“I’ve never been anywhere you can go to the springs one day, nature trails the next day and everything in between.” —Bianca Favata

You have entered Florida’s natural playground. Gainesville and its environs serve as the unofficial capital of the real, wild Florida — home to an unprecedented number of bubbling natural springs, abundant nature parks, pristine preserves and flat-out wilderness.

You won’t find theme parks here, but instead, there are superb eco-tourism spots with world-class fishing, snorkeling, canoeing, diving, tubing and kayaking. Landlubbers enjoy birding, hiking, biking and pretty much everything else under the Florida sun.

Geologists estimate there are more than 900 springs in Florida, “possibly the largest concentration of freshwater springs on Earth,” according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. State maps show the biggest swath of these artesian wonders goes through the heart of North Central Florida. 

An easy drive north is High Springs and the best place in the state to go tubing, the Ichetucknee River, where you can float in gin-clear water through the unspoiled forest in a 2,200-acre state park. Nearby is the O’Leno State Park, the state’s oldest park, where the spring-fed Santa Fe River submerges underground and reappears three miles downstream in the River Rise Preserve State Park. Other beguiling springs are named Blue, Fanning, Ginnie, Poe and even Silver Springs in Ocala, where park visitors ride world-famous glass-bottom boats on one of the great, uninhabited spring runs.

Not to be outdone is the 16,000-acre Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, one of the most significant natural and cultural areas of Florida where wetlands soak the Alachua Sink, a direct link to the massive underground lake known as the Floridian Aquifer, the source of the springs. Here, you can get close to bison (yes, you read that correctly), alligators, sandhill cranes, more than 270 bird species and even wild horses, descendants of the herds of early Spanish explorers.

“There’s so many things you can do outdoors,” Bianca Favata said after hiking the preserve with her boyfriend, Chris Crowe. “I’ve never been anywhere you can go to the springs one day, nature trails the next day and everything in between.”

Gainesville folks take pride in the city’s many nature parks filled with wildflowers and streams as well as places to stroll on a trail or boardwalk deep into the woods or step back 130 years ago at a living history farm at the 278-acre Morningside Nature Center.

Work up a sweat on the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail, a 16-mile paved path on former railroad tracks that draws thousands of bikers, runners and hikers.

On the University of Florida campus, check out the exhibits at the state’s official natural history museum featuring world-class collections showing 65 million years of Earth’s history, including the 9-foot-tall jaw of the extinct Megalodon, the largest shark that ever lived.

Next door is the not-to-be-missed Butterfly Rainforest, a living exhibit that features butterflies and birds from around the world. Nearby is the UF Bat Colony with an estimated 300,000 free-tailed bats that emerge every evening to forage for insects along the shores of Lake Alice, where you can also view alligators in the heart of the city.

On Gainesville’s north side is Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, a 120-foot-deep bowl-shaped sinkhole with a lush miniature rainforest at the bottom.

On the southwest side is Kanapaha Botanical Gardens, one of the state’s largest public displays of bamboos and herb gardens, where regular “moonlight walks” attract visitors to walkways illuminated by laser lights and more than 1,500 luminaries accompanied by live music. 

We could go on — we haven’t even mentioned beautiful beaches that beckon from just a short road trip away — but space allows only a sampling. Now, it’s your turn. Let the exploration begin.

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