Sometimes you just don't want to go to the beach. The red tide may have just lined up its stinky casualties along the shore, or dazed, sunburned tourists are clogging the roads — or you're just in the mood for something different, something cooler. If so, make a mad splash for the Lithia Springs watering hole on the outskirts of Brandon. The 200-acre park is verdant and shady throughout, with cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks and high sand hills, and, of course, the springs that feed 24-million gallons of fresh, cool water a day into the Alafia River.
Unlike the gulf, the springs' crystal-clear water temperature doesn't fluctuate, remaining a refreshing 72 degrees year-round, just the thing to cool you off on an oppressive summer afternoon. Most of the horseshoe-shaped pool is quite shallow; a rope strung with bobbers separates the deepest section from the rest of the pool. Getting around the shallow areas requires careful foot navigation because there are often jagged rocks on the floor.
The atmosphere at Lithia Springs is so jovial that if you have something against the sound of children's laughter, you might not want to visit. There is a stand that sells ice-cream-man favorites — such as Sno Cones, Fudgesicles and Firecrackers — plus bottled water, soda and snacks at prices half of what you'd pay on the beach. The line can be really long, so you're better off packing a picnic basket and cooler if you don't like to wait.
Amenities include picnic tables and charcoal grills, shelters, camping sites, restrooms, showers, a playground, volleyball net, canoe launch and a primitive nature trail. If you're camping, you'll find electric hookups and potable water, and the park allows two leashed, well-behaved pets per site.
If you're a good swimmer, don a mask and swim into the deep area, where the springs jet out. You'll see some marine life and feel the resistance of water push up against your body in a weirdly wonderful way.
The Lithia Springs watering hole is on Lithia Springs Road, Brandon (813-744-5572). Admission is $1. Go 0.6 miles southeast from the Alafia River Bridge on Pinehurst-Lithia Road, turn right (west) onto a paved road and continue 1.4 miles to the springs.