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Both wading birds and airboats are at home amongst the mats of floating aquatic plants on beautiful Orange Lake in Alachua County, Florida. With its abundant vegetation, Orange Lake is a great destination for anglers, paddlers, and bird watchers.
Orange Lake is a 12,550-acre natural lake in Florida's North tourism region. Historically the primary inflow into the lake has been from Lochloosa Lake through Cross Creek. Just under two miles, Cross Creek is a popular route for canoes and kayaks. The natural, slow-moving creek is bordered with oak, maple and cypress trees that drip with Spanish moss. Cross Creek was made famous by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Her novels, "Cross Creek" and "The Yearling", are set in the area where she spent the last 25 years of her life. Rawlings' cracker farm house and orange grove are preserved and open to the public at the M. K. Rawlings Historic State Park. The park gives visitors a glimpse into life around Orange Lake in the 1930's.
In 1927, the construction of Camps Canal redirected a significant portion of the outflow from Newnans Lake through the River Styx and into Orange Lake. On the east end of the lake, 1,500 acres of Orange Lake were diked, drained, and farmed. In 1998, the land was bought back by the St. Johns River Water Management District, which manages Orange Lake. Orange Lake, the River Styx, Newnans Lake, and Lochloosa Lake are all designated Outstanding Florida Waters.
Water levels on Orange Lake fluctuate about two feet a year. A fixed-crested weir controls the outflow of Orange Lake through Orange Creek and on into the Ocklawaha River. The Orange Creek Conservation Area is on the southeast shore of Orange Lake. There are several public boat ramps on the eastern shore of the lake and a handicap accessible fishing pier on the southwest shore at the Heagy-Burry Park.
Orange Lake is known for the quality of its fish rather than the quantity. There are, however, healthy populations of bluegill, redear sunfish, and black crappie. Largemouth bass weighing over 10 pounds are not uncommon, and there was even one caught that weighed in at 14.8 pounds. There are some parts of the lake that are inaccessible to anglers because of the vegetation.
Orange Lake has an average depth of just six feet, and is rimmed with grass beds and submerged vegetation. The same floating vegetative islands and aquatic plants that limit motorboat travel on Orange Lake make it a very popular lake for canoes, kayaks, and airboats. Airboats started with Florida's back water hunters and fishermen putting airplane propeller type fans on flat-bottom boats. The airboats can skim along the surface of the shallow water without getting hung up on the plants. Canoes and kayaks are also able to weave through the vegetation and explore the wildlife that uses the floating islands. Many amphibians make their homes on the islands and migratory birds also use them.
Sandhill cranes, great blue herons, and bald eagles live on and around Orange Lake. Just north of the lake, in a cypress swamp, there is a breeding colony of woodstorks. The opportunities for wildlife viewing are almost limitless. There is even the occasional black bear. Nearby Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park offers visitors 21,000 acres for wildlife viewing. The preserve is home to bison, alligators, wild horses, and over 270 species of birds. There are hiking, biking, and horse back riding trails along with site for camping and picnicking.
There is some residential development with vacation rentals in the Orange Lake area. The lake is just 20 miles southeast of Gainesville, and the city is large enough to have any amenity a visitor might want including various accommodations, shopping, museums and restaurants. Added to the rich history, abundant wildlife and beautiful waterways, they combine to make Orange Lake a fantastic Florida getaway.
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