O’Leno State Park

Don’t let the small size of the Nature Center fool you! There is a LOT of stuff packed into this space: not only did we get to see several live snakes, turtles, and fish, but also a display of not-so-alive bees (Who knew there are so many in Florida?!), and a couple of stuffed owls, a bobcat, an alligator hide, birds’ nests, reptile eggs, books to borrow on all sorts of Florida nature topics, microscopes for the kids to get up close and personal with “weird” stuff, and educational puzzle books – my kids loved dissecting the frogs and reassembling them. There are also live gopher tortoises and box turtles in a display area outside. Don’t worry if you don’t spot them right away – they ARE there! I should also mention the volunteer who himself was a treasure trove of information and happy to share his knowledge.

This was a great state park for reptiles. We got to see several Brown Water Snakes (which are harmless and non-venomous), five-lined skinks, broad-headed skinks, green anoles and fence lizards. Check out our Wildlife posts for more specifics about these reptiles.

As far as other wildlife, we spotted only wild turkey in the park. From our campsite we watched many bright cardinals, busy woodpeckers and silly squirrels. We also heard (but never saw) owls at night. Beware of ticks in the area – there are signs about them and we found one under our tablecloth on the picnic bench as we packed up, as well as one inside the camper as we swept the floor before packing up. Yikes!

We thought it was interesting that O’Leno is one of Florida’s oldest state parks and that the name of the town was originally Keno – as in the gambling game. But then religious and business folks thought that might be bad for business so they changed it to Leno. When the new railroad then bypassed Leno, the area became known as Old Leno. That soon shortened to O’Leno. Sorry to disappoint anyone thinking this state park had some Irish connection, but it doesn’t!

O’Leno has some lovely hiking trails through hardwood hammocks and pine forests. We hiked the short 1.4 mile River Trail which did not take us along as much river as we’d anticipated but was still very pleasant, and the 3.69-mile Parener’s Branch Trail, which was very enjoyable if not somewhat poorly sign posted. We felt they could do to update their maps with mention of the service roads, numbering the benches and a bit more useful information.

The Limestone Trail was another short loop (just 0.6 miles) we meandered down as we hiked along the longer Dogwood Trail. It leads you around the old limestone quarry and has some fun big boulders and huge fallen trees for the young and young-at-heart to climb on.

A cool thing about O’Leno is the number of river sinks. In fact, the Santa Fe River actually disappears underground here and reappears more than 3 miles away, in River Rise Preserve State Park. It just fascinates me that an entire river silently and calmly decides to travel 180 feet under the Earth’s surface and reappears miles away. Isn’t that amazing? The Parener’s Branch Trail takes you along some river sinks where you can observe turtles basking above the calm water.

The campsite itself was quite spacious. We were on the Magnolia Loop where each site has some woodsy fencing to help protect the surrounding area for restoration purposes, and the fence was helpful to hang our wet gear to dry. Each campsite had an oddly recessed in-ground fire pit, which seemed a bit of a hazard – I kept imagining my children accidentally stepping INTO the fire – but it worked. The bathrooms were clean and nearby – all in all it was a pleasant place to stay.

There is also an area for cabin camping and some larger log-style buildings where a beautiful wedding took place while we were there. Also, a small Civilian Conservation Corps Museum was an interesting stop as we meandered our way to the river.

Ultimately, I think the kids’ favorite thing to do at O’Leno was simply play among the rocks across the Santa Fe river. It challenged them physically, they were creative, they tried to make dams and float pine cones down the rapids, they loved finding snakes and baby turtles, they named the rocks as islands which they each claimed and had to ask permission of others to access, and generally enjoyed the sun and the breeze. They probably could have stayed there all day every day.

And of course there were trees to climb!

But we, as parents, forced them to join us as we drove 15 minutes to Ichetucknee Springs State Park, where there is no camping but it is a really beautiful place to tube down the river. We had brought our own tubes but unfortunately there was no available outlet to use our inflator so Andrew headed back out to the nearest tube rental place to pick up 5 tubes. We then carried our tubes along a trail for about 15 minutes to Midpoint, floated down the river for 90 minutes and strolled back to the parking lot. It was gorgeous – the weather was warm, the owls were calling, the river was almost empty of people. We were there in March, at the start of the season, so there were very few others on the river but we saw others paddleboard, snorkel and kayak their way down to the well-sign-posted exit. Check out the Ichetucknee Springs State Park post for more info and photos!

For the braver folks, there is a swimming area at O’Leno marked by buoys on each side. Despite the two CAUTION: ALLIGATOR signs, there is a dock and a flotation device so we figured it must be safe, right? We never saw any gators while we were here. Surely alligators don’t swim past the buoys that clearly mark the area for humans. Right? The water looks very dark but is surprisingly clear and you can see your child’s entire body as he or she swims around so who knows how deep it is or what might lurk at the muddy bottom! I tried not to think about it. The kids found it terrifyingly thrilling and as we were there in March, it was also “refreshing” but they kept jumping back in and swimming to the opposite bank… even when they saw little splashes in the middle – fish, surely! – so they must have liked it!

Verdict: We all really enjoyed this trip and would be happy to return to O’Leno!

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