This four-county journey unearths Northeast and Central Florida’s fascinating geologic assets and gives us the opportunity to experience its breathtaking fragile resources.

 Breakfast at Olio

301 E. Bay St., Jacksonville, oliomarket.com

BreakfastOlioSept2016

A funky industrial ambience and ‘90s alternative reverberate throughout this upscale eatery, which anchors the historic J.H. Churchwell Co. building in downtown Jacksonville. The seven-entrée menu complements the vibe, with dishes that range from gingerbread French toast to a sriracha-infused scrambled egg wrap. At the server’s suggestion, I select The Bowl, a hearty arrangement of eggs, bacon, cheddar cheese, home fries and biscuit, slathered in sausage gravy. A few bites eliminate my hunger pangs, and sustains me for the road trip ahead.

 Walk through time at Heritage Park Village

102 S. Lowder St., Macclenny, heritagepark.cityofmacclenny.com

heritage2_28587144110_o

These gate-protected grounds in Macclenny feature a U-shaped walking path through replicas of Baker County’s late 19th- and 20th-century past. This park is a coveted space for residents, many direct descendants of the county’s early settlers. The path winds through granite markers honoring the deceased and a pavilion with more of the remembered scrawled across wooden markers dangling from the ceiling. I linger past a trading post, newspaper office, jail, moonshine still, drug store and other mini-museums. In the makeshift town’s center, a restored Burnsed Blockhouse offers a glimpse of early pioneer life, and is the last of its kind remaining in the state of Florida.

 Lunch at Village Grille

4631 W. State Road 238, Lake Butler, facebook.com/VillageGrillLLC

villagegrille1_28256579383_ovillagegrille2_28587144910_o providence1_28840312686_o

I continue southwest on state Roads 121 and 238, where cattle farms, lumber yards and the incidental general store flank the road. Telephone poll signs advertising high-speed Internet are common. Here, it’s as if time forgot to forge past the mid-20th century, almost apropos for an area steeped in such history. I arrive at Village Grille in the village of Providence — believed to be the second-oldest Florida establishment next to St. Augustine. The restaurant only opened two years ago, but looks as if it’s been around much longer, with its mid-20th century farm décor, worn booths, pie and soda bottle stocked mini-fridge and dining room-facing grill. The menu is a combination of fried seafood favorites and Midwest comfort food. I opt for the fried squash and a Village Grille BLT made with locally grown green tomatoes.

 Exploring ghost town Traxler

ghosttowns.com/states/fl/traxler

traxler1_28256580513_o traxler2_28840309876_o

I steer south on County Road 241, then west on County Road 236. Not far from Interstate 75, lush forest and farmland roll along an Alachua County road that leads to Traxler. This ghost town is visible thanks to a handmade white wooden sign directing drivers to take a hard right on Bellamy Road if their destination is the Spring Hill United Methodist Church. A couple hundred feet down, a steepled church and cemetery are about all that remain of a 3,000-acre farm, cotton gin, store, church and post office once owned from 1891 to 1906 by W.H. Traxler.

Prehistoric revelations at the High Springs Museum

120 NW 2nd Ave., High Springs, highspringsmuseum.org

museum2_28256583083_o

Another 15-minute drive southwest brings me to charming downtown High Springs. The museum is an eye-opening adventure into this area’s geologic past and cultural heritage. Featured artifacts include a mastodon foot dating back to the Pliocene-Pleistocene era (1.64 to 5 million years ago) and Paleo-Indian tools. One room is packed with a model train display and recovered railroad materials.

 Poe Springs Park

28800 NW 182nd Ave., High Springs, floridasprings.org

poesprings2_28256581343_o

A couple miles west, one of the state’s many springs vent from Florida’s aquifer. Grass fields, a picnic pavilion and a public bathhouse orbit the woodlands surrounding Poe Springs, which pumps 45 million gallons of water daily. About a quarter mile of sandy path and boardwalk end at the ladle-shaped crystal clear spring, located off the Santa Fe River. The springs are accessible from two different entrances — the wider bleacher steps that lead into 2 feet of moving springs is best for children. With a water temperature of 72 degrees, my heart jumps when I take a dip, as if I’ve stepped into a pool of hose water. Once I adjust to the chilly temperature, I make my way over to a 3-feet-deep nook beneath a thick tree canopy. The springs are not just about recreation — exploring the spring offers the chance to learn more about how we can conserve water and preserve these precious resources.

 

Dinner and Dessert at Talented Cookie Co. and Great Outdoors Restaurant

25 NE 1st Ave., High Springs, facebook.com/thetalentedcookieco/

65 N. Main St., High Springs, greatoutdoorsdining.com/GO/

talentedcookie_28766918302_ogreatoutdoorsrestaurant_28254420924_o

My journey ends with an unexpected stop at a rustic storefront just off the town square — the heartbeat of High Springs. Part-antique shop and part-bakery, Talented Cookie Co. offers a lineup of artisan coffees and homemade pastry. I leave with a box of lavender and honey scones as fuel for the two-hour drive home. Next door, the Great Outdoors Restaurant is a convivial seafood and steakhouse joint, with stringing white lights and a stone fireplace presiding over umbrella tables on the outdoor patio. Walls of scuba diving paraphernalia and Florida springs panoramas keep me preoccupied from my booth inside, as I wait for my nut and berry salad and blackened southern redfish to arrive. I look down at a Florida springs map I collected along the way and chart the itinerary for my next return.