Tag Archives: Crystal River

Take a Drive to One of These Seven Florida Springs Near Tampa Bay

Oranges in central Florida
Not one of the Florida springs near Tampa Bay, but the park that inspired me thinking about them. Pictured: Oranges at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site.
Cathy Salustri

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

one of Florida springs near Tampa surrounded. by cypress trees
There’s magic at Three Sisters, and it’s about two hours from Tampa Bay.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

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.

Three Sisters Springs Wildlife Refuge & Tours, 123 NW US Highway 19, Crystal River. Sunrise-sunset. threesistersspringsvisitor.org; 352-586-1170 .

2. Werner-Boyce Salt Springs

a waterway surrounded by marsh grass and trees
A spring and a paddle. Sounds ideal.
Photo courtesy of Florida State Parks

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.

10333 Scenic Dr., Port Richey. floridastateparks.org; 727-816-1890.

3. Manatee Springs State Park

a spring surrounded by trees
Manatee Springs State Park is on the Suwannee River in Chiefland.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Best for: camping and swimming.

How to get wet: It’s a state park. Pay your admission, park and walk right into the water.

11650 NW 115 St., Chiefland. 8 a.m.-sundown. $6/vehicle; $4/single occupant; and $2 car-less arrivals. floridastateparks.org; 352-493-6072.

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.

12200 San Servando Ave., North Port. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 20; $15, under 18; free, under 5. Aug. 11: All Sarasota residents (who pay a lower entrance fee all year) get in free. northportfl.gov 941-426-1692.

5. Wakulla Springs State Park 

A billboard with a fish about to pole vault. Text reads "Wakulla Springs – Henry the Pole-Vaulting fish"
Henry’s really talented. Well, he was. Of all the Florida Springs near Tampa, this one is the longest drive.
Cathy Salustri

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.

465 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs. 8 a.m.-sundown. $6/vehicle; $4/single occupant; and $2 car-less arrivals. floridastateparks.org; 850-561-7276.

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.

19158 SW 81st Place Road, Dunellon. 8 a.m.-sundown. $2/person for the spring entrance; $5/vehicle at tubing entrance. floridastateparks.org; 352-465-8555; 352-597-8484 for tubing info.

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.

How to get wet: There’s a set of stairs down to the sink, then a platform to get you in the water.
 
5390 NE 180th Ave., Williston. Mon.-Thurs., 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fri. & Sun., 8 a.m.-5 p.m.; and Sat., 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Snorkelers, $15-$20; divers, $38. No swimmers. 352-528-3344, devilsden.com.
 

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.

US 19: Manatee Hunting

This is the third leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
 In Crystal River, scallops and manatee beckon. Tours offer scallop trips for the uninitiated, but during scallop season (July through September, although the actual dates vary) anyone who wishes may snorkel for scallops. Scallops live in the green grass, have 32 glittering blue eyes, and slam their shells shut (escalop means “shell” in French) to swoosh out of harm’s way.
 
Bay scallops, once bountiful in the Gulf coastal waters, have declined in numbers. Speculation puts the blame on water quality, as scallops (like clams and oysters) filter their food from the water. Shellfish populations cannot thrive in contaminated water.
 
So instead of scallops, I’m hunting manatee. Well, not hunting, exactly, but looking for them awful hard. In Citrus County, boat captains can take passengers out to swim with the marine mammals under the guise of education. Our boat captain does give us manatee facts and talks about preserving the species, but we’re not fooling anyone: we all boarded this boat with plans to pet a giant grey water beast.
 
It’s a gorgeous summer day, and I’m delighted to be out on the water, but I didn’t think this through. You see, all the photos advertising the tour showed manatee frolicking with humans in the opaline spring head. These gentle, awkward creatures do lumber towards the spring when the water temperature outside the spring dips below 70º, but that is not the case on a hot summer day. 
 
