Get fresh

Seven freshwater springs you oughta visit (or revisit).

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click to enlarge A manatee at Weeki Wachee - Weeki Wachee Springs/john Athanason
Weeki Wachee Springs/john Athanason
A manatee at Weeki Wachee

More than 500 freshwater springs are scattered around central and northern Florida. Here's a guide to some of the region's best sites — all worthy of a day trip, overnight or weekend jaunt.

LITHIA SPRINGS
Access:
Lithia Springs Park, 3932 Lithia Springs Road, Lithia (813-744-5572 or hillsboroughcounty.org/parks)
Drive time from downtown Tampa: 35 minutes
Activities and amenities: Lifeguards, swimming, a snack truck, 40 campsites, two shower houses, a canoe launch, playground, picnic tables, grills, hiking trails
Details: See story opposite page. $1 admission per person; $12 per night camping.

WEEKI WACHEE RIVER
Access:
6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill, 352-596-2062, weekiwachee.com
Drive time: 61 minutes
Activities and amenities: Slides, rides, mermaids, manatees, swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, boating, canoeing, kayaking
Details: Ride tubes and flumes at the spring-fed Buccaneer Bay water park, and take in a mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs. Or pack a picnic cooler and a bag of outdoor necessities (bug spray, wide-brimmed hat, squeeze bottle of whiskey), and take a scenic paddle on the spring-fed Weeki Wachee River, where you'll encounter all manner of local wildlife — huge wading birds, river otters and even the occasional manatee. Stop at any of the scenic sandy riverbanks for a swim and a sandwich. Weeki Wachee Canoe & Kayak Rental — located behind the Buccaneer Bay parking lot — provides all the stuff you need for a seven-mile downriver (with the flow) trip, including shuttle service; rates are $42 per two-seat canoe or kayak, or $34 per single (352-597-0360 or floridacanoe.com). Canoes or kayaks can also be rented further west on the river at the Weeki Wachee Marina, 7154 Shoal Line Blvd., Weeki Wachee. You have to paddle against the current and ride it back to the marina, but the challenge has its own appeal; rates are $28-$32 for a canoe or kayak. The marina also rents several boats for $60-$130 (352-596-2852 or weekiwacheemarina.com).

SILVER RIVER
Drive time:
1 hour 45 minutes
Access: Silver River State Park, 1425 N.E. 58th Ave., Ocala, 352-236-7148
Activities and amenities: Canoe/kayak launch, hiking and biking trails, pavilion rentals, picnicking, playground, full-service pet-friendly tent and RV camping (59 sites), lodging (10 two-bedroom cabins at $100 a night), historic encounters
Details: Silver River State Park is rather young by park standards; the land was only purchased by the State of Florida in 1985 and wasn't developed for camping until 2000. The more than 5,000-acre park is located on a long stretch of the Silver River and affords plentiful opportunities to appreciate the sparking clear water. The park is also home to a pioneer cracker village and the Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center (9 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends, $2). Rent a canoe or kayak and paddle down to see the colony of wild rhesus monkeys, which are located closer to the headwaters of Silver Springs Nature Theme Park. $4-per-vehicle day admission up to 8 people, $3 single-occupant car (free for children 5 and younger); $21-per-night camping; $100 cabin rentals. Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost & Resort offers weekday and pre-arranged weekend trips to Silver River. The price is $40 per two-person canoe or kayak, $30 for a one-person and a $50-per-trailer transportation fee (not required); 15260 N.E. 152nd Place, Fort McCoy, 866-236-4606, outpostresort.com.

RAINBOW SPRINGS

Access: Rainbow Springs State Park, 19158 S.W. 81st Place Road (campground at S.W. 180th Avenue Road), Dunnellon, 352-465-8555 or 352-465-8550, floridastateparks.org/rainbowsprings
Drive time: 2 hours
Activities and amenities: Full-service pet-friendly camping, birding, hiking, fishing, picnicking, swimming, tubing, snorkeling, canoeing and kayaking
Details: Plan a day trip to Rainbow Springs State Park, and swim in the buoyed headsprings, or fish for largemouth bass and other freshwater species on the river. If you're looking for a more leisurely weekend, settle one and a half miles downstream at the campground; conveniences include a campground store, recreation hall, showers and restrooms, laundry facilities, a pool and a playground. You can also set up a downriver canoe, kayak or tubing trip with Dragonfly Watersports, which is located onsite at Rainbow Springs State Park. Open 8 a.m.-sunset. $ 1 per person day admission (children 5 and younger enter for free)/$19 per night camping. Dragonfly Watersports offers six different paddling excursions; prices vary (352-489-3046).

