Nature vs Nurture
Do you love nature as I do? During my older daughter’s high school graduation party, when she was excitedly celebrating her admission to the University of Florida, a relative who attended UF gave her a list of 100 things to do before leaving Gainesville. Of course, some of the items were meant for her eyes only. But what I knew of the list included waterspots and sports, sporting events, bars and restaurants, along with those student-only activities (did I already mention bars?). It was truly an all-encompassing list spanning four years full of adventure at UF. While the list itself seems to have unfortunately disappeared, I still recall many of the places they said she should visit at least once.
Many of them I remember because I had been to those places first as a student at UF, before I went as the parent of a Gator. When you are visiting your student, whether for a football game, family weekend, sorority/fraternity parents weekend, or just to see their face, it really is all about spending time together. Think about using some of that time together to explore Gainesville’s unique and natural beauty over the course of the next four-plus years.
During one of my visits for a mother-daughter weekend, we took a long walk around campus and saw lots of alligators (YES, we kept our distance!), took in a baseball game (okay, we both love sports and it was a fun day spent outdoors while getting to watch our first collegiate baseball game), and drove to nearby Lake Wauberg to really soak in Florida’s nature.
Gainesville is BEE-YOO-TIFUL in the fall, winter, and spring! I will admit that summers in Gainesville are ridiculously hot, humid and sticky, even if some of us don’t mind that. (My daughters call me a lizard for a reason.) Just plan to use that time for things like going tubing and other cooling water sports, but make sure to always have your sunscreen and shades.
Lake Wauburg – Located eight miles south of campus on Highway 441, Lake Wauburg North Park and South Shore offers UF students, faculty and staff a place to relax and enjoy the great outdoors. Many water activities are available, including boating, swimming, stand-up paddleboarding, water skiing, and wakeboarding. There’s also a climbing wall, volleyball courts, and more. Admission and activities are free with a Gator 1 Card. A Gator 1 Cardholder may bring up to four guests.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park – This is Florida’s first State Preserve and a National Natural Landmark. Eight trails offer visitors the opportunity to hike, horseback ride, and bicycle. More than 20 distinct biological communities provide an array of habitats for wildlife and livestock including alligators (of course!), bison, horses and more than 270 species of birds. Open 365 days a year from 8 am to sundown, the cost is $6.00 per vehicle (limit 2-8 people per vehicle) and $4 single-occupant vehicle. Other fees apply for full-facility camping.
Tubing – Northern Florida has some beautiful freshwater springs. Choose between Ginnie Springs or Ichetucknee Springs, then rent a tube and float down the river. Along the way, you can stop on the side to jump into the water from one of the many trees. You can rent the tubes there or bring your own tubes and rafts.
UF Bat Colony – I must admit that not all folks are a fan of bats, but let me assure you that the bat houses are on every list of What To Do when visiting Gainesville. UF is home to the world’s largest occupied bat house, with an estimated population of 300,000 bats. Located on the north side of Museum Road between Village Drive and Radio Road (across from Lake Alice), the bats normally emerge during a 15-20 minute period just at or after sunset. They will not attack or harm people as long as you leave them alone, but they will eat as many of Gainesville’s pesky mosquitoes as they can find. That’s a winning bat attribute for me!
Sweetwater Wetlands Park – This is a man-made wetland habitat shaped like the head of an alligator — apropos, I know. It was designed to improve water quality by filtering out pollution and nutrients. Here you’ll find trails, wildlife viewing decks, and one of the best birding sites. Entry is $5 per vehicle or get an annual pass for $78.
Haile Plantation – This village, five miles from the University of Florida, is a throwback to the traditional villages of the past where neighbors knew each other…and your grandmothers, too. Along with beautiful fountains, and gardens, there are boutiques, restaurants, and other retail outlets. Try to visit the day of their weekly Farmers Market, and check ahead for their events schedule that also includes ranger-led tours and bird walks. The Plantation is open seven days a week from 7 a.m. to sunset.
