O’Leno State Park offers beautiful natural scenery, a complex of Depression era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) structures and the remains of a real Florida ghost town. It is on the Santa Fe River just north of High Springs, Florida.
O’Leno takes its name from the 19th century town of Leno, a community that grew around a water-powered mill complex on the Santa Fe. Founded in 1840 as Keno – the name came from a popular bingo-like game played by gamblers – the town featured two grist mills, a sawmill and six cotton gins as well as a post office, general store, hotel, stables and doctor’s office. Concerned about the gambling connotations of their community’s original name, the town’s promoters adapted it from “Keno” to “Leno.”
Leno survived the Civil War and continued to thrive in the years that followed. Two rock dams were built across the Santa Fe River just upstream from its natural bridge, each providing power for the industrial operations at the site. The SF&W railroad bypassed the community in 1894 in favor of Fort White, however, and Leno all but disappeared within two years as its commercial enterprises moved to the new transportation route.
Ruins of the town can still be seen today and ripples in the river mark the spots where it flows over the remains of the two rock dams. An outdoor exhibit shelter displays machinery from the mills that once stood in Leno and a historical marker tells the story of the town.
The park also encompasses the “sink” and “rise” of the Santa Fe River and the natural bridge that they create. A result of Florida’s karst topography, the natural bridge was formed as water slowly eroded passages through the limestone that lies beneath the surface in this part of the state. The resulting caverns eventually grew so large that the entire river flowed down a lime
sink into them, passing beneath the “natural bridge” before rising again to the surface.
The natural bridge of the Santa Fe was used as an important crossing point for thousands of years. Researchers believe that Native American trails crossed the bridge before the arrival of the first Spanish explorers and missionaries in Florida during the 1500s. These trails gave way to the Old Spanish Trail or “Mission Road” which linked the Franciscan missions that extended west from St. Augustine to the Chipola River country in today’s Florida Panhandle.
This section of the Old Spanish Trail remained in use as the Bellamy Road when the first American road was built across Florida in the 1820s. Called the Bellamy Road east of Tallahassee and the Federal Road west of that city, it linked Pensacola and St. Augustine. A portion of it remains in use in the High Springs area and takes park visitors to an interpretive area and trail that follows another section of the Old Bellamy Road across the natural bridge.
The natural bridge is three miles long. Its sink can be seen along the River Trail that leads from the park’s picnic area. The rise is in nearby River Rise Preserve State Park, a sister park to O’Leno.
The site of Old Leno – the name was contracted to form today’s O’Leno – remained a popular spot for recreation in the early 20th century. People came to swim in the river, picnic and explore. The site became public thanks to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Depression era efforts to provide employment for Americans through public works projects. The Works Progress Administration approved the construction of Work Camp P-67 at O’Leno in 1935.
Company 418 of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was assigned to the camp and spent 1935-1936 building O’Leno State Park. The CCC workers prepared campgrounds and picnic areas, built cabins and other rustic structures and opened hiking trails and roads. The Depression era complex at O’Leno remains remarkably well preserved and visitors especially enjoy the swinging or suspension bridge built by the men of the CCC. It remains in use today.
O’Leno State Park has grown to include more than 6,000 acres along the Santa Fe River north of High Springs. In addition to its historic and natural features, it offers camping, picnicking, swimming, hiking and other outdoor activities.
Two noteworthy walking trails lead from the picnic area of the park. The River Trail runs for 1.3 miles down one bank of the river, around the natural sink and then back up the other side to the opposite end of the historic suspension bridge. The Limestone Trail leads through a hardwood hammock and pine forest to a natural limestone outcrop. The park offers more than 13 miles of other hiking and biking trails, all well-marked and maintained. Equestrian trails are available for horse enthusiasts at both O’Leno and River Rise Preserve State Park.
Oleno State Park is at SE O’Leno Park Road, High Springs, Florida. It is open from 8 a.m. until sundown, 365 days per year. Admission is $5 per vehicle ($4 if the driver is the only occupant) or $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists.
To reach the park from downtown High Springs, travel north on U.S. Highway 41/441 for just over six miles. The entrance will be on your right. The map at the bottom of this page provides better directions.