High Springs New Year’s Trip Report: An unforgettable start to 2023

Clear water at Gilchrist Blue Springs state park

“Well, there are no campsites available at Payne’s Prairie at that time, but what if we book some other random state park campsite near Gainesville and just explore a new place together for our New Year trip–this says there’s availability at a state park called Gilchrist Blue Springs.”

It was the beginning of December, and I was itching to get back into camping now that the weather in Florida had started to cool down. I also couldn’t wait to introduce my partner to it. (He hasn’t camped since he was a kid!) The few days he had off from work starting on New Year’s Day seemed like a perfect time to get back out there!

Though I’d been wanting to bring Tim to Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park, which was the first place I went solo camping–exactly a year prior to this upcoming New Year trip we’d be taking–the lack of campsites had me suggest that we go camp at a place neither of us knew anything about.

Tim agreed, and we booked a campsite for 2 nights. A month later, we set off on this New Year trip, driving the 2.5ish hours away and having only a very vague outline of an itinerary. Our ideal travel method is: having an idea of what activities are available, with the flexibility to do said activities if/whenever we feel like it.

Ellie at Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park | New Year trip

Day 1: New Year’s Day arrival in High Springs

On the morning of January 1st, we woke up and began packing. (I’d hoped to have packed ahead of time so we could depart as soon as we woke up and have more time to explore on the way up, but we’d both been busy in the days leading up to this trip.)

We departed our Orlando apartment just before noon, and as soon as we stopped by Whole Foods to round out our vegan camping rations with plant-based marshmallows and jerky, we were on our way!

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park (and the Yearling restaurant)

I’m always talking to Tim about one of my favorite authors, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and how much I love her homestead in Cross Creek, so that was the first stop we planned to make.

We were both feeling a little snacky, so before we went to MKR’s house, we stopped at the MKR-themed restaurant, The Yearling, down the road and got a to-go order of fried pickles (another first for Tim!).

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park

Once at her house, I switched into tour guide mode and told Tim about some of the most interesting facts I could remember as we wandered the property. The guided tours were finished for the day, so we couldn’t go into the house, but climbed onto the porches and peeked into the windows as I pointed out some of the details inside.

Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park

Back on the road, we stopped at Bass Pro Shop for a few last-minute camping necessities, and then we went straight to Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park.

Although we arrived about 15 minutes before sunset and the park was still open, the ranger station was empty, and we proceeded straight ahead to the camper self check-in sign, where we grabbed the map/information sheet from the slot marked with our site’s number–after spending about 5 minutes trying to figure out which site number we had actually booked!

Camper self check in at Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park

The sun hovered just over the horizon as we parked at our campsite and dug our tent from the trunk. “You got 10 minutes!” a man from a neighboring campsite hollered over to us.

Our allotted ten minutes was just fine for my simple tent, and our home for the next 2 nights was assembled before darkness fell completely.

We located the bathhouse to wash our hands, and then we headed into the nearby town of High Springs, about 5 minutes away (not counting the 8-ish minutes it takes to actually get out of the state park on a mile-long dirt road).

Dinner and dessert in High Springs

About a week before the trip, I realized I needed to figure out food options. I assumed that since we’d be camping at a state park in a relatively rural location, we’d need to provide all of our own meals.

I planned on packing plenty of snacks, plus oatmeal and Huel, both of which we could make with hot water that we could boil in our electric kettle, on our camp stove, or over a fire.

However, a little research on Happy Cow revealed that the small town of High Springs had a ridiculous amount of vegan options!

On this first night, we were in the mood for something hearty, so we headed to Great Outdoors Restaurant, where our plant-based feast consisted of the best pasta dish I’ve ever had and a yummy Beyond burger with cheese.

The restaurant didn’t have any plant-based desserts, but our server recommended that we check their sister restaurant, the Pink Flamingo. This 50s diner with vegan options including milkshakes was on my list anyway, so we headed over there, but they unfortunately had run out of vegan ice cream and wouldn’t get anymore in that week.

