Tag Archives: Florida State Parks

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.

2023 in Florida: The Year I Could Do Without

“Is it OK with you if we don’t trim the tree this year?”

I ask my husband this on Christmas Eve’s Eve, en route to the grocery store to stock up on Tropo Chico and steak. Without missing a beat, he tells me “of course.”

I’ve had merrier years, y’all. 2023 came at me rapid fire.  Oh, it started optimistically enough, with my dad coming back from “he’ll be dead soon” proclamation on Nov. 30 to “he’s coming home and his future looks healthy and incredible” on Dec. 31.

2023 gave me warning signs, though.

I, ever the optimist (despite my press), chose not to see them. Barry’s uncle died rather abruptly and with little warning toward the end of 2022; it was tragic and all too soon (no time is not “too soon” with someone as warm and friendly and funny and loving as Uncle Barry), but I chose to see it as the heartbreaking period at the end of the sentence that was 2022.

A better Italian than I would have taken that as a sign. Clearly, I’ve been Americanized. That’ll teach me. I did not take it as a sign. We commenced with 2023. We camped: Highlands Hammock State Park in Sebring in March.

In April, Barry received a call: His oldest friend had days to live. We hoofed it out to The Villages, where he said his goodbyes. There’s a lot around the perimeter of The Villages I would love to explore more; this was not the trip for that. This was the trip for farewells, and for clearing out a home. It’s easy, I should note, to laugh at The Villages, but when you’re staring down the face of losing a lifelong friend, mocking Spanish Springs doesn’t hit quite the same.

And yet we soldiered on. May brought us back to the Florida Keys, first to White Gate Court, then to Bahia Honda State Park. I spent some time thinking about what I could release, professionally. I made decisions to let some clients go; naively, I thought this would be the hardest things I said goodbye to in 2023.

In retrospect, the sargassum along the beach — and the flesh-eating bacteria that washed ashore with it — by our campsite could have been a sign. I chose to look past the seaweed and see the ocean.

My bad.

That was the good half of 2023.

A return trip to O’Leno State Park in July proved… unsatisfying. Mosquitoes were everywhere — and I am not one to complain about them, because they don’t usually care about me, but they were thick — meant we spent most of our time in the camper. The campground water pressure did little to wash the DEET off me, but hey, I’m used to the smell.

And yet, I persisted. We had one hell of an amazing trip to Fort Clinch State Park in August. We camped on the beach — or as close as we could get with a camper.  At twilight, we watched deer in the dunes. I met my podcast producer for dinner at a marina. I felt as though things were looking up.

I felt serene.

All in all, this camping trip was the highlight of 2023.

Things kinda went to shit after that.

My dad went for surgery the following week. The surgery was a success, but, in a freak chain of events, he vomited, went into cardiac arrest, and his pacemaker spent so much time fighting the defibrillator, his brain couldn’t survive. He lapsed in to a coma.

He never woke up from that coma. When he died, he was the healthiest he’d been in almost 30 years. That’s some Universe-screwing-with-you bullshit irony right there.

And if only that’s where it ended. 

Barry’s other uncle died a few weeks later.

We were at his funeral when his mother died.

Less than a month later, his dad died.

If I wrote this script and sent it to an agent, they’d send it back as “too unbelievable.” I get it. I’m still waiting to wake up from this bullshit.

When we went to the Keys again the next month — November 2023 — we were battle scarred.

And so here we are. December, 2023

You’ll note I haven’t mentioned anything political. I don’t have the energy to address that.

I would love to talk about the wins of 2023 — my book, Florida Spectacular, is done, and should be on bookshelves by September. The paper’s doing really well. My mom and I have never been closer. I love my husband more than I ever thought I could love another human. We have enough.

But still.

I miss my dad every day. On his birthday, I had a panic attack that lasted five days. If you’ve never had a panic attack, you don’t get the horror of that. If you have, well, you know. I’m sorry you know. I survived it by telling myself that heart attacks don’t last multiple days.

It’s Christmas Eve, and I’ve avoided dissolving into tears, so I’m gonna call it a win. There’s really no reason to publish this; it’s not exactly a Florida-forward post, and it’s also not what one would conventionally call “cheerful.”

But some days lately I feel like sucking breath in and pushing it out again is one hell of an achievement, and no, I haven’t written about Florida nearly enough, but statistically, there’s someone reading this who loves Florida who also had a crap year and fights tears and anxiety more days then they don’t. You are not alone in the racing pulse, the chest pains, the noisy brains, and the feeling that maybe, just maybe, you’re closer to the edge than you’d like to be.

Trust me, we can step back from the edge.

I’m so angry at 2023.

