The Santa Fe river reflected the blue sky and green canopy above like a mirror, its current only creating the faintest of ripples as water moved leisurely downstream. O’Leno State Park was relatively quiet in the afternoon heat, a faint buzz of insects providing the only background noise under the quiet crunch of my hiking boots against the earth of the River Trail.
The River Trail takes visitors to one of the strangest sights I’ve seen in a Florida State Park: the disappearance of an entire river.
The Santa Fe gathers in a circular pool, a thin layer of green duckweed covering the surface and only broken by the backs of dozens of turtles and an alligator or two. From there the water disappears into a sinkhole, flowing underground until re-emerging three miles later in River Rise Preserve State Park! The Santa Fe eventually flows into the Suwannee River, but I think the sinkhole is by far the coolest piece of the waterway.
As I continued, the path bordered many other sinkholes, some filled with water, others dry. Saw Palmettos formed most the understory, their fronds glowing in the sun and swaying slightly when caught in a light breeze. In wet areas, Water Oaks and Cypress Trees intermingled, the knees of the latter stretching above the ground in dark brown clusters.
In addition to natural beauty, the park has a long human history. The trail eventually looped back, crossing the river on the “Swinging Bridge.” This suspension bridge variety, constructed of wood, was narrow enough for just one person to pass comfortably at a time. From the high vantage point I had marvelous views of the reflections I had seen to start my walk.
The bridge is a legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps, who worked on the park back in the 1930’s. They also built trails, camping sites, roads, and more. Though the property was originally intended to be a summer forestry camp, I’m thrilled that it remains a park to this day. Next time I’m in the area, I am definitely going to go in search of the spot where the Santa Fe reemerges in River Rise Preserve State Park!
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About Erika: Erika Z. is a writer, birder and photographer living and working along the Emerald Coast of Florida. Her love of the outdoors and sense of adventure leads her to explore Florida’s state parks, state trails and historic sites in her free time.