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HomeLocal & StateFrom Springs to Prairie - Exploring nearby Alachua and Gilchrist counties

From Springs to Prairie – Exploring nearby Alachua and Gilchrist counties

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Alachua County is around a two hour drive from Hernando County and is home to the University of Florida. Nearby Gilchrist County is just to the west of Alachua. The area has a fascinating history. It was the site of several Spanish missions and haciendas where the Timucua people raised corn, peaches, and cattle. This food was used to supply the missions as well as St. Augustine. Interesting places to explore include Paynes Prairie State Park, Hitchcock’s Grocery, downtown Alachua, Poe Springs County Park, and Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park.

Paynes Prairie State Park
Located in southern Alachua, Paynes Prairie is a swampy lowland that is drained by the Alachua Sink. The sink sometimes opens into a large sinkhole, and you can see the water rush into the hole. In the 1800s, the sinkhole was opened, and pranksters liked to send logs and stones over the edge to see them disappear. This caused the sink to stop draining, and Paynes Prairie became a lake with steamships for a few years. Then the logs rotted, and the sink unclogged, draining the lake.

To view the area where the prairie drains, use the La Chua Trail entrance to the park. This trail takes you on a one-to-two-mile walk through a hammock, then onto a boardwalk through the prairie. You can view wildlife like alligators, wading birds, and sometimes bison and Florida cracker horses.

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Bison are native to Florida, although the American Bison population in Florida was wiped out long ago. The Spanish recorded bison in Florida beginning in the 1670s. They were hunted by both Spaniards and Native Americans for robes, a common possession. The bison herd at Paynes Prairie is non-reproducing, and they were brought in from Oklahoma. The herd was made non-reproducing because breeding male bison will go through fences and wind up on the roads.
The best place to view bison is at the southern end of Paynes Prairie, accessible by the Paynes Prairie Visitors Center entrance.

The prairie was owned by the Camp family. This is the family that owned many of the limestone mines near Brooksville. The Camp family still has a presence in Ocala, but their impact on Hernando is evident in names left behind like Camp Castle Road and Camp Mine Road.
It was William Nelson Camp who built the hydroelectric dam at Inglis in early 1909. After he died, the family sold the dam to the newly formed Florida Power Corporation in 1911 for 1.5 million dollars. William Camp had originally bought the around 17,600-acre Paynes Prairie with the thought of generating hydroelectric power after seeing the water draining into the Alachua Sink.

Paynes Prairie La Chua Trailhead
(Northern Entrance)
4270 SE 15th St, Gainesville, FL 32641

Paynes Prairie Visitors Center
100 Savannah Blvd, Micanopy
Access to observation tower
$6 per vehicle
8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year

Hitchcock’s Grocery
This is a small grocery store chain with ten stores. The store is a large grocery store similar to a Winn Dixie, but it is not part of a large chain. They carry many store brands. For breakfast, they have biscuits and gravy as well as bacon and scrambled eggs. It is a great way to start your day, and very affordable. They also have a salad bar and fried chicken for lunch or dinner.

The main street of Alachua is named after Bob Hitchcock, one of the founders of Hitchcock’s Grocery Store. Bob and his father opened Hitchcock’s in 1945, and Bob’s son, Alan, greatly expanded the chain’s footprint. Alan retired in 2008 and sold the company.

15560 NW US Hwy 441, Alachua, FL 32615

Downtown Alachua
This is a very walkable area with restaurants as well as dessert. One of the storefronts was an old movie theater (c. 1910) that burned down and is now a garden called Old Theatre Park or Alan Hitchcock Theatre Park (est. 1999). The shared walls of the theater are still there, along with the arches at the entrance; just the roof and interior have returned to nature. There is a large, beautiful home on a hill that you see as you approach downtown.

Alan Hitchcock Theatre Park
14900 Main St, Alachua, FL 32615

Poe Springs County Park
Located near the town of High Springs, this park has a spring with a swimming area. To get to the spring, there is a boardwalk through a cypress swamp. Some of the cypresses are impressively large. The water from the spring flows into the Santa Fe River. The Santa Fe River is named after the Spanish Mission in the area, Santa Fe de Toloca. This mission was located near a Timucua village along the river.

Between the spring and the Santa Fe River, there is a rope swing. The large splash that results from people using the swing is a little disconcerting until you discover it is a rope swing out of view of the swimming area. This park is open until 8 p.m. in the summer, and a few hours before closing is an excellent time to visit. The water is a constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit, so a few hours might be all that you can stand.

28800 NW 182nd Ave, High Springs, FL 32643
(352) 264-6847
Park summer hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. from April to September
Park winter hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., from October to March.
The Park is open seven days a week.
Poe Springs charges a seasonal fee from May to September.
Entrance fee: $6.00 per vehicle or $1 per person for walk-in/bicycle entry.
Poe Springs is free to enter from October to April.

Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park
There is a long dirt road that leads to the park. Once the park reaches capacity, it closes for the day, so you need to get there early. It opens at 8 a.m., and at 10 a.m. on Sunday, it had not reached capacity. In the swimming area, there is a deep blue spring that is about fifteen feet deep. It is a second magnitude spring that produces an average of 44 million gallons of water per day. The water pours out of an opening at 72 degrees. In the summer heat, that is quite invigorating. You can also kayak and canoe from here into the Santa Fe River. The spring run is about a quarter mile to the Santa Fe River. There are a total of six springs within the park.

7450 N.E. 60th St.
High Springs FL 32643
$6 per vehicle
8 a.m. to sundown, 365 days a year

Rocco Maglio
Rocco Magliohttps://www.roccomaglio.com
Rocco Maglio is a co-founder of the Hernando Sun. He grew up in Brooksville and graduated from Hernando High. He then worked in technology for starting in the early 1990s. He was fascinated by the potential of the Internet even though at the time there were not graphical browsers. He recently earned a Master of Science in Information Technology with a specialization in Cybersecurity.
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