Spring is annually heralded – much to a collective chagrin – by the changing of our clocks as we lose an hour of sleep for six months. But in spite of that minor adjustment, it’s a great time to be in Florida because this is when our weather is at its most optimal and comfortable. Sunny days are not yet fully eclipsed by an overwhelming level of humidity, and it’s just warm and mild enough for us to really enjoy being outside. It’s a great season to enjoy a jaunt through the woods on a hike, enjoy some of the local springs for a refreshing swim, ride a horse along an open trail, or take the family out on an adventure.
Spring can also be synonymous with “Spring Break” for many other areas of the country– an annual call for young adults everywhere to explore our coastal communities and inundate areas like Daytona Beach or Ft. Lauderdale with bikinis, beerfests, and a general beach party atmosphere. However, if that’s not appealing to you, there are plenty of wonderful things to do in Ocala and Gainesville that are not only much more convenient, but just as entertaining as a romp on a crowded beach full of college kids and harried bartenders. Maybe even more so!
Here’s the Five By Five:
Rainbow Springs State Park
Nowhere is the natural beauty of Ocala more on display than in the mesh of springs and tributaries flowing towards the Gulf. Sometimes the water is so pristine and clear that it seems like it can’t be real, and you can see the abundant wildlife beneath the surface with the clarity of looking through glass. A popular getaway spot is Rainbow Springs State Park, where visitors can rent canoes and kayaks to go for a paddle on the water, or go for a refreshing swim or snorkel in the warm headwaters. For hikers, there are a variety of trails to explore, from easy to expert level of challenge, and it’s also a favorite location for geocachers. Take a picnic basket and spend a day with some exercise, vibrant wildlife, and warm sunshine – and if you feel like staying, bring a tent and stay the night in the campground.
The World Equestrian Center Spring Festival
The World Equestrian Center has become a leading destination in Ocala’s landscape, with its modern, state-of-the-art equestrian center and facilities. It’s an in-demand locale for trainers, breeders, and riders the world over – but also a favorite place for the community to participate in events like the Spring Festival in May. Formerly known as the WEC Blueberry Festival, it’s a celebration of the warm season, with a 5K Daisy Dash and a farmers market with handmade crafts and goods, local produce, artwork, and plants. There’s also live music, and kids activities including games and bounce house. You can shop in the boutiques on site, and relax with a delicious lunch and a beverage from one of the many restaurants. General admission and parking are free, and leashed pets are welcome. Advance registration for the Daisy Dash is $30 before May 12 and $40 after that date; pancake breakfast afterwards is $20 per person. If you’re looking for a jump-start to Spring, this is a good place to do it.
The Canyons Zipline and Canopy Tours
If you’re looking for a little jolt in your Spring jump-start that packs more adrenaline, then how does flying through the air at dizzying speeds above the tropical canopy sound? This 1,150ft long zipline is an exciting and breathtaking ride through some of Florida’s most stunning and untouched natural history as it swoops and swishes across canyons, lakes, rivers, and cliffs, giving you a literal birds-eye view for miles around and challenging your perspective on multiple levels. Guided by experienced and conscientious experts who make sure everyone is safe and well-equipped for the exhilarating journey, you’ll have a memorable and exciting experience to tell your mother about when you get back.
If you’re more inclined to remaining feet firmly on the solid ground, you can pan for gems at the historic Zuber Mine tour, kayak on Lost Spring Lake, or take the sunset ride on horseback through Big Cliff Canyon takes you to a relaxing fireside by the lake where you can enjoy a glass of wine and S’mores by twilight.
For avid cyclists hankering to get out there and whoosh along an almost-endless track, look no further than Santos Trailhead. It has possibly the best mountain biking in Florida and boasts an international reputation amongst competitive cyclists. Through a partnership with Ocala Mountain Bike Association and the Florida State Parks, the 80-plus miles of bike trails run the gamut from beginner to expert-level. The Vortex Freeride challenges even the most elite cyclists, tucked into a former limerock quarry and offering some of the most extreme, rugged terrain you’ll find in the normally characteristic flat wetlands of Florida. There are plenty of restrooms, water, bike washing stations, and picnic areas available for when you want to take a break and freshen up. Several bike shops and stores are located near the trailheads, so you can get a quick repair if needed, a snack, and supplies. Best of all, the Santos Trailhead is open every day from 8am to sundown, and there are no fees for admission.
Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway
Right next to Santos Trail, with more than 70,000 acres of land, is the huge,110-mile linear park formerly known as the Cross Florida Barge Canal. There are more than 300 miles of trails on land and the water for every outdoor enthusiast of nearly any persuasion: Paddlers, hikers, mountain bikers, horse riders, and leisure walkers out for a stroll in the sun. A conservation area protecting part of the Ocklawaha River, it’s a lively and active wildlife area and the first in Florida to have a land bridge that spans a major interstate, allowing our furred (and scaly) brethren to cross the road safely and spread their habitat, and the entire Greenway is an artery for animals to move unhindered across the wide area. You’re bound to see something interesting, and you can make a day of it with a picnic lunch or stay overnight in one of the many camping areas that are available.
Kanapaha Botanical Gardens
What’s more appropriate than celebrating spring by getting back to nature? The Kanapaha Botanical gardens is an oasis of serene beauty and dedicated conservation, with Florida’s largest display of bamboo and the biggest herb garden in the Southeast, and for the $10 admission fee, you can take a Saturday guided walking tour of the gardens or hang out and relax on the gazebos and benches. Leashed dogs are permitted to join you, and you can bring a picnic lunch or enjoy a meal from one of the on-site cafes. On Mother’s Day in May, you can even take mom with you – she gets free admission.
Historic Haile Homestead
Part of the larger Haile Plantation, the Homestead was founded in 1854 by Confederate cavalry officer Thomas Haile and still stands on its original spot, where the family lived until 1900. The property was abandoned and fell into some disrepair, until the Haile family partnered with the Alachua Conservation Trust. The home was restored to its former glory in the 1980s and is now open to the public as a museum and National Historic Site. Once you pass under the huge columned front porch and go inside, you discover the family’s unique — if odd — penchant for writing notes on the walls in every room. Visitors to the home were encouraged to do the same, and before long this sort of living diary expanded throughout the house. Dating back to the 1850s, there are more than 12,500 notes, graffiti, and drawings left behind from a bygone era. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a family’s lives and thoughts, and to feel a century and a half of history all around you.
Florida Museum of Natural History
If there’s anything emblematic of Spring, it’s butterflies, right? Well, if you head over to the Florida Museum, you can visit the stunning living exhibit of the Butterfly Rainforest. Hundreds of these wee creatures from all over the world flit through the air displaying their vibrant, varying colors and patterns. You can also see a thriving population of birds, turtles, fish and other wildlife in a dense and tropical setting, full of riotous flowering plants, fauna, and cool waterfalls along an easy walking path. Check out the museum’s Spiders Alive! and other exhibits, and visit the gift shop, where you can grab some eco-friendly and science-y merch for the nerds in your life, or a few plants for the horticulture-of-heart that will attract a butterfly exhibit of your own right in the backyard.
Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park
Curious folk have been tramping through the pine forests since the 1880s to gaze in amazement – and probably a little apprehension – at the 120 foot sinkhole in North Florida.
The bowl-shaped cavity is pretty awe-inspiring, but it’s what’s beneath the surface that’s the real showstopper: A lush, thriving miniature rainforest with bubbling streams, marine and animal fossils, and rich, abundant vegetation that carpets the rock walls and provides cool shade in the summer. Designated a National Natural Landmark in 1976, the Sinkhole is a popular downward climb and a major geological research site where you can explore the cavern, surrounded in what feels like a completely pristine, prehistoric environment. The park is chockerblock full of abundant wildlife, hiking trails, and tours. Picnic areas are also available, and leashed pets are permitted.
On the last Friday of every month, from 7-10pm, the Arts Association of Alachua County turns downtown Gainesville into a cornucopia of color, art, live performances, and activities with the ArtWalk. Businesses, artists, and entertainers are on hand to share their work and wares for the evening, engaging the public in an interactive experience and helping support the local economy. It’s an event that the entire town looks forward to, and the mild climate of the Florida Spring makes it a really lovely way to spend the evening. The ArtWalk is funded primarily through donations and sponsorships to support creatives in the community and build connections with entrepreneurs and businesses, so that everyone can thrive. Take in the exhibits, enjoy dinner and a drink at one of Gainesville’s wonderful eateries, and enjoy some live music with dessert.