I consulted my list again and saw that vegan milkshakes were also sometimes available at a local ice cream shop called Florida Creamery, so we headed there and got milkshakes in both their vegan flavors: mint chip and chocolate chip.

Although I’m not normally a huge sweet person, I loved both milkshakes and drank way more of each one than I expected! They both had lots of chunks of solid chocolate left at the bottom after we drank the shake, which Tim scooped out and ate with a spoon!

We’d realized that we had forgotten to pack an extension cord and lighter, so we stopped by the local Winn Dixie, grateful that we wouldn’t have to drive 30 minutes to the nearest Walmart to get an extension cord, like we originally thought we’d have to do.

Nighttime at the campground

Back at the campground, we poked around a bit with our flashlights. The main spring was just down the hill from the bathhouse, so we walked down to the small beach area and could see how clear the water was even in the dark. We followed the forested area going back up the hill, seeing one other spring and the point where the hiking trail began, before going back to the campground to shower and get ready for bed.

As we walked back and forth between our campsite and the bathhouse, I couldn’t stop myself from repeatedly expressing how happy it made me to see the bright moon and the stars. Tim used his astronomy app to point out the constellations and planets that we could see.

Once we were ready for bed, we got into the tent and snuggled up in our abode for the night. We were comfy, and the weather forecast said that it would remain a clear night with only a 2-degree temperature drop from what it was at bedtime.

Of course, if you know anything about my camping experiences, then you won’t be surprised that the temperature actually dropped about 15 degrees, and we woke up shivering in the middle of the night as rain battered the tent.

Day 2: Full day in High Springs

It hadn’t been the best night of sleep, but we were in good spirits when we finally got up for the day to the view of a gentle fog curling through the campgrounds.

Ellie in her tent

I always feel giddy with excitement when I get to wake up in nature, and my excitement over nature seemed even more intense on this trip as it marked a fresh new year of making memories.

In the few minutes it took us to use the bathroom and get dressed for the day, the fog had burned off to reveal bright blue skies.

Breakfast hike

We were eager to explore the park, so we each grabbed a breakfast protein bar and set off.

Our first stop was the main spring, which we were seeing during daylight for the first time.

The shades of blue in the spring stunned me, and I couldn’t wait to get in the water later today! One small family was just wading into the water as we walked away.

Then we traced our steps from last night to see another of the nearby springs just before getting to the hiking trails.

The main trail is marked by blue the whole way, and we began on this trail. This is where we found a 350-year-old cypress tree, clearly marked by a sign calling it “Aric the giant.”

There is also a side trail that we found marked on an online map in yellow. We veered off from the blue trail at one point for a little bit, thinking it was the yellow trail that just didn’t have any markings. When we later found that the yellow trail was clearly marked, we realized that the path we’d veered off onto must have just been a ranger access path.

After about an hour exploring the blue trail and our unmarked side trail, we were both eager to have a proper meal for lunch, so we didn’t end up exploring the yellow trail at all.

Lunch in High Springs

We went into High Springs to eat at a fully plant-based restaurant called Bambi’s. Unfortunately, our intel from Google maps was incorrect, and it was closed on Mondays.

Instead, we headed back to the Pink Flamingo diner and had some delicious filling food. It seemed like a crime to not order a burger at a 50s diner, so we ordered another Beyond burger with vegan cheese and their plant-based jambalaya. I’d never had jambalaya before, and Tim said that this version nailed the flavors.

  • Vegan food at the Pink Flamingo Diner in High Springs, Florida
  • Vegan food at the Pink Flamingo Diner in High Springs, Florida
  • Vegan food at the Pink Flamingo Diner in High Springs, Florida
  • Vegan food at the Pink Flamingo Diner in High Springs, Florida
  • Vegan food at the Pink Flamingo Diner in High Springs, Florida
  • Vegan food at the Pink Flamingo Diner in High Springs, Florida
  • Vegan food at the Pink Flamingo Diner in High Springs, Florida

With no plant-based dessert options at the Pink Flamingo, we went to a local cafe, the Talented Cookie Company. It was so cute! We were greeted with artwork in the parking lot, and the interior was even more darling, with eclectic decor and a shop area selling local art.

