Suwannee, Florida
Best of Both Worlds

Music & “Old Florida” Beauty: A Magical Mix in Suwannee County, Florida

By Holly Lyra

Experiencing Suwannee River Music Park Festivals and the Outdoor Adventures of Florida

“Look who’s playing at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park!” my boyfriend, Chris, said, turning his laptop screen in my direction.

For the past couple of days, we’d both been Googling nonstop, searching for a unique vacation option to take advantage of an upcoming three-day weekend. I had wanted sun and nature, with a chance to break out my swimsuit in a place that was away from throngs of tourists. Chris was pushing for an event that spoke to his inner artist.

“What’s the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park?” I asked, gazing at the list of musicians.

“It’s a resort and campground along the Suwannee River, just north of Live Oak, Florida. I’ve heard about it because my college buddies used to go there for outdoor live music festivals and events. You know…” He started singing the old Stephen Foster song, “Way down upon the Suwannee River…”

“Okay, okay, stop!” I laughed.

“I know,” Chris joked, like he always did about his singing. “You wish I would sing solo. Solo nobody can hear me!”

Chris may not be able to hold a tune, but we both love live music in pretty much any genre. The upcoming three-day festival he found was all about country music and included an exciting lineup of some pretty big names, plus a few up-and-comers that were primed to catch their big break. It sounded like a perfect mix: the social rush of a music festival surrounded by beautiful scenery and miles of water.

"I had wanted sun and nature, with a chance to break out my swimsuit in a place that was away from throngs of tourists."

Finding our vacation rhythm

We arrived on Thursday afternoon at the Suwannee campground and park, which spans 800 acres of “Old Florida,” along the banks of the historic, tea-colored Suwannee River. Visitors can choose to stay in an RV or opt for primitive camping or cabin rentals. Chris and I stayed in an adorable one-bedroom cabin tucked beneath the sheltering sway of Spanish moss-draped live oaks, cypress and pine trees. From my window I saw we were near a trailhead marked as being both hiker and horse accessible—perhaps related to the barn I had spied nearby? Chris commented that he had read guests could bring their own horses to stay at the campsite’s facilities, an idea that I fell in love with instantly.  

We grabbed pizza and a couple of drinks from food vendors, exploring a bit before the first band performed at six o’clock. We weaved around campsites decorated with cool tapestries, people lounging in slung-up hammocks and even people doing yoga on tarps in front of their tents. There was a free-spirited, relaxing vibe that permeated the entire space.

We snaked our way through the crowd and found a spot right in front of the festival kick-off point, the full-sized Amphitheater Stage. We made instant friends with the people around us, a connection that grew as the night went on. The crowd cheered and sang along to favorites, dancing in a giddy whirl of music. We stayed up late, migrating with our expanded group to sit together around a crackling campfire, telling stories and bonding over shared interests and our love of music.

The next two days, music broke out all over the park’s multiple stages. And, on Saturday night, we ended up joining in a late night “pickin’ and grinnin’” party that sprang up beneath star-studded skies. The festival passed by in a blur of music, growing friendships and that “nature high” you get from hanging out in such a scenic setting. Chris and I were blown away by the area’s wild beauty, and we spontaneously decided to extend our trip to explore some of the natural riches of Suwannee County, Florida.

A young couple happily paddles their kayaks down the Suwannee river in Florida.
A young woman in a bikini smiles while she paddles her kayak on the Suwannee river in Suwannee County, Florida
Two kayakers observe the tall trees that grow alongside the Suwannee River.
Trees reach dazzling heights along the banks of the Suwannee River in Suwannee County, Florida.
A young couple hikes along the banks of the Suwannee River in Suwannee County, Florida.
Three canoes are pulled onto the grassy banks of the Suwannee River, ready to be taken out onto the water.

Horses & hiking

Having secured our cabin for a few extra days, we took a guided trail ride through the woods by horseback the next morning. Our group moved at a leisurely pace amid the tranquility of “Old Florida” beauty. We rode up and down gently rolling hills and wound through live oak and hardwood hammocks swathed with feathery blue-gray moss. We trotted alongside the tea-colored Suwannee waters while our guide pointed out spectacular hidden springs.

In the afternoon, Chris and I took to more trails by foot. We inhaled the mingled scents of blooming wildflowers, fallen leaves and growing things, following paths edged with fan-like palmettos and towering trees. Serenaded by the sounds of the river and wind ruffling through trees, we scrambled in and out of ravines cut deep by floodwaters and tributaries. And we climbed up high on elevations that ran along the river, encountering still waters, burbling rapids and some serious cascades.

"We rode up and down gently rolling hills and wound through live oak and hardwood hammocks swathed with feathery blue-gray moss."

Way down upon the Suwannee River

The next day dawned warm, perfect for playing on and in the water. We rented kayaks from the park’s Canoe Outpost. As the sun rose, we watched faint mist hovering above the tannic waters dissipate, replaced by the mirror like reflection of brilliant blue sky and fluffy clouds overhead. The Suwannee River extends about 235 miles, mostly through wilderness. Assisted by the slow-moving current, we drifted past shoreline of twisted tupelos, gnarled cypress trees and sheer outcroppings of limestone, beautifully sculpted by water erosion. We slipped beneath branches hanging low over the water and skirted past duckweed, lacey-leaf water ferns and exotic hyacinth. Birds flitted in and out of the trees, and we spotted a few gators who thankfully ignored us in favor of sunning themselves on the riverbank.


Making a splash

In the afternoon, we headed to Royal Springs to cool off by playing in the water.

“Ready?” Chris said.

“I guess so!” I said.

He grabbed my hand, and together we took a running jump off the wooden diving platform, landing with a monumental splash in the natural swimming hole filled with water that glistened in ribbons of turquoise and blue. It was exhilarating! We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and watching a few thrill-seekers actually jump in from the much higher trees. In chatting with some locals, we learned about the great scuba diving at neighboring Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park. Chris and I are both certified divers. So, we made arrangements through one of the local dive shops to rent supplies and do a guided dive there the next day.

Diving in the deep

The 733-acre Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park offers nearly 30,000 feet of underwater limestone passages, the longest underwater cave system in the continental US. Our guide started us out at Orange Grove Sink, where we descended through duckweed floating on the surface. I paused to marvel as a cloud of minnows munched on the tiny green leaves, causing green confetti to rain down into the depths below. We spooled out our lines and set off down a meandering tunnel. The low-winding tunnels of Orange Grove opened up to cathedral-sized galleries of pristine chiseled rock. We swam on through different rooms, including Olsen Sink, where surface light streams through a beautiful karst window. We finally emerged at Peacock Springs, satisfied and exhausted.

At the end of the day, we treated ourselves to ice cream cones and ran into some of the friends we’d made at the music festival. We chatted together about all of the cool things to do in Suwannee. Then, one of them asked us, “So, do you guys think you’ll be coming back for another visit?”

Chris and I didn’t even exchange a glance before the words “Yes!” and “Absolutely!” were out of our mouths, making everyone, including us, laugh.

The camaraderie of the event, the beauty of the area—Chris and I had fallen in love with the magical mixture of sights, songs and sensations that made up our time at the Suwannee River Music Park. And we couldn’t wait for a chance to repeat the experience.

Find your perfect vacation mix in Suwannee County, Florida.