By Sandra Friend • Photos by Kent Weakly
1 – PADDLE
Flowing towards the Gulf of Mexico, our coastal rivers issue forth from massive springs and weave through estuaries of needlerush and cabbage palm hammocks. To explore the crystalline Homosassa River, grab a rental at Riversport Kayaks (877-660-0929; flakayak.com) or River Safaris (800-758-FISH; riversafaris.com) in Homosassa Springs.
At Crystal River, the dive shops rent canoes and kayaks. My personal experience on Crystal River says go for a kayak — it can slip into tight spots between the islands and yet stays perfectly stable when you’re out in the broad river channel, where you’ll meet a lot of motorized boaters — and manatees!
Both Manatee Springs State Park (352-493-6072) and Fanning Springs State Park (352-463-3420) along US 19 in Chiefland, offer paddlers access to the Suwannee River with canoe rentals on site. Head up to High Springs for a paddle down the Santa Fe River. Put in at the US 441 bridge or go with one of the local outfitters like Adventure Outpost (386-454-0611) or Santa Fe Canoe Outpost (386-454-2050; santaferiver.com), both of which rent canoes and run guided trips on the crystalline Ichtucknee River. You can also grab a canoe at Ichtucknee Springs State Park (386-497-2511).
Push off from the dock at Rainbow Springs State Park (352-489-8503) in a Lexan kayak and marvel at the springs on a lazy trip downstream. In addition to the park, Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak (352-489-7854; rainbowrivercanoeandkayak.com) and Dragonfly Outfitters (800-919-9579; dragonflywatersports.com) offer rentals and guided trips on the Rainbow and Withlacoochee Rivers.
On the other side of the county, the Ocala National Forest offers beautiful wilderness paddling. For a strenuous outing in a beautiful setting, nothing beats the twisting, winding route of Juniper Run through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, flowing six miles through jungle-like habitats with a single takeout along the way. Where Juniper Run is mostly a shallow, narrow, winding channel canopied by overhanging trees, Alexander Run is a broad, slow-moving and deep waterway with islands that create interesting side channels. On Salt Springs Run, you can retrace the route of William Bartram as he explored this wilderness channel flowing into Lake George.
Canoe and kayak rentals at Colby Woods RV Resort (352-625-1122) allow you to put-in along the wild and scenic Ocklawaha River, with easy access to the Silver River upstream, as do those at Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost & Resort (866-236-4606; outpostresort.com), where they not only rent canoes and kayaks, they lead guided trips from eight miles to overnight. You’ll also find several public launches, including the hidden treasure of Redwater Lake Scenic Site (off SR 40, Lynne) and the upper Ocklawaha River at the SR 19 Bridge.
2 – SWIM
The Fountain of Youth or just a great place for pancakes? Ponce De Leon discovered the source of Spring Garden Run in 1513, a place called the “Healing Waters” by the natives and now a cool pool inside De Leon Springs State Park (386-985-4212). When you finish your swim, head over to the Old Spanish Mill for some of their famous you-flip-‘em pancakes! Or dive into a shimmering natural pool at Wekiwa Springs State Park (407-884-2008) and refresh yourself in the cool spring, which flows away to form the Wekiva River at one of the state’s most popular parks, near Apopka.
In the Ocala National Forest, Alexander Springs (CR 445A) is a deep, cool spring where the ancient Timucua once bathed. You’ll see evidence of their middens at Silver Glen Springs (SR 19) on Lake George, where iridescent fossil shells bubble up from the spring like sprays of confetti in the clear water.
At Juniper Springs (SR 40), swimmers jump into the tapegrass off the 1930s stone wall in front of a picturesque waterwheel, and come face to face with gentle American eels that migrate to the spring from the Atlantic Ocean. Bring your snorkeling gear, as the water at all of the springs is crystal clear and shimmering with fish — water temperatures hover around 72°F year-round. For a sandy beach on a large lake, stop at Mill Dam Recreational Area (SR 40). This day-use picnic and swimming facility is a Civilian Conservation Corps camp from the 1930s.
On CR 340 outside High Springs, three parks are centered on the region’s largest springs: Blue Springs (386-454-1369), Poe Springs Park (386-454-1992), and Ginnie Springs (386-454-7188; ginniespringsoutdoors.com), a private park where overnight campers can swim in the springs until midnight. West of Trenton, Hart Springs (352-463-3444) pours out 62 million gallons every day. Camp at this county park and enjoy a swim and a hike.
