First appearing on the map in the 1880s, Alachua grew up on the Savannah, Florida and Western Railroad. Sitting northwest of the much larger Gainesville, Alachua is the third-largest city in North Central Florida.
I found a lot to love about Alachua, from its historic Main Street to pastoral farms, and the beautiful nature all around. Contrasting with many people’s idea of the Florida countryside, Alachua has some dramatic limestone geology close by.
San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park is littered with limestone outcroppings, while the Devil’s Millhopper is a spectacular sinkhole. On the water, the nearby Santa River is a dream for paddlers, flowing past primordial bald cypresses.
1. San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park
On Alachua’s southeast side, this state park is on the site of a Spanish mission founded in 1606. That mission was by the main settlement for the Potano Native American tribe, and there are more than 50 archeological sites within the park.
These date from as long as 10,000 years ago, right up to the 20th century. Now the unusually rocky terrain at San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park is ideal for challenging hikes and mountain biking.
There are more than 60 miles of single-track trails, weaving through old-growth hardwood forest past grand limestone outcrops. Over these 6,500 acres are close to 20 distinct plant communities, and a wealth of animal species, from bobcats to wild turkeys.
2. Alachua Main Street
Alachua has what may be the finest downtown district in North Central Florida. I’d recommend taking some time to wander the charming stretch of Main Street south of US 441.
What you’ll see are a lot of beautiful residences and commercial buildings from the turn of the 20th century. The way is traced by Bradford pear trees and vintage lamp posts, with lots of intriguing little stores.
You can head here for antiques, flowers, handmade gifts, clothing, decor, lighting, and musical instruments, while there’s an adorable tea shop just south of the main strip.
Something utterly unique among the shops and restaurants is the Alan Hitchcock Theatre Park. This magical pocket park is in the shell of a ruined former theater building.
3. Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park
Something astonishing awaits you on the way to Gainesville ten minutes from downtown Alachua.
At Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park you can enter a peculiar natural bowl, 500 feet in diameter and 120 feet deep. The Devil’s Millhopper was labeled one of the Natural Wonders of Florida as long ago as the 19th century.
This is a sinkhole, with a pond at the lowest point fed by twelve springs that slip through crevices in the ground. There’s such a contrast in elevations and conditions that you’ll find very different ecosystems on just over 70 acres.
On the sandy higher ground are pines, giving way to broadleaf hammocks below, and then swamp at the bottom. The sinkhole has its very own microclimate, and I love the veil of mist that cloaks this place on still days.
4. Mill Creek Preserve
A few minutes north of downtown there’s more than 1,200 acres of secluded woodlands at the headquarters of three creeks. While hiking at Mill Creek Preserve I passed through what is the southernmost stand of American beech trees.
Elsewhere the preserve consists of swamp and pine forest with towering trees, and an understory of ferns and palmettos. There are four trails, all linking up with each other, with numerous little bridges crossing the creeks.
The trails are open sunrise to sunset, 365 days a year, and leashed dogs are welcome.
5. Deer Spring Farm
This organic farm was founded in 2015, in an idyllic natural landscape. Over 22 acres, Deep Spring Farm adheres to USDA organic regulations, and specializes in blueberries, which you can visit to pick around June.
Depending on when you come, you’ll also be able to pick a variety of herbs, kale, and an assortment of flowers, including zinnias and sunflowers.
A range of vegetables can be purchased at the store, while there’s a nursery on-site selling fruit-bearing plants from persimmons to figs.
The farm’s natural grounds are a joy, with a spring-fed pond that you can swim in during the summer. The pond attracts a lot of wildlife, especially birds like herons, egrets, and raptors.
6. Daft Cow Brewery
A little way along US 441 there’s a craft brewery that had only recently opened when I went to press. In a familiar story, Daft Cow Brewery started out as a home-brewing operation before becoming more serious.
Now there’s a solar-powered 3.5 BBL brewhouse, with a taproom at once countryfied and industrial. Beer-wise there’s a selection of Sours, IPAs, light Lagers, and rich dark beers.
I’ve always been partial to maltier brews, and went straight for the Daft Cow Milk Stout, which gave the brewery its name. Local food trucks are parked outside every night, and there’s a hopping events schedule, with trivia, bingo and then live music on weekends.
7. Santa Fe Canoe Outpost
Some of the best paddling for miles around can be found on the Santa Fe River, which rises in Alachua County at the namesake lake.
A stone’s throw from downtown Alachua there’s a fantastic place to put in, at the Santa Fe Canoe Outpost.
From there you can paddle along a magical stretch of river, lined with live oaks and mysterious bald cypresses, with massive buttress roots encroaching on the water.
