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River Roamin' over Memorial Weekend in Florida's NW Region

The springs in Florida’s northwestern region, along the big bend before entering the panhandle, is a glimpse of what Florida was with just the right number of modern conveniences. Over Memorial weekend 2023, the happy campers we are, capitalized on the long weekend and ventured far from home. Excited for the two full days on the waterways, we opted to take the highways to make better time. It might have worked too had the travel cover for our pontoon not have shredded while on the turnpike! Then, adding to our delays was searching for snacks during a few detours due to accidents others encountered on their own journeys.

Regardless, we arrived with an hour to spare before nightfall to the River Run Campground. Though the office was closed, the sign told us to simply find a spot and check in the following morning. So, we did. Though this place was not a campground for as much as it was a camping trailer permanent park, many clearly parked for several years if not longer. Still, a spot or two were accessible including a storage space just to the east of the empty flatbed trailers and abandoned cars that backed up to the preserve. That was the spot we chose, and it really made the entire experience far more enjoyable despite the fact it had no running water because we had no neighbors and just grassy wetland was behind us. That evening we used our portable firepit (most non-state park campgrounds will require bringing one) and grilled out our favorite Koegel’s hot dogs, paired with mom’s tuna pasta salad; yum! With a fire as our backdrop and fishing bobber lights aglow, it was a researched filled first night planning out our boat ramp entry points for the next day. A few short hours later we were fast asleep, tucked into our chilled camper with big hopes for the weekend.

*Important to note, there was a second half of the park with small cabins designed for those kayaking down the Ichetucknee River. These units were rented as Air BNB’s which seemed cute enough and well occupied for visiting guests.

Breaking news, there are many private boat ramps in that area of Florida. Most belonging to members of sprawling properties with an HOA overlay, these water access points require a key for entry and exit; none of which we had. So, after a morning of sightseeing non-accessible ramps mixed with adorable homesteads full of charm; we finally got to talk to a homeowner for some quick directions to the best public boat ramp. Two lefts, and a few rights later, we arrived and found it too sketchy to attempt with our camper backpack attached. Luckily, another friendly fellow saw our setup and suggested heading up the street and around the bend for a $5 pay to launch ramp attached to Sandy’s Point Motel & Campground. Thank heavens for this find!

Within a few short minutes, this well-run operation, equipped with golf cart shuttles for all the boat owners, had us in the water. Mooring up to the shore, Seger and mom got loaded and dad arrived without ever breaking a sweat…then, River #60 the Santa Fe! With its nearly clear water lapping up on the shore of either side with the high amount of boat traffic, it was obvious many springs fed into this river. Shallow white sand banks lined the river’s edge, along with large boulders and fallen tree trunks; a favorite sunning spot for the young turtles and gators that lived there. Houses also were prevalent to the northern side of the river, each with large lots leading up to their home, many with docks designed to withstand the wake from the other boaters. We have always said we enjoy the patriotism found on the river and the Santa Fe held true for that busy Memorial weekend with nearly every home proudly waving an American flag in honor of the fallen and deployed.

While taking it all in, a FWC boat was cruising behind us as we tried to get our depth finder to work after our boat’s most recent tune up; it never did work for that trip and just a short while later we ruined the brand-new prop on some large boulders as we tried to approach a nice section of sand for our dog, Seger, to run on. Thankfully we were able to get off the rock wall but our prop did not fare so well. We were bummed but it sure gave the officers a good laugh, sensing we were not locals. Regardless, as we had no intention of going fast, we were able to get around the full two days on the rivers in a slow meandering manner.

To the east then southeast, the Santa Fe River is quite long and even disappearing underground! That is a main attraction at O’Leno State Park our family saw years back. It then reappears and carries on for many more miles until it dwindles into a creek. Yet along the way is the famous Gilchrist Blue Springs which we did not make it to though we have heard great reviews. For lunch that first full day on the water, we enjoyed Italian sliders and chips with fresh watermelon. Eventually, we even found a nice beach area perfect for Seger to run and play fetch. It was as perfect, sun filled day though it was busy, the boat ramp as departure time flowed nicely with all hands on deck.

Back at the site, we settled in with slushies and walked around the park. Dad and I started a game of Phase 10 and prepped for some burgers with macaroni and cheese, camp food tastes so good! It was a long night by the fire and after hours of stories and talk time we all went to bed in hopes of an equally fun day out on the water ahead.

Day two was incredible and we arrived much earlier to Sandy’s Point this time. Once in the water with our nonworking depth finder and dented prop, we went straight for the Ichetucknee, just a 20-minute cruise on the Santa Fe. We were one of the first boats in the spring fed river accomplishing river #61 ya’ll! The water here was crystal clear with tinges of blue and green from the rocks below. There was only about 30 feet or so boats could occupy, north was dedicated to the tubers from the state park headwaters. Still, it was refreshing and fun to use our floats for a bit. Though it did not take long for more boaters to arrive so dad figured it best to head out while we could as the current was strong. Once out of our 61st river, we stopped at a tiki pole staked shore for some Seger playtime and lunch (turkey/bacon/swiss sliders). Then, we took the Santa Fe west for the day to see what sights awaited us. Another cool looking rv park/campground Ellie’s was found and multiple cypress tree forests in the water; so stunning! Though, shortly after the awe-inspiring cypress trees, we noticed the watercolor changing to that murky-ness that most of Florida’s freshwater offers. That is where the intersection of the Santa Fe and Suwannee meet. Our 3rd river of the trip, it is a river we enjoy as its full of sandy sections for sunning and such. We took the Suwannee for a bit then headed back to wrap up our day on the water.

At camp, mom embraced the no running water and filled the bin with the new dirty dishes so they could be washed in the bathhouse onsite. This evening’s dinner was dad’s famous candied country style ribs with grilled broccoli and macaroni, the ribs take a long time but are so worth it. Mom and Charlie called it an early night after the wood was all burned knowing an early morning for camp breakdown awaited us; glad we did because it was a terrific sleep with a bit of a chill in the air.

Next morning, dad was a little slow to wake so Charlie, mom and Seger got to work wrapping chairs, cleaning dishes, folding blankets, and securing items on the coverless pontoon. With plans of taking the backroads home to avoid the Memorial Day chaos on the turnpike we witnessed headed to our destination, mom found a path leading us right to our favorite pizza chain Jets. 2.5 hours later, we had hot fresh pizza to enjoy while also seeing dozens of watermelon farms and charming towns. Once on SR60 it was another 2.5 hours home and what a welcome site it was. Another great trip worth doing again for all you fellow glamping, river roamers; safe travels!


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