Off Alt. US 27 near Bronson, Blue Spring creates a natural 72ºF pool as it feeds the Waccasassa River. In Chiefland, both Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs have popular swimming holes over their crystal-clear springs.
3 – PLAY
Picture a grotto where ferns and mosses dangle over the dark entrance, where a glassy stream emerges from the earth and flows away over ancient slabs of limestone. Rock Spring Run at Kelly Park (407-889-4179), Sorrento, is a magical place, a water park as designed by Mother Nature (with a little help from her friends). The natural spring run twists and winds through the forest under a heavy canopy of trees before reaching an island buttressed with concrete. Then, the waterway splits in two. Take your choice — both sides of this lazy river spill out into a broad pool that serves as the park’s main swimming area. Bream and killifish sparkle in the depths as you float over aquatic gardens of tapegrass. Caught up in the gentle flow, you leave the busy swimming hole and float back into the forest to reach the takeout point after a mile. Tubes must be rented outside the park — several vendors on Park Avenue will let you take tubes with you and they’ll pick up the tubes at the park each evening. Paddlers can launch their craft just down the road at King’s Landing (407-886-0859) for a trip down this wild and scenic stream.
Otters play along the shores of the Ichtucknee River as tubers drift downstream beneath the tupelos and oaks at the hottest tubing site in North Florida, a virtual traffic jam of yellow donuts on summer weekends. Head up on a weekday for a blissful trip. Ichtucknee Springs State Park does not rent tubes, so pick up a rental tube ($2/day) at any of the many small shops along US 27. A shuttle takes you up to the north end of the park for launch — leave your rental in the corral at the end of the day for the outfitter to reclaim.
4 – DIVE
As you descend down stone steps to a pool of open water underground, a chandelier of ivy dangles through a sinkhole and rays of sunlight filter across the shimmering ice-blue water. That’s Devil’s Den (352-528-3344; devilsden.com) near Williston, a world-renowned cave-diving venue.
Delving into the Floridan Aquifer, cave divers must be cave certified — an open-water diving certificate means nothing underground, where a simple mistake can be fatal. But those who step into this world have a wonderland beneath our feet to explore, through portals such as Blue Grotto (352-528-5770; divebluegrotto.com), Peacock Springs (386-497-2511), and the trio of Poe Springs, Ginnie Springs, and Blue Springs at High Springs.
Hal Watts Forty Fathom Grotto (352-368-7974) offers practice in technical deep diving, open by reservation only to certified cave divers. Their cavern is more than 100-feet deep in places. Outside Peacock Springs, the Dive Outpost (386-776-1449; diveoutpost.com) caters to cave divers.
Open-water divers have plenty of places to play, too. Where the Santa Fe meets the Suwannee, the town of Branford calls itself the “Spring Diving Capital of the World,” thanks to its proximity to dozens of springs in and around the Suwannee River. Check in at the Steamboat Dive Inn (386-935-3483) for information about the area’s open-water sites. And not only do the springs of Crystal River attract manatees each winter, they also attract divers from around the world. A full slate of dive centers offers entrée to this underwater paradise.
Not certified? You can pick up PADI training with open-water classes at Bird’s Underwater Dive Center (800-771-2763; birdsunderwater.com) and the Plantation Dive Shop (352-795-5797; crystalriverdivers.com), or pop on a snorkel and enjoy a drift along the cool surface of the river.
In addition to Devil’s Den, Paradise Springs (352-368-5746), a privately owned spring along US 441 near Belleview, combines the best of both worlds — dive training with a picture-perfect window into the Floridan Aquifer. Pick up your open water and cave certifications in their classes or stop by to dive their springs.
5 – RAFT
When water conditions are right, the Big Shoals of the Suwannee River provide more than a mile of Class III whitewater fun above White Springs. Contact American Canoe Adventures (800-624-8081; aca1.com) to find out if the river level is up to par. They’ll set you up with a raft and all the necessary gear, leaving you to run the rapids multiple times (thanks to a canoe portage path on the south shore) before paddling downstream to White Springs.
By Sandra Friend • Photos by Kent Weakly