I’m so sad because of this year. I don’t have the energy to camp — we canceled a few great reservations this month — and I miss Florida. I miss campfires, pine trees, and the smell of the woods.

Right now, tonight, with a gorgeous white pine tree lit with white lights and no ornaments and no star fish at the top, I want to feel the spirit of Christmas. I want to feel like sipping hot chocolate and singing along with Mariah Carey. I want to celebrate the good things about my father’s life. And Barry’s parents. And his two uncles. And his oldest friend.

But instead the sense of loss is what I feel. I look around and all I see are ghosts.

I’m sorry. I don’t have a Florida way to end this or a way to wrap it up with a pretty little bow. I’ve hated 2023. 

Every now and then, the good breaks through. I have a wonderful husband. My mother is a fiercely strong woman who rebounds from everything. I can always walk to the water and lose myself in the salt. The Winter Solstice a few days ago, long-celebrated by the pagans, means that death has ended and we now begin the process of rebirth.

2023 hasn’t left me with much, but I’m gonna hold onto all that.

Merry Christmas, y’all.

Submarines, Sand, and Sandpipers

The best state park ever? Maybe.

My fascination with Fort Clinch – which I started to write about when I sang the praises of the maligned sandspur – has to do with many things, probably too long for a single blog post, but I’m going to try.

In September, we did a cross-Florida road trip, which we completely did not plan in advance. Instead, we looked for last-minute campsites a day or three in advance (I freely admit this is not for everyone.) We lucked out toward the end of our trip and scored a few nights at Fort Clinch State Park.

Sign for Fort Clinch State Park, which reads "Fort Clinch Reconstruction  and construction of roads buildings and grounds was performed by Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1420, 1937-1042."
Built by Roosevelt’s Tree Army.
Cathy Salustri

I’d traveled through Fort Clinch while working on “Backroads of Paradise“, but I’d never spent the night. My friend, Jon Kile (who has a pretty nifty website where he writes about his own travels), married a woman from the area, so they’ve been there a time or two, and his rhapsodizing about the park made me think we needed to visit.

Fort Clinch, one of Florida’s first state parks, started life as – big shock here – fort. In the 1730s – when Florida belonged to Spain – the earliest work on a fort started, but only a century or so later, shortly after Florida joined the US, did construction begin on the fort as we see it today. After the Civil War – I’m shortcutting a lot of history here because I assume that’s not exactly why you’re here, but if you have more history questions, check out Fort Clinch’s abbreviated history on the park’s website – the US abandoned the fort, sealing an almost-certain fate of demolition by neglect.

In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s tree army – the Civilian Conservation Corps – set to work turning the empty fort into one of our state’s first state parks. CCC workers performed backbreaking work – including removing wheelbarrows filled with random debris from inside the fort.

At the edge of Florida (you can see Georgia from the campsites on the beach), the park represents some of the best of Florida’s state parks.

The view from our campsite – and this wasn’t even close to the best view.
Cathy Salustri

When we camped, we scored a beachside campground, so as soon as we settled in, I headed to the beach to check it out. I’ve seen lots of stuff on Florida beaches, but I was not prepared for this:

Yes, that’s a submarine. Surfacing.
Cathy Salustri

At first, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t seeing a whale, but right whales don’t have a fin on top of them. Also, they’re large, but not that large. Apparently, subs surface in this area to get to the naval base, and I’d happened along one. (Note to self: bring telephoto lens and camera on beach strolls)

After that, the deer and the gopher tortoises and sandpipers… well, OK, they were all still pretty cool. I found a gopher tortoise strolling through the dunes…

Out for a morning stroll.
Cathy Salustri

…and even saw a baby one (I know I’m supposed to write “juvenile” but they’re so damn cute) at the Fort.

Of course, the fort itself has some pretty amazing sights, not the least of which is its architecture. We had a great talk about the history of the fort – and the suspicion that, at least for a time, one of Florida’s Black CCC companies (Jim Crow Florida and all, the Black men who worked for the CCC all had to go to the Myakka location) may have visited the park and worked there – with historian Frank Ofeldt, who wore a period military uniform but thankfully didn’t do that dreadful thing where he pretended it was 1860 (pet peeve: historians who like to pretend to be from the time they study.)

I took about 500 photos of the fort’s interior, but this one’s my favorite.
Cathy Salustri

Back on the beach, we found we had a friend at sunset for a couple of nights. Of course, I have no way of knowing if it was the same bird every night – they could have all talked about the weird lady with blue toes and come by, one by one, to see aforementioned toes. Other than that, though, the beach was pretty much deserted.

If there’s a better place in Florida, I haven’t found it yet.

Of course, I say that at almost every beach, and I’m determined to keep looking.