  • Talented Cookie Company cafe in High Springs, Florida
  • Talented Cookie Company cafe in High Springs, Florida
  • Talented Cookie Company cafe in High Springs, Florida
  • Talented Cookie Company cafe in High Springs, Florida
  • Talented Cookie Company cafe in High Springs, Florida
  • Talented Cookie Company cafe in High Springs, Florida

They had one vegan dessert option on this day, a raspberry vanilla cupcake, so we ordered that and Tim also got a coffee.

Paddling Gilchrist Blue Springs and the Santa Fe River

Back at the campsite, we changed into our water gear, packed a dry bag with snacks, water, and essentials, and pumped up my inflatable standup paddleboard.

The spring was now full of swimmers and paddlers, which we carefully navigated through to get past the swimming area and into the spring run that would take us to the river.

Technically, my paddleboard is made for one person, who is supposed to stand up and use the one-sided paddle to move forward. When Tim and I have paddling adventures together, we both get on it and take turns sitting/kneeling in front and paddling while the other one sits and relaxes in back.

Although our paddling setup wasn’t the most practical, it was cozy and worked well enough for us.

At the end of the spring run, we turned right onto the Santa Fe River and paddled against the current for a few hours.

The views were beautiful, and the weather was just right. The sun warmed us, and we occasionally dipped our toes or hands into the water to cool off. The river water wasn’t clear like the spring’s was, but we did paddle above some shallow parts where we were able to see through the darker water to the bottom of the river.

We saw lots and lots of turtles on fallen trees in the water.

A few fish jumped above the surface of the water, although we weren’t able to get close enough looks to see what kind they were.

We also spotted a few water birds and some vultures.

Our insect friends included a few hornets and a dragonfly, plus some water bugs that made pretty designs on the glassy surface of the river at one point.

Although we kept our eyes peeled, we never saw any gators, but I’m sure there were some in the vicinity.

Eventually, the sun had fallen and bathed us in a golden hour glow, and we had to turn back. Since we’d paddled against the current on the first part of our journey, we were able to just turn the paddleboard around and let the current take us back the way we came, only paddling occasionally to make sure we were paddling in the right direction.

When we navigated out of the river and back into the spring run, we were surprised at how strong the current was pushing against us. I guess it makes sense, since this spring pushes out 44 million gallons of water every day!

Dinner in High Springs

Since there were still so many vegan options we hadn’t tried at the Pink Flamingo, we headed back there for dinner. Unfortunately, my period cramps started to affect my appetite, so while Tim got a plant-based hot dog platter, I just picked at a fried cauliflower appetizer and a side order of broccoli.

Vegan meal at Pink Flamingo diner in High Springs, Florida

Before we left town, we popped into the Winn Dixie across the street to buy firewood.

Nighttime at the campground

Back at the campsite, it was time to make our dessert/nighttime snack. (Although we usually are a little more discerning with our junk food frequency, we indulged in plenty of sweet treats on this trip with the excuse that it was our New Year celebration and we had no need to feel guilty for celebrating a special occasion!)

While I prepped the s’mores ingredients and our entertainment for later, Tim sharpened a few long sticks and got the fire going with special logs that fortunately released minimal smoke. (I haven’t made any fires on any of my past camping trips because I never know how bad my smoke allergies are going to be!)

After having a few s’mores, we shifted our attention over to the movie projector we’d brought with us. Although we’d forgotten to pack anything to project onto, I improvised and had hung my light blue picnic blanket over a piece of paracord that I’d tied between 2 trees.

Our cellular signal wasn’t strong enough to use as a wifi connection for streaming anything, but we’d fortunately downloaded Glass Onion to the projector before we left for this trip, so we sat in our camp chairs and watched most of it under the starts.

Eventually, the fire went out and we started to get really cold, so we brought the projector into the tent with us and found out that it worked really well projecting it onto one side of the tent as we cuddled up in our sleeping bags and watched the rest of it before going to sleep.

Day 3: Departure from High Springs

After a much warmer night of sleep, we woke up, once again delighting in the fact that we could unzip our tent and immediately be in nature.

