O’Leno was Florida’s eleventh state park, established in 1940. Like many of the original state parks, it was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. This park is full of history and natural beauty. Some of the best hiking trails in Florida can be found here, particularly when combined with neighboring River Rise Preserve State Park’s trails.
Paddling along the Sante Fe is another excellent activity available in this park. You can launch from within the day use area of the park, but the launch isn’t particularly user friendly. You’ll have to carry your craft (your own, or a rented canoe) down two sets of stairs to get to a not so wonderfully maintained “ramp.” It’s better to launch from the Bible Camp Road boat launch, which is just down the road from the main area of the park.
This is labeled as a swimming area, but it’s also the only area that looked adequate for putting in a canoe or kayak. There was a sign that said it was closed to swimming due to high water. I saw some people landing at the little metal dock and taking their craft out of the water that way, but that’s not an easy task to lift a kayak up onto a dock like that.
It’s better to launch from the Bible Camp Road boat launch, which is just down the road from the main area of the park. To get there, just go out of the park and turn right, go about a tenth of a mile and turn right onto Bible Camp Road. The road dead ends at the launch after about three miles.
The current can be pretty strong. During times of very low or very high water, paddling in the park is not allowed due to exposed rocks or flooding. The current was strong when we went, and I imagine it can be much worse when the water is high. It’s recommended that you call the ranger station to check conditions before heading out.
The day use area is pretty fascinating. There are a lot of random old buildings that are reminiscent of the original buildings used by the CCC and the forestry service back in the 30’s and 40’s to house workers. Most of these buildings are now cabins that can be rented for overnight camping. They’re rented through the ranger station and apparently they’re booked pretty far in advance. Honestly, I prefer tent camping to those bunk beds, but I can see how it would be fun for a youth group.
Many of these buildings were built by the CCC. The forestry service used this area (Camp O’Leno, it was called, as a training area and camp.
You’ll find various placards and memorials with tidbits of history about the park, the CCC and the town of O’Leno. Honestly this park doesn’t have very good signage, and I was left wondering what many of the buildings were and what their history is. There is a little history museum shares a bit of info about the role of the Civilian Conservation Corp in the creation of this park, along with various other historical memorabilia and information.
You’ll find a fabulous area with pavilions perfect for a picnic and the beautiful suspension bridge the spans the Sante Fe River here in the park’s day use area. You’ll also find a couple of different trail heads that you should definitely explore. Most of the trails within the park aren’t very long, but together with the trails in neighboring River Rise Preserve State Park, there are more than 20 miles for you to check out.
There are two main camp loops: the dogwood loop and the magnolia loop. I didn’t check out the magnolia loop much, just did a quick drive-through. They both seem very similar. The sites are nice and large, and not too close together. The bathroom is a typical Florida State Parks bath house with showers and toilets. There’s a sink for washing dishes, but no washer or dryer and no vending machines like you might find at other state park camp grounds. The tricky part was finding how to get to the bathroom after arriving when it was dark out. There is no clearly marked path and no signage. In the daylight, it’s pretty easy to see the path that runs behind the campsite to the bathroom. At night though, it’s pretty hard to find if you don’t know it’s there. You can get there by going down the dirt road that leads to the camp host’s place if you prefer to not go through the woods. The campground was very peaceful, and the 11pm-7am quiet time is strictly enforced.
Overall, this park is a wonderful place to explore. The trails are lovely, running along the Sante Fe, which interestingly disappears underground and re-emerges three miles away. I would suggest at least two full days to explore, one day for hiking and another for paddling. If you do explore, let me know what you think of it. Happy adventuring!