Who doesn’t love a good road trip? In North Central Florida, scenic drives and country roads are the rule, not the exception. The belly of this region is so sparsely populated that almost any paved road is a good place for a jog, two-wheel journey or a leisurely drive. The way is rimmed with wildflowers and passes by farm fields and pastures of grazing cattle, horses or goats.
The joy of driving in the area is not so much about where as when. Hundreds of miles of rural roadside is strewn with wildflowers, starting with hot pink phlox in February and March and ending with the brassy glow of goldenrods in the fall. Throw a dart at the map to choose any of the many two-lane roadways. Some are what locals call canopy roads, where limbs of ancient, live oak trees stretch over the road to form a verdant tunnel dripping with Spanish moss. The most popular are around Tallahassee, where nine designated canopy routes total 78 miles.
The main east–west route I-10 roughly follows ancient paths used since pre-Colombian times. Old roads that parallel the interstate pass through charming communities in which time seemed to stop once the interstate opened. Starting at Lake City, perhaps with a loop up to White Springs, take U.S. 90 westward, stopping in Live Oak for fried chicken at the Dixie Grill and a visit to the museum in the old railroad depot.
Continue west to Suwannee River State Park on the site of a vanished community called Columbus. The park offers cabins, campsites, a boat launch and picnic sites. Hiking trails take you past Civil War–era fortifications, sawmill remains and an old cemetery.
In the similar community of Madison, a walking tour reveals several blocks of homes and buildings with architecture dating as far back as the 1700s. One of the buildings was actually used as a hospital during the Civil War. Just off the highway in tiny Greenville, there is a monument to music icon Ray Charles, who grew up there.
From downtown Tallahassee, take scenic Centerville Road for 16 miles to Bradley’s Country Store, a family-owned location that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Bradley’s Country Store is famous statewide for its fresh sausage and milled grits, both of which are made right on the premises. This area is also home to a stretch of the 220-mile Big Bend Scenic Byway. From Tallahassee, head south through the Apalachicola National Forest, the largest national forest in the state. It’s incredibly diverse, with sprays of colorful wildflowers and scenery straight out of a painting. Heading south on the byway, you’ll reach the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, a 70,000-acre paradise originally established for migratory birds. Many different routes can be taken on the Big Bend Scenic Byway, making this road trip one you can explore over and over again.
U.S. Highway 19 is a beautiful choice in this area. Start in the south in the small town of Inglis, which Elvis Presley visited during the filming of Follow That Dream. This section is big on scenery and low on traffic, making it a perfect weekend trip. Cedar Key is a short distance off U.S. 19, and a few great Florida state parks (namely, Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs) are right along the corridor.
There’s no shortage of awesome road trips in North Central Florida, so pack your bags and start driving.
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