O’Leno State Park is a beautiful park in North Florida, but it also has a very unique feature – the Santa Fe River flows completely underground in a sink and then reappears above ground three miles away in River Rise Preserve State Park.
O’Leno was one of Florida’s first state parks. It opened in 1940, making it the 9th Florida State Park! It has several structures and buildings built by the CCC in the 1930s, including a very cool suspension bridge crossing the Santa Fe River.
What is the River Sink & River Rise?
The Santa Fe River seems to disappear, but it goes underground into a sink hole. Research has revealed that the river goes deep underground through limestone caves, mingles with the aquifer, and then re-emerges at the River Rise and continues on as a river.
Visiting the Park
O’Leno State Park and River Rise Preserve are kind of two parks rolled into one. A shared trail system connects the parks. There a total of 3 entrances to these parks, and each entrance has it’s own activities and amenities. The only entrance with a staffed ranger station is O’Leno State Park. The map of the parks only shows O’Leno and doesn’t show many details of the trails.
O’Leno State Park (entrance on US-41)
This entrance is the main draw, with the majority of amenities and activities. These include a ranger station, the suspension bridge, the river sink, CCC museum, campground, swimming, picnic area, and canoe launch.
To get to the River Sink, take the River Trail (blazed yellow) to the right of the suspension bridge. The river level was very high during my visit after a rainy summer. We could not get very close to the river sink because of flooding, but it looked just like water going down a drain- it swirled around in circles.
After you reach the River Sink, you’ll have the option to continue on about another 4 miles to the River Rise, at River Rise Preserve East entrance. Keep in mind, an out-and-back hike between both parks would be over 10 miles.
There are a couple other hiking trails in the park: the Limestone Trail and the Dogwood Trail. You also have the option to cross the suspension bridge and hike the trail on the other side of the river. I believe it connects with the River Trail at some point, but the trails were too flooded to continue and we had to turn back.
We visited during the summer and the trails were very wet and the river water level was very high. Some activities were closed like swimming and canoeing.
The campgrounds at the park are very extensive including a group campsite, RV sites, and primitive camping. There are several picnic pavilions and grills plus a playground. There’s also a CCC interpretive museum with memorabilia and photos.
River Rise Preserve East Entrance (on US-41, south of O’Leno SP)
The River Rise Preserve East Entrance is a primitive park with one trail: the 1.5 mile trail out to the River Rise. The trail is sandy so it’s a little more challenging to hike. The trail also can get wet or muddy during the rainy season, and could close due to flooding. It’s a good idea to call ahead before visiting in the summertime.
Bikes and horses are also allowed on the trails in River Rise Preserve. The trails connect with the West Entrance and O’Leno, making for over 35 miles of trails.
There are no facilities in this park other than a picnic pavilion. Fishing is allowed at the river, however you’d have to hike with your gear all the way out there. You are not able to launch boats from this park, but there are several launches in the area.
The River Rise just appears as a circular pond that flows into a river. But it’s very picturesque. Near the end of the River Rise trail, you’ll also have the option to continue on to the River Sink at O’Leno State Park. It’s about another 4 miles to the sink. Keep in mind, an out-and-back hike between both parks would be over 10 miles.
Tip: BRING BUG SPRAY and prepare for ticks! We were wearing bug spray and we still got over 30 ticks on us from this short hike. Some were really really tiny, so check yourself a couple times after the hike.
River Rise Preserve West Entrance (on US-27, right past the Santa Fe public boat ramp)
This entrance is geared towards equestrians. There is a 20-stall horse barn, camping sites, and trails for riding. There’s not really a parking lot here, and not many activities for hikers. The trails here connect with the East Entrance, making over 35 miles of trails available. This park looks great for horseback riding, but if you’re here for hiking, I’d skip this entrance and go to one of the other two.
My State Park Must-Haves
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Overall, O’Leno State Park and River Rise Preserve are fun parks to visit with beautiful views of the Santa Fe River. The suspension bridge and forests make you feel like you’re in a another state. The River Sink and River Rise are unique sights worth seeing! The CCC-era buildings are also very cool and interesting to look at.