjoy a float over this lovely spring.  

Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be, nor could we have had a secure enough footing to portage our kayaks into the spring.  Next time, next time.

River Wildlife

One might expect to see quite a lot along this stretch of river, however, we’re not sure if it was the weather or just one of those days not meant for critters to be out and about.  While we did chance upon the two fun otters, we only caught sight of a few yellow-bellied turtles, jumping fish that would excite any fisherman, and a few aquatic type birds.  We did hear owls so we’ll count them.  

On such a large river, you’d think alligators would be ever present.  For some reason Santa Fe is not known for a large alligator population.  That’s not to say some aren’t there, but nary a one did we see.  

Naked Ed

I’m guessing most reading this article haven’t heard of John Edward Watts, aka Naked Ed.  A legend in his own mind?  No, Ed actually was a friendly character from reading about those who’d met him and is a legend to those who love the springs of the Santa Fe River.  

A nearby Lake City native, Ed came upon Lily Springs while canoeing the river over 20 years ago.  He fell in love with Lily Springs, a privately owned parcel of land, but found it to be full of trash and unkept.  He inquired of the owner if he could clean it up and take care of the place.  

Surprisingly, the owner agreed and gave Ed a 20-year-no-lease-payment. Born with “brittle-bone disease,” Ed was finding it impossible to work and went on disability.  This turned into, not only a place to call home, but a job he loved.  He built a grass hut (eventually one on stilts) and declared that he preferred his spring life and his own company.  

Eventually Ed modernized with electricity and a phone.  He kept in touch with the canoe outpost to see how many paddlers might be headed his way each day.  Ed liked to greet paddlers to Lily Springs and out of respect would wear a loin cloth when expecting to see people, but the name stuck as some had still witnessed Ed as Naked Ed.  

In 2017, Ed, in his mid-60’s then, “retired.”  He’d kept Lily Springs pristine, alcohol-free and insisted on a pack it in, pack it out mentality for anyone he came in contact with.  Naked Ed was a pretty good guy after all.  

The Nestle Battle

For the past 15 years, a volunteer board in North Florida (OurSantaFeRiver.org) has led an effort to fight Seven Springs Water Company from obtaining a low-cost permit to freely take one million gallons of water per day from Santa Fe River springs.  

Seven Springs Water will in turn sell it to Nestle who will bottle Florida spring water, at 6,000 bottles per minute, and sell it to the rest of the world.  That’s a lot of water and a lot of plastic!  Florida continues to be inundated with other water companies routinely being permitted or requesting to do the same.

The fight continues to save Florida springs and its aquifer.  Like-minded supporters can help eliminate plastics and the need to use spring water by reducing their need to buy bottled water.  Learn further steps you can take at www.floridaspringsinstitute.org.

Rum Island and Beyond

Rum Island, an alcohol-free county park in Ft. White, got its name from local bootlegging and moonshine operations there in the early 1900s.  For us it served as our exit point on the Santa Fe at Mile 7 

There were several springs just beyond this take-out point that we’d hoped to explore, but these seven kayakers were damp, cold and still had to complete our return shuttle.

Gilchrist Blue Springs, Ginnie Spring and Rum Island Spring were nearby but would be saved for our next paddle on the Santa Fe.  Dave and I drove to Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park one day and the glacier-blue spring waters were mesmerizing and definitely worthy of a kayak expedition.


After a smooth shuttle transfer back to our campground, we all declared the day a huge success.  You never know what Mother Nature may throw your way but with some chilly temps and raindrops here and there, we were all glad we persevered and would do it all over again.

Tips:  When planning a paddle on the Santa Fe, check river levels as they will change depending on storm and rain conditions, especially during summer months.  There are several canoe outposts along the river should you wish to arrange a shuttle or need to rent.  If two vehicles are available, a little research and good access maps can make it easy to shuttle yourselves.  

Thanks for doing your part to respect and protect Florida’s springs and waters. 

“In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.”  ~ Ansel Adams.

Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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