Wildlife is profuse along the river, from turtles to wading birds, and there are a few places where you can swim in clear waters. Outfitters serving this stretch when I was in town were Rum 138 and Anderson’s Outdoor Adventures.
8. Legacy Park
Several years in the making, this 100+ acre active park opened on Alachua’s southwestern margins in 2017.
Among Legacy Park’s many amenities there’s a 40,000-square-foot multipurpose center, football fields, basketball courts, baseball fields, an inclusive playground, and a seasonal concession stand.
But what really qualifies the park for my list is the amphitheater. This is the stage for the city’s concert series on Saturdays in the spring and fall. Alachua’s uplifting 4th of July celebrations also take place here.
9. Mill Creek Farm Retirement Home for Horses
Managed by a not-for-profit organization, I fell in love with this wholesome sanctuary, looking after horses with particular needs.
Among them are a lot of older horses, retired from government service, circuses, parks, special programs, and more.
The sanctuary was founded in 1984, and is home to more than 100 horses. The paddocks are on dozens of acres of bucolic farmland. Now the horses are retired, they can spend their golden years in peace, and never have to be ridden again.
You can visit on Saturdays from 11 until 3. The price of admission is literally two carrots. Naturally, the horses will be even happier if you can bring a whole bag with you.
10. J.N. (Preacher) Copeland Park
Near the entrance to San Felasco there’s a serene public park in the southeast of the city. In fact, J.N. Preacher Copeland Park is a good place to begin your hike, as the trail here heads south and links with the state park.
Making your way through the longleaf flatwoods on this path, you’ll pass a pair of majestic legacy live oaks.
Opened in 2002, the park also has a developed area with a variety of amenities at the north end. When I was here, these included a lighted baseball field, a childrens’ playground, and a boardwalk leading to a restful pond overlook.
11. Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo
A brief drive south on I-75 and you’ll arrive at an unusual animal attraction, just outside of Gainesville.
This is the only zoo on a college campus to be certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). On ten wooded acres, the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo keeps a large array of native and exotic species.
To name a few, I saw Asian small-clawed otters, tree kangaroos, alligators, white-throated Capuchin monkeys, bald eagles, and a diversity of birds and reptiles.
You can get involved in a range of experiences at the zoo, from feeding spoonbills to getting up close to a trio of Galapagos tortoises.
12. Alachua Main Street Festival
If I had to pick a time to be in Alachua it would be mid-November for this annual festival. Dating back more than 20 years now, the Alachua Main Street Festival features more than 200 vendors downtown.
Many of these are perennial favorites, returning year after year. Just in time for the holiday season, the festival is the perfect opportunity to pick up a few unique gifts.
In the mix is live music on two stages, lots of enticing food, and tons of free activities for children. Proceeds go towards scholarships for local students heading to Sante Fe College.
13. Doxa Coffee
I’m always on the lookout for an independent coffeehouse, and there’s a great one off US 441 in the northwest of Alachua.
Doxa Coffee is not part of a national chain, which means most of your dollars will stay local. I also love the contemporary decor.
I like to keep it simple at this kind of place, and went for a cappuccino, which hit the spot. If you’re here for breakfast, look no further than the housemade ricotta toast, which comes with blackberry jam and mint.
A special mention for the matcha tea latte, which my partner got, and the old-school waffles, with butter and maple syrup.
14. Mi Apá Latin Café, Alachua
This counter-serve Cuban eatery is part of a micro-chain with three locations in the Gainesville area.
What you get at Mi Apá Latin Café are Cuban and wider Latin classics with a fast food twist. That means empanadas, croquetas, tamales, ropa vieja, vaca frita, carne con papas, Cuban sandwiches, and a great lineup of bowls with white or yellow rice.
I can’t get enough of Cuban-style sweet treats, and can vouch for the churros, pastries, and the tres leches cake. For an accompaniment grab one of the smoothies, frappacitos, or iced coffee.
15. Hal Brady Recreation Complex
Things get a little confusing here, because this recreation facility sits side-by-side with the newer Legacy Park.
Hal Brady Recreation Complex also includes an indoor center, as well as a series of lighted fields for baseball/softball, football, soccer, pickleball and more. This is a top-notch facility, especially when it comes to baseball, and has hosted the Babe Ruth World Series.
For families, the star attraction at the complex is without doubt the Alachua Splash Park. This is totally free to enter, and is the perfect place for kids to play on hot days, April through September.
Also worthy of mention is the awesome skate park, which had rails, a quarterpipe, jump box, and a number of banks and ledges when I was here.