Just south of Gainesville, The Old Florida Heritage Highway spans 48 miles of roads through tree canopies draped with Spanish Hanging Moss and where the pace of life is unhurried. The sights and sounds are authentic small town Florida. Discovering Florida's natural beauty and the rich history of the area are just a stone's throw away.
Begin the tour at the Heritage Highway gateway at the southern end of Gainesville on U.S. 441. Driving or cycling south on you will arrive at the entrance to Paynes Prairie State Preserve (on the northbound side of U.S. 441). Step in to a 21,000-acre preserve that is among the most significant natural and historic areas in Florida. Retrace the trails of noted artist and naturalist William Bartram, detailed in his description of this area which he called the "great Alachua Savannah." The Prairie is home to herds of wild Bison and Horses as well as a wintering ground for Sand Hill Cranes. The Visitors Center provides all the resources needed to make your trip through this landmark memorable.
A short trip south of the park is the historic town of Micanopy, pronounced mick-a-no-pee with the third syllable stressed. Founded in 1821, Micanopy is believed to be the oldest inland town in Florida and is named for Chief Micanopy of the Seminole Nation. After trekking through the Prairie, lunch at the Old Florida Café is just the thing. Toys and comics from all eras make lunch fun and a shopping delight. Venture next onto Choloka Blvd., also known as Main Street, which is lined with vibrant shops ranging from stained glass to antique furniture. Pick up an ice cream cone and enjoy the wonderful small town charm unfold before you.
A couple of blocks from downtown Micanopy is the Micanopy Historical Society Museum open every day from 1 to 4 PM. From Native American history to turpentine processing to what a general store looked like, the Museum delivers a glimpse into what life was like in rural Florida. One of the interesting parts of the museum is the circa 1930's Coca-Cola billboard painted on the side of the museum itself. Few of these signs still exist at their original locations which makes this such a unique attraction.
It has been a busy day, time to check in and relax at the Herlong Mansion Historic Inn and Gardens. Originally built in 1845, this beautiful inn now has 12 beautiful rooms unique as they are beautiful. Sit in the hanging swing on the upstairs balcony overlooking Main Street and the gardens surrounding the Mansion enjoying the sights and sounds of the evening.
After a restful night and delicious breakfast at the Herlong, it is time to head to Cross Creek to start the day. Cross Creek is where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings lived and wrote the Pulitzer Prize novel The Yearling. Her home is now a national landmark and a great example of Cracker architecture so prevalent in this area of Florida designed to help deal with the summer heat. October through July guided tours of the home are led by period dressed interpreters making the home come alive. If you are lucky, the kitchen will be filled with the aromas of one of Marjorie's personal recipes.
From Cross Creek, Evinston is just a short jaunt to see the Wood & Swink Old Store and Post Office. This is Florida's oldest Federal Post office, in operation since 1882 and housed at the Wood & Swink since 1884. This is an opportunity to see history in action as many of the antique mailboxes are still used by current customers. The Wood family has been the Postmasters for the past 70 years and they sell seasonal produce through the General Store. Put a stamp on a card and send it through to a friend so you can tell them you are part of history just like the Wood & Swink.
Today, lunch is at the Pearl Country Store. Like many small town stores the Pearl serves multiple purposes. It is part convenience store, part gas stop and part delicious bbq joint. The Pearl is informal and a hub of activity. The bbq covers all the staples of ribs, beef and pork followed by some delicious homemade pies. Be sure to get plenty of napkins because once you start in on the ribs you'll need them. On the way out pick up some of the local goods like the hot sauce or the syrup. Great mementos of a memorable lunch.
It is time to head back across the Prairie for a final look before departing Old Florida Heritage Highway. On the northbound side of U.S. 441 is a boardwalk that takes you out into the Prairie. Depending on the rainfall at that time of year it can be a basin or resemble the lake it was at the turn of the century. Looking out over the expanse reminds us of how wild Florida was once and the beauty that Florida still holds. The Old Florida Heritage Highway is part of Florida that still remains largely unchanged and waiting to be explored.