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If rivers could speak, the Suwannee River would have a lot to say.
It might detail the Timucua people who used to inhabit its banks or tell of Spanish explorers who later arrived in the region. The river might share stories of the 19th-century businessmen who settled White Springs or the tourists who came from all around to seek out the sulfur springs.
The Suwannee River, which begins in the Okefenokee Swamp in Fargo, Georgia, winds for more than 270 miles before reaching the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, its banks contain limestone cliffs and cypress trees, plus abundant wildlife near its blackwater flow.
As the current twists through the Florida Panhandle, the river also finds itself woven into Florida’s history for centuries. People around the world recognize its name, but it wasn’t always that way.
Way Down Upon the Suwannee River
Stephen Foster, a Pittsburgh-based songwriter who lived from July 1826 until January 1864, reportedly never laid eyes on the dark, tannic waters of the Suwannee River. But he immortalized the waterway when he wrote the song “Old Folks at Home” in 1851.
The composer reportedly needed a river to be the subject of his song and passed when his brother suggested the Yazoo and the Pee Dee rivers. When Suwannee was suggested, he shortened the name to “Swanee” to fit the melody.
“Way down upon the Suwannee River,
Far, far away,
There’s where my heart is turning ever,
There’s where the old folks stay.”
That’s how the revised version of the song begins after it was amended by the State of Florida in 2008. To this day, it remains the official state song though the original lyrics have been considered racially offensive. Foster first wrote the song in what he imagined to be slave dialect and used the term “darkeys.”
Regardless, the song’s melody is recognized far and wide, and while most people don’t visit North Florida’s river hoping to learn more about Stephen Foster, they do seek it for its notoriety and fame. Although interested visitors can learn more about the songwriter at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, which features a museum and a 97-bell carillon tower.
In the late 1800s, White Springs, about 25 miles downstream of the Georgia border, was incorporated as a town and became a bustling tourist destination.
In fact, it may have been Florida’s original tourist destination due to the White Sulphur Springs that attracted visitors for the water’s supposed medicinal qualities. Hotels and shops popped up to support the influx of visitors.
The popularity of mineral springs faded in the 1930s and so did visitation to the town. However, in 1953, the Florida Folk Festival landed at Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, bringing in cultures from around the state ranging from Native Americans to African Americans to Greek Americans and more.
The annual Memorial Day weekend event was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but event organizers are working hard to make the 2021 festival one to remember.
Base Camp White Springs
While the popularity of White Springs as a tourism destination has dwindled, the town serves as an excellent base camp for outdoor exploration.
Just a short drive from the town’s historic downtown, Big Shoals State Park contains a stretch of the Suwannee River with rapids that earn a Class III rating (moderately difficult) when the river is between 59 and 61 feet above sea level. These turbulent waters represent the largest whitewater rapids in Florida.
For those who prefer to see this marvel by land or during times when the Suwannee isn’t safely passable, a one-mile trail with yellow blazes takes hikers right to the rapids with views from limestone bluffs that tower 80 feet above the river. It’s also possible to portage around the rapids while paddling.
Within the state park, more than 28 miles of wooded trails provide opportunities for hiking, biking, horseback riding and wildlife viewing.
The Woodpecker Trail comes in the form of a 3.4-mile multipurpose paved path that connects the Big Shoals and Little Shoals entrances to the park.
It’s also possible and common for explorers to set out for multiday camping trips in kayaks or canoes on the Suwannee River. American Canoe Adventures in White Springs has helped support paddling daytrips and overnight excursions since 1995. The shop also provides maps and free advice to those stopping in.
For cyclists, White Springs serves as a good starting point with miles of countryside pavement for road cycling and off-road trails for mountain biking adrenaline rushes. Recreation on two wheels is supported by the Suwannee Bicycle Association, an organization dedicated to hosting events, maintaining trails and providing resources to cyclists.
Those who prefer to explore on two feet can find portions of the Florida Trail that run right near White Springs and along the banks of the Suwannee River.
Just north of Live Oak, Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park and Campground is nestled along the scenic sandy banks of the tannic river.
For decades, the park has hosted live music and festivities, most notably Suwannee Hulaween, Suwannee River Jam, the Suwannee Roots Revival, Wanee Music Festival and Suwannee Spring Reunion.
The park has managed to host the occasional live act since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but while the stages and grassy fields are largely quiet, the park still provides 800 acres of camping and recreational facilities. Hundreds of RV and tent sites, as well as cabins, await visitors who seek a night under the stars.
Because the park is so large, many guests opt to bring or rent a golf cart on site for a convenient way of transportation. On the grounds, wander under old oak and cypress trees or visit a bat house where small winged mammals live and fly out nightly.
Spirit of the Suwannee also provides campers with a general store, a cafe open select dates, a boat ramp and beach for recreation. On the weekends, the park’s multistory treehouse in a 100-year-old oak tree — the same one featured on DIY Network’s “Treehouse Guys” — is open for tours.
Even if the music park is quiet while live events are on hold, the grounds provide a peaceful place for relaxing by the campfire, sharing stories with good friends and stargazing. It’s just one more gem situated along the magnificent and storied Suwannee, a river with a name recognized worldwide.
Do you have suggestions for my next destination or just want to get in touch? Find me on Twitter @PConnPie, Instagram @PConnPie or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org.