The Cade Museum – Located on in Depot Park in downtown Gainesville, this modern museum from the inventor of Gatorade features interactive science & technology exhibits. It is closed on Monday and Tuesdays. Ticket prices are $10 for college students and seniors, $12.50 for adults 18+ and $7.50 for youths 5-17 yrs.
Devil’s Den Spring – Located in Williston, which is between Gainesville and Ocala, this underground 50 ft. sinkhole inside a dry cave has been the source of many extinct animal fossils dating back to the Pleistocene Age. These fossils are on display at The University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History. Devil’s Den Spring is for snorkeling and scuba diving but they do not allow swimming. You can rent mask, snorkel, and fins (which are required) if you don’t have your own. If you have someone in your group that isn’t going to snorkel or scuba dive, they can head next door to visit Cedar Lakes Woods & Gardens (a Japanese botanical garden) or Two Hawk Hammock, which has a flying trapeze experience!
There are some beaches an hour (and more) drive from Gainesville that, if you are visiting for a long weekend and want to soak in the sun, are worth the excursion. These include:
Saint Augustine Beach – About an hour and a half drive from Gainesville, St. Augustine boasts 42 miles of beautiful beaches, from the pristine coast of Ponte Vedra Beach to St. Augustine Beach’s lively surf. While in Saint Augustine, you may want to take in Anastasia State Park. It has most everything a beachgoer might be looking for: sunbathing, surfing, swimming, fishing, sailboats, paddle boarding, and sailboarding. This beach boasts beautiful, white sandy beaches and a variety of birds, turtles, and other wildlife. Visitors can walk the nature trails that wind through the dunes shaded by maritime hammocks. Anastasia State Park is located just minutes from downtown St. Augustine.
Crescent Beach – This was the beach my friends and I headed to when we needed to escape from Gainesville. Crescent Beach is a small community with little commercial development. There are plenty of beach house, condo, and cottage rentals available. Again, it is an hour and a half drive to get there, but it’s a beautiful, pristine beach and the relaxation factor is off-the-charts.
Cedar Key – This quiet island community is on the Gulf Coast of Florida. Long admired for its natural beauty and abundant supply of seafood, it’s located 50 miles southwest of Gainesville and sits three miles out into the Gulf of Mexico. Highway 24 is the only road coming into town. With a population of approximately 800 full-time residents, Cedar Key is a haven for artists, writers, and “adventure” tourists who find their inspiration in the unspoiled environment. Thousands of visitors come annually to enjoy the Stargazing Party in February, the “Old Florida Celebration of the Arts” in April, its Pirate Invasion in May, an old fashioned, firework-filled 4th of July, and the October Seafood Festival. You’ll find excellent fishing and oystering, bird watching, nature trails, kayaking, and coastal guided tours. The small town shares its roads with cars, bicycles, and golf carts.
Gilchrist Blue Springs – Located about 20 miles from Gainesville, this park contains a collection of natural springs boasting absolutely clear and pristine water. Paddling, snorkeling, and swimming are all popular activities. Pavilions are available, as is a concession stand with food and beverage service. The springs are open 8 a.m. to sundown 365 days per year. Entry cost is $6 per vehicle (limit 2-8 people per vehicle).
Chances are your student has already come to love UF and Gainesville, even before exploring all its wonderful natural features. They are excited about their home away from home, and this list of adventures is a great way to encourage more exploration and appreciation. At some point, you will overhear them tell a friend they are going home and you’ll realize that “home” means back to school. While you might find yourself a tad shocked, that is exactly how you’ve taught and encouraged them to feel all along. And just as it’s important to recognize that your student calls UF home, it’s equally important to plan to enjoy it with them. Making memories of this special time will build your bridge with your newly adult child while indulging in the beauty of the nature all around. And don’t forget to enjoy a lovely dinner (see our Dinner Time blog) with them before you head home, sharing talk of memories newly made along with the treasured old.