O’Leno and River Rise Preserve State Parks are like two sides of the same coin. Heads is O’Leno sitting on the north side; tails is River Rise sitting to the south. A 3-mile wide natural land bridge and a disappearing river join the two parks, making this a Natural Wonder.
The scenic and mysterious Santa Fe River flows into O’Leno State Park from the northeast. The park provides beautiful riverfront facilities, including a scenic picnic area, playground, pavilions, a swimming dock and a footbridge that crosses the Santa Fe leading to a hiking trail. Much of this was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, as O’Leno is one of the original Florida State Parks.
Then the river disappears. It simply stops being a river a few hundred yards downstream. Dead end. Or so it seems. Tired of all the attention, the Santa Fe River simply goes underground for a little escape. But soon she yearns for the sun, so she pops back out of the earth over 3 miles away in River Rise Preserve State Park!
I had to witness this phenomenon myself, so I hiked O’Leno’s River Trail loop for a close up of the river sink – where the Santa Fe sinks underground to join the Floridan Aquifer. To be honest, while the 1.44-mile long trail is quite scenic, the sink is nothing dramatic. It simply ends in what looks like a stagnant swamp covered in duckweed. It’s hard to believe an entire river disappears under that tranquil surface. Check out the maps below for a birds-eye view of the river disappearing in O’Leno and reappearing in River Rise.
Next, I rode my mountain bike down Paraners’ Branch Trail to Sweetwater Trail to River Rise Trail. Most of the way is hardwood forest, making for a beautiful ride. Sweetwater Trail crosses the historic Bellamy Road, an important route that used the natural land bridge to cross the Santa Fe River. This trail ends at Sweetwater Lake, a scenic little depression pond that also hosts the park’s primitive campsite.
River Rise Trail takes over from Sweetwater Lake and brings you right to the main attraction of River Rise Preserve – the reemergence of the Santa Fe River, known as a river rise. Is it a spring? There are scholarly arguments for and against classifying it as a spring, but for all intents and purposes it looks and acts like a spring. A lot of water comes up out of the ground and becomes a river.
From here this fascinating river continues its journey to feed the famous Suwannee River. River Rise Trail continues on to Black Lake, another small depression pond, but the trail was so torn up from horses that mountain biking this part was not a lot of fun, so I headed back to O’Leno and completed the Paraners’ Branch Loop.
All in all, there are about 35 miles of multi-use trail — hiking, biking, and equestrian. Only O’Leno’s River Trail is restricted to hikers. The rest of the trails are designated as either hiking and biking or hiking, biking and equestrian.
Know Before You Go! Check out our Photo Gallery, the maps below, and the links provided. If this is a must-see for you, get on out there. If not, check out our Bucket List and Where-to-Go to find the perfect spots for you to experience Florida’s Natural Wonders. Now go on, get out there and have some fun!
O’Leno River Trail hike:
O’Leno to River Rise mountain biking:
Please note: You may notice discrepancies between the 2 different versions of these maps. These apps and mapping devices are not always dead on, so don’t rely 100% on these maps for navigation. That said, I’m counting on them being very, very close to exact.
O’Leno State Park, 410 SE O’Leno Park Road, High Springs, FL 32643 Phone: (386) 454-1853
River Rise Preserve State Park, 373 Southwest US Highway 27, High Springs, FL 32643 Phone: (386) 454-1853