Now is a good time to mention that three types of rivers flow through Florida: alluvial, blackwater, and spring-fed. Alluvial rivers, often carved out by years of floods, carry loads of sediment along with them. Their levels and flow are usually tied to rainfall. Blackwater rivers rise out of swamps and generally have a dark tea color from the decaying plant matter in the water. Clear springs gush out into spring-fed rivers. One such river, the Crystal River, starts at a spring head, but do not assume that means the length of the river shares that transparency: the river grows deeper in color the further we motor from the springs. We do this, the boat captain explains, because the tiny-headed sea cows only hang out in springs in the winter.

This is how you hunt manatee.

I refrain from smacking my palm against my forehead. Of course these creatures won’t linger in the spring today. Of course they will hang out in the I-can’t-see-my-hand-or-that-alligator-in-front-of-my-face portion of the river. I enjoy paddling Florida’s rivers, but few exist in which I wish to get out and try to touch living creatures. Petting a manatee makes for a fine experience – in clear water. What if the one I pet hangs out by a gator grotto? Anyone who has seen even a picture of these unusually built water waddling animals knows those disturbingly tiny flippers will not help protect me.
 
The boat captain assures me I need not worry about gators and snakes. This strategy would have worked better had I considered the possibility of snakes before he brought them up. I do not know if I believe him, but I accept my swim noodle (we may not use our arms to swim lest we hit a manatee or, I imagine, anger a gator), slip my mask and snorkel over face, and slide into the water. The manatee wait a few yards away, the guide tells us, but the murk makes it hard to see anything. Something wraps around my leg. I scream. 
 
River grass. Not a snake. I feel like an idiot, but take solace in knowing that when I put my head back under the water, it’s too stained with tannic acid for the others to see me blush. 

This is my “What the hell am I petting?” face.

I see a great hulking shape before me. A manatee. My heart accelerates. This is actually kind of exciting. I reach my hand out to pet it tentatively, and the beast doesn’t seem to care. They’re bumpier than I would have thought, and about as motivated as one would expect. She just floats in front of us – manatees are excellent floaters, what with all their fat – and even lets us pet her calf. I can only tell she’s there by feel; I cannot see her other than to make out a massive darker blob against the ochre water. I have no visual clues what I’m touching. My only reassurance is that gators have very little body fat, ergo, this must be a manatee.

You don’t realize it, but this is what the abyss looks like.  It’s scarier in the movies…

After we’ve more than worn out our welcome, our boat captain takes us for a swim in Three Sisters, a nearby cluster of springs, vents, and boils. Our captain ties his small launch to a river tree. Here, clear water reveals tiny springs, their exit from the earth announced with a rushing gurgle I can almost hear with my eyes. I step off the boat into water far colder than 72º, the inexact standard for Florida rivers and springs. We walk towards the larger spring, through a group of wood posts set in water, designed to keep watercraft out of the spring head. The dizzying force of the water pushes against us as we move toward the springs, but as the narrow channel opens into a spring head, it gets easier. I can see the edge of the abyss; I peer over it, the clear blue sky reflected in chalky white limestone. Deeper down the color turns from an easy blue-green to a persistent and ancient blue. Cypress and oak ring the spring but do not cover it, letting the sun and sky dance rainbows across and through the spring water. We find no manatee here, but that’s just fine by me. The springs, uncluttered with kayaks and canoes and too many people, offer a rarer and more full experience.

Hudson Hole has nothing on Three Sisters.

If you don’t feel brave enough to take your chances in a Florida river, you can watch these giant freaky water cows through glass that lets you view them at their beady eye level –  Homosassa Springs State Park, just down the road, also boasts an elevated boardwalk that lets you stroll past cougar, Florida panther, deer, and the ever-present alligator, but the underwater observatory offers a less intrusive way to see manatee. It’s worth it see their fat schmoo-like bodies in all their blubbery glory, if only just to marvel that Florida folk wisdom holds that sailors used to mistake these creatures for mermaids.