I went to the bathroom and came back, declaring to Tim that it was such a pretty morning and I simply had to get in the spring before we packed up and headed home.

Swimming in the spring

The water in the spring remains at 72°F year-round, and the air was 72° that morning as well, but the water definitely felt chillier once I waded in past my knees.

I wasn’t sure if I would be able to submerge myself fully in the cool water and was about to wade back out of the water, but Tim was standing on an edge near deeper water and accidentally dropped my phone in, and I immediately jumped into action to save my phone.

Now that the water was up to my belly button, I knew I could handle getting all the way in the water. I was very curious about the colorful boil and wanted to get a closer look, so I asked Tim to go back to the campsite to grab my phone’s waterproof case and my snorkel and mask. In the meantime, I swam small laps to keep warm as goosebumps started to emerge all over my body.

Once I had all my gear, I explored the spring boil a little bit more, although my snorkel would only give me one good breath before filling with water, and the waterproof case wouldn’t let me focus while taking video of the boil and caves.

With my curiosity satisfied, I swam back to the beach and waded out of the water to warm up in the sun.

Despite the cold, I was so glad I’d fully immersed myself in the spring. I felt so connected to this park and was sad that it was time to focus our efforts on wrapping up the trip.

Breakfast and departure

For breakfast, we boiled some water in my electric kettle and made some instant oatmeal.

Then we got to work packing up our campsite. We’d driven Tim’s Prius, which we love for the fuel economy, but it was a miracle that we managed to squeeze everything into the small car on both legs of the trip!

Although we’d hoped to hike the yellow trail that we’d skipped yesterday before we left today, my period cramps were getting pretty bad, so we didn’t have a chance to do that at all on this trip.

With one last look around our campsite to make sure we hadn’t left anything behind, we pulled away and headed to High Springs one last time.

Lunch in High Springs

We’d been impressed at the vegan options offered around the town, and now it was time for us to try the only fully plant-based restaurant in High Springs, Bambi’s Cafe.

  • Bambi's Cafe vegan food in High Springs, Florida
  • Bambi's Cafe vegan food in High Springs, Florida
  • Bambi's Cafe vegan food in High Springs, Florida
  • Bambi's Cafe vegan food in High Springs, Florida
  • Bambi's Cafe vegan food in High Springs, Florida
  • Bambi's Cafe vegan food in High Springs, Florida
  • Bambi's Cafe vegan food in High Springs, Florida
  • Bambi's Cafe vegan food in High Springs, Florida

It was such a cute little cafe, selling fresh produce grown on their homestead, ready-made vegan meals and snacks in a refrigerator case, baked goods, coffee, and a small menu of seasonal hot dishes.

We ordered a delicious baked ziti, a wholesome polenta and veggie bowl, and a cup of potato and leek soup. It was all delicious and hearty, and we lamented that we weren’t going back to the park after this for more physical activity, since this was such good fuel to nurture us for adventures.

As one last New Year treat, we got a few treats to-go from the bakery case to eat on the drive home. Tim got a cookie, and I enjoyed a delicious croissant.

Then we got back in the car and started the drive home.

Payne’s Prairie

I can never resist stopping at Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park to look for wild horses if I have the time, so we headed straight there, flashed our annual passes at the ranger station, and drove to the visitor center at the back of the park.

From the visitor center lookout window, we could see a few horses. Wanting a better view of the prairie, we trekked the short path to the nearby observation tower, and we saw even more horses from the top!

Horses at Payne's Prairie Preserve State Park

On my New Year trip last year, I visited this state park for the first time and immediately saw horses. It wasn’t until several subsequent visits yielded no horse sightings that I realized how lucky I’d been on that first visit.

Needless to say, I felt so grateful that I was seeing the wild horses again on this New Year trip, and that I was sharing this lovely moment with my amazing partner!

With that final piece of nature magic, we were ready to hop in the car and drive the rest of the way home.

How did you spend your New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day? Do you have any resolutions for the new year?

Explore Similar Posts

Leave a Reply