Many people flock to Florida for its beaches, but another unique draw is its high concentration of freshwater springs. Florida has over 700 freshwater springs with most of them located in the north central part of the state. For our first Florida Springs experience, we decided to check out Manatee Springs State Park which features a first magnitude spring that flows directly into the Suwanee River. Because the temperature of the spring stays 73 degrees year-round, manatees swim up the river to this spring haven when the ocean temperature is colder. Therefore, you have a good chance of seeing manatees in the winter months when ocean temperatures are at their lowest.
The spring looks like a swamp from a distance, with cypress trees growing around it, but as you get closer you can see the waters are crystal clear. When we were there it was an unseasonably warm March so unfortunately the manatees had already left for the ocean. However, with the spring being 73 degrees it was warm enough for us to swim in, so we grabbed our swimsuits and snorkeled around in its clear waters. The spring itself is 25 feet deep and has a pool that extends 75 feet across. The deepest part of the spring has a sandy bottom, submerged logs and a noticeably strong boil (where water emerges from the source, developing eddies as it rises).
Later that night as Max was walking back to our campsite, he heard some rustling in the leaves. As he got closer, he saw a hard shelled creature the size of a cat with a long rat-like tail. He tried to follow it for a bit so he could get a picture, but it scampered away. After searching online, he confirmed it was an Armadillo. We also learned that you want to keep your distance from them as Armadillos are the only animals besides humans known to carry leprosy and they can transfer it by spitting on you! Apparently Florida has had several cases in the past few years, as strange as it sounds.
The following day we wanted to explore more of the Suwanee River (which the spring is connected to), but were unsure if it would be safe to packraft in the river knowing alligators roam these waters. We spoke with Anderson Outdoor Adventures, a river outfitter, who assured us alligators don’t want anything to do with us so long as we leave them be. So we stuffed our packrafts in our backpacks and started hiking towards a place a few miles upriver where we could launch them. Along the way, we stopped to ask for directions since we didn’t have good cell reception and a women overheard us and said “I’ll take you there…no need to hike!” We assured her we would be fine hiking, but she insisted on taking us to the boat launch.
Once there we blew up our packrafts and were about to launch them in the river when four speed boats whizzed by going upwards of 60 mph. Apparently speed boat racing on this river is super popular as people had their lawn chairs out watching them for most of the day. When we finally launched our packrafts, we were extra careful to stay near the banks of the river just in case they boated by again…which they did several times making good sized waves each time they passed. Fortunately, our packrafts are very stable so while we got splashed every so often, we didn’t have to worry about tipping over. We then made a lazy afternoon of it paddling slowing downriver three miles to our campsite at Manatee Springs State Park.
Given the high concentration of springs in this part of Florida, we wanted to see as many as possible during our last day there. We spoke with Anderson Outdoor Adventures again who suggested we drive an hour northeast to do a half day canoe rental on the Santa Fe River. We parked at Gilchrist Blue Springs and had our outfitter drop us off at one end of the river so we could canoe downstream exploring the springs along the way.
The Santa Fe River has multiple well known springs connected to it such as Ginnie, Poe, Hornsby, Lilly, Rum Island, Mermaid and Gilchrist Blue, to name a few. We were lucky to have a beautiful 75 degree day to explore the springs on the Santa Fe River for our last day there. With only three days exploring Florida’s springs, we barely scratched the surface and look forward to our next visit.