Experience the natural Florida beauty firsthand, from admiring the limestone cliffs and banks to enjoying a refreshing spring dip, and you will fall in love with the Santa Fe River.
The Santa Fe flows for seventy-two miles from Lake Santa Fe near Keystone Heights, west to Branford, Florida, where it enters the Suwannee River on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. The river is divided into two distinct portions: The Upper Santa Fe runs through pine forests and cypress swamps where an underlying layer of clay prevents the absorption of rain water. Water must flow along the surface, through decaying leaves and slow moving streams, picking up the dark colored tannins and its characteristic coffee color. As it continues westward, the river enters dry plains where there is no clay layer below the surface. Rain water is quickly absorbed through the sandy soil to the porous limestone below, flowing to the river underground.
The Lower Santa Fe features springs, sinkholes, swallets and rises created as the naturally acidic rainwater dissolves the porous limestone, a topography known as karst. The Santa Fe, typical of rivers flowing through karst regions, completely disappears in a huge swallet at O’Leno State Park and re-emerges three miles downstream in River Rise Preserve State Park. This underground stretch served as a land bridge for the Spanish mission trail and was the location of the 17th century Franciscan mission, Santa Fé de Toloca, for which the river is named. Swallets and rises can be found all along the Lower Santa Fe, though the river never completely disappears again.
More than seventy-five springs feed the Lower Santa Fe, their crystal clear waters, filtered through the layers of the limestone Florida aquifer, arise with bubbling pressure through cracks and pools. When rainwater is low in the upper swampland, the tannins are low and the Lower Santa Fe will run clear from the hundreds of millions of gallons of spring water flowing into it daily. Springs dot the river like jewels of aquamarine and azure blue. Some, like Run Island and Poe are in the riverbed or directly beside it, while others are set back in the floodplain and reach the river via a lush, canopied spring run.
You can drive to the Ginnie Springs complex, Poe, Rum Island and Gilchrist Blue, for a great introduction to the springs of the Santa Fe. Ginnie has several springs all within walking distance of each other and is a popular place for UF students in Gainsville to hit during the warmer months. If you love scuba diving, especially in aquifer caves, then the Ginnie complex, including Devil’s Ear and Devil’s Eye, is your best option. For swimming and snorkeling, all the springs, deep or shallow, are available for your enjoyment and pleasure. But one of the best ways to see the springs is to get on the river and leisurely explore. Floating downstream in a kayak, canoe, or SUP, through the deep green Tupelop trees, the bald cypress with their knee villages, and the red maples, you leave the world behind.
Gilchrist Blue Spring has the longest and most beautiful spring run. The clear seventy-two degree water flows swiftly through eelgrass and ribbon grass as it pulses from deep blue cracks in the aquifer toward the river. Bluegills and shellcrackers can be seen darting from the grasses across the white sandy bottom of the shallow run as it picks up momentum from Little Blue Spring and Naked Spring entering from the side.
Words by Betsy Schifanella
Photos by Tom Schifanella