Why am I writing about cooling off in Florida’s springs when all you have to do is step outside right now?
Because I hate the cold and I’m daydreaming about a time when it’s warm. But also: When the air is chilly, spring water feels warm. At least in Florida.
And make no mistake: As I write this, it’s not only chilly, it’s ridiculously cold. It warmed all the way up to 51º this morning, which is really lousy on your part, Florida. We had a deal.
In February, I’m giving a book talk at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park, and so planning a road trip (because, you know, it’s what I love to do). Yes, I could go out there and back in one day, but we haven’t had the camper out in far too many months (2023, as I mentioned, was horrible, and I didn’t feel much like enjoying anything for a few months).
In between looking at campsites and figuring out what we can do that’s new, I allow myself to fantasize that it might be warmer than 80º when I go. And that, of course, leads to me thinking about all the great Florida springs near where I live and also near where I’ll be in February.
It likely won’t be “jump in the springs and cool off” weather when I get to the park, but hey, I can dream, can’t I?
When I worked for Creative Loafing Tampa, I wrote this article about Florida Springs near Tampa Bay. Forgive any typos; I’m publishing it unchanged, except for removing an eighth “spring” that was not a spring at all. I… I didn’t have the best editor at the time, and I clearly can’t edit myself worth a damn.
Cool off in these 7 Florida springs less than a day away from Tampa Bay.
If you’re anything like us, you’re probably more than ready to explore the concept of “pantsdrunk” right about now. What is it, 99º in the shade?
Look, we’re not saying we’d trade one moist second of Florida’s in-your-face August heat for donning snow pants and ski boots to shovel out the car up north, but we are saying that right now, the idea of laying out on a hot sand beach with no shade in sight isn’t top on our list of things to do this weekend. The saltwater’s great, but you have to fight about seven million people to get to it, plus that sand is damn hot on your bare feet.
But Florida has a secret: Our springs. OK, they’re not that much of a secret, but because we don’t have a whole lot of them less than an hour away (we do have some; keep reading, and we’ll tell you), we don’t always think about them. So this weekend —or, hell, right now — pack a sammy, your towel and maybe even a snorkel and take the plunge into a Florida spring.
Here’s a few to get you started, but remember, Florida has almost 1,000 springs — that we know of, with plenty more we don’t.
They’re not all suitable for swimming, and quite a few may sit inside private land, but if these don’t wet your whistle, check out thiswaytothe.net to find your own swimming hole. Some of these springs are part of parks that allow dogs, but remember: There’s not so much as a puddle of freshwater in Florida that alligators won’t call home.
1. Three Sisters
Best for: cooling off, getting Zen and believing in magic.
How to get wet: Leave the boats at the entrance and fight the force of this mighty set of springs as you walk —likley stooped over, to fight the current —towards the springhead.
2. Werner-Boyce Salt Springs
Learn why Florida isn’t flat at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs. Anyone who thinks Florida is flat has never been to Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park. Its 351-foot-deep spring proves not having mountains doesn’t mean a state is flat.
3. Manatee Springs State Park
Best for: camping and swimming.
How to get wet: It’s a state park. Pay your admission, park and walk right into the water.
4. Warm Mineral Springs
Warm things up at Warm Mineral Springs. Yes, we know. It’s face-of-the-sun hot right now and we’re telling you to go to Warm Mineral Springs? Chill out (literally), it’s only 87º, not “hot spring” hot. So, still pretty chill. Bonus: the spring discharges a whopping 9 million gallons of water per day, which means the water turns over in the spring every two hours.
Best for: swimming and picnicking.
How to get wet: You pays the entrance fee, you gets your swims.
5. Wakulla Springs State Park
Learn about pole-vaulting fish, Old Joe and the Creature From the Black Lagoon at Wakulla Springs. Henry the Pole-Vaulting Fish may have moved on to the great freshwater spring in the sky, but his legend remains at Wakulla Springs State Park. And this place is hallowed ground to some people, particularly people who love Creature From the Black Lagoon, Tarzan (both were filmed, in part, in the spring and on the river) and Old Joe, the taxidermied alligator who lives in the lodge (he was apparently the friendliest gator ever).
Best for: swimming, wondering who the hell thought an alligator was friendly.
How to get wet: Pay the park admission, then walk right in, or dive.
6. Rainbow Springs State Park
Check out this crumbling zoo and float down the Rainbow River. Rainbow Springs State Park used to have a zoo. Because why wouldn’t you put wild animals in cages when they’re surrounded by wild animals? Nature’s reclaiming the cages, so go find them before you float down the river.
Best for: Creeping yourself out at the remnants of yesteryear, and, as every kid who was part of any youth group in Florida ever knows, tubing down the river.
How to get wet: Find a local livery to rent tubes. Yes, you can bring your own, but this way you don’t need to shuffle cars —they’ll pick you up. If you want to stay in the spring, after you pay your entrance fee, you can.
7. Devil’s Den, Devil’s Whatever
Have a Devil of a time. Up ‘round Gainesville, you can’t take two steps without tripping over a spring or sink with the word “devil” in its name. Devil’s Den, Devil’s Sink, Devil’s Kitchen, Devil’s Open Concept Living Room… you get the idea. Devil’s Den is a below-ground-level sink that has its share of divers, but you don’t need to gas up to go down there. Snorkelers can also cool off in the sink (it’s like a spring, only geologically different, with the same result for humans), check out the ancient limestone, then have a picnic topside.
Best for: snorkeling, SCUBA, feeling subterranean. Do not go in the caves; the odds of survival are not in your favor.
This article about Florida Springs near Tampa originally appeared in Creative Loafing Tampa sometime in 2018 or so. Please check with each venue before making the trip.