GINNIE SPRINGS COMPLEX
Access:
Ginnie Springs Outdoors Campground and Dive Resort, 7300 N.E. Ginnie Springs Road, High Springs, 386-454-7188, ginniespringsoutdoors.com
Drive time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
Activities and amenities: Several springs with stairs and decks, a full-facility recreation/dive site, 200 acres with numerous scattered campsites, 90 with electricity and water hookups, shower houses, playground, lodging, general store, scuba lessons, tubing, diving and snorkeling equipment rentals, picnic areas, and concessions
Details: The dark, tannin-stained Santa Fe River is fed by numerous springs, but the most picturesque and accessible are the seven clear blue pockets of tree-shrouded loveliness in the Ginnie Springs Complex, which encompasses Ginnie Spring, Dogwood Spring, Twin Spring and the Devil Springs. A favorite spot for cave divers, not to mention a popular site for family-friendly swimming and tubing, the springs get pretty crowded on summer weekends. I assume it's only gotten more so since Ginnie Spring was featured in the New York Times this past February. Open 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 8 p.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun. Daytime admission is $12 adults, $3 kids 7-14; $18-per-night camping ($6 kids and free for ages 6 and under); a two-bedroom mobile home and three-bedroom cottage are also available for $175 per night. Scuba fees are $22 certified cave divers, $30 all others.

MANATEE SPRINGS
Access:
Manatee Springs State Park, 11650 N.W. 115th St., Chiefland, 352-493-6072, floridastateparks.org/manateesprings
Drive time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Activities and amenities: Scuba diving, boating, canoeing and kayaking, fishing, boating, food concessions at the Manatee Café, miles of woodland hiking trails, playground, picnic area with tables and grills, 92-site full-service pet-friendly campground, shower houses, springside boardwalk
Details: Manatees make their home here from November through April, when the Suwannee River and Gulf of Mexico waters are colder than the springs, which stay at a constant 72 degrees. The spring headwaters are a popular spot for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving; the spring run forms a scenic stream that wanders lazily to the Suwannee River and is good for canoeing or kayaking. 8 a.m.-sunset daily. $4-per-vehicle day admission (up to 8 people; $3 single car occupant; children 5 and younger are admitted free with paid adult); $16-per-night camping; $10 diving fee; $30 pavilion rentals. Suwannee River Tours offers several springs packages that start at $24.95 per person and include a canoe or kayak and shuttle service (352-490-0909 or suwanneerivertours.com).

WAKULLA SPRINGS
Drive time:
4 hours, 25 minutes
Access: Wakulla Springs State Park, 550 Wakulla Park Drive, Wakulla Springs, 850-926-0700, floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings
Activities and amenities: Guided boat tours, snorkeling, swimming, food concessions, dining, trails for hiking and horseback riding, picnic areas with tables and grills, lodging
Details: Wakulla Springs is among the world's largest and deepest freshwater springs, producing more than 250 million gallons of water a year. Wakulla Springs State Park features wildlife viewing and hiking opportunities, as well as an easy-to-access and sectioned-off swimming area with a 2-story high dive. Although you can't camp here, you can stay at the historic Wakulla Springs Lodge (850-224-5950), a rustic place that features 27 guest rooms and a full-service, open-to-the-public dining room that looks out onto the water. Wakulla Springs' caverns were recently spotlighted in Water's Journey: The Hidden Rivers of Florida, a public television documentary. You can find more info on the companion website, "Florida's Springs: Protecting Nature's Gems" (floridasprings.org). 8 a.m.-sunset daily. $4-per-vehicle day admission; guest rooms at the lodge are $85-$105; boat tour fees are $6 adults, $4 children 12 and under (charter boat tours available for $200).

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