For folks looking to escape the summer heat, Natural North Florida provides countless opportunities to cool down with its extensive collection of springs, rivers, lakes, and coastline. Most of Florida’s 700 identified freshwater springs are located in North Florida or along the Gulf Coast, and more than 40 are open to the public.
Our section of Florida also features 150 miles of shoreline along the Gulf of Mexico, with vast opportunities for boating, fishing, and viewing the wonderful plants and wildlife of Florida’s coastal habitats.
If you’re looking to cool down this summer, try these 10 suggestions from our friends at Sportody for great places to get wet in Natural North Florida.
1. High Springs
The town of High Springs, Florida, is a haven for swimming, diving, paddling and floating, thanks to its easy access to multiple springs along the Santa Fe River. Blue Springs Park and Ginnie Springs, two privately-owned properties just outside High Springs, offer swimming, camping, canoeing, diving, kayaking and tubing on the river. . For smaller children, the county-run Poe Springs Park makes a good place to play, with its cool, shallow water and less-crowded setting.
Poe Springs and the Santa Fe River also make great spots for canoes, kayaks and paddleboards, available for rent from nearby shops such as Adventure Outpost, Drift SUP and Santa Fe Canoe Outpost. After your day on the river, grab a bite at a local restaurant in High Springs, or drive 45 minutes south on Hwy 441 for a more involved evening in Gainesville.
Image via Saunders Real Estate
2. Ichetucknee Springs
In Fort White, Florida, just 20 minutes northwest of High Springs and 30 minutes from Lake City, lies Ichetucknee Springs State Park. The park contains the headspring and upper 2.5-mile section of the Ichetucknee River, which has been a National Natural Landmark since 1972. And for good reason – the crystalline spring-fed river is one of the most pristine in Florida, with no motor boats, minimal visitor trash, and strictly enforced capacity limits.
On summer weekends, Ichetucknee is filled with visitors tubing down the leisurely waterway, while the off-season gives way to canoers and kayakers observing the river’s wildlife. Swimming and snorkeling are permitted in the headspring, and certified cave divers may scuba dive in Blue Hole Spring. Visitors may rent canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and tubes inside the park’s north entrance or from local vendors nearby. During the winter, tubing is restricted to the south entrance only.
Image via Florida State Parks
3. Newnans Lake
If you enjoy freshwater fishing in wide-open spaces, bring your boat to Newnans Lake just east of Gainesville. The 5,800-acre lake is stocked primarily with catfish and bream, as well as black crappies and possibly a few largemouth bass. Swimming in the lake is not recommended, but Newnans Lake also hosts the Gainesville Area Rowing club, which offers competitive crew teams for teens and adults. For a more immersive nature excursion, put your canoe into Prairie Creek, at the south end of the lake, and paddle through the flatwoods, hammocks, swamps and streams of Prairie Creek Preserve. The preserve is replete with aquatic flowers and wildlife, including alligators, tortoise, river otters, birds and fish. Don’t have your own watercraft? Rent a canoe, kayak, paddleboat or motorboat from Kate’s Fish Camp.
Image via Troy Miles, Gainesville Area Rowing
4. Lake Santa Fe
If swimming, skiing and power boating are more your speed, head out to Lake Santa Fe in Melrose, Florida, 20 minutes northeast of Gainesville along State Route 26. This spring-fed lake features a small northern section and a large southern section connected by a narrow pass.
Waterskiing and tubing are popular in the clear waters of the large southern section, while the pass is a common site for catching largemouth and sunshine bass. Bluegill, redear and black crappie can also be found here, and paddlers enjoy canoeing and kayaking among the cypress trees. Boat ramps are located in Melrose at the southern tip of the lake and at the Camp Mckinney Marina off State Route 21 on the east.
Image via Scott T Joiner, Flickr
5. Lafayette County Springs
Lafayette County, Florida, is home to two first-magnitude springs, conveniently located just 25 minutes apart via State Route 27 on the west bank of the Suwannee River. The more northerly Lafayette Blue Springs State Park features a 100-foot-by-60-foot spring pool with crystal-clear water that contrasts sharply with the tannin-colored river just 300 feet downstream. Visitors may swim in the 72-degree spring, boat or fish along the river near the South Entrance, and ride horses on the trails at the North Entrance. Cabins and primitive campsites at the park are popular with paddlers on the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail.
The park also provides access to more than 12,000 feet of underwater passageways in the Green Sink cave system, which is open to certified cave divers only. For open-water scuba diving, travel downriver to Troy Spring State Park, where visitors can dive, snorkel and swim in the 70-foot-deep Troy Spring. The shallow spring run there hosts the remains of the 19th-century steamboat Madison, which was sunk during the Civil War to avoid capture by Union troops.
Image via Florida State Parks
6. Madison Blue Spring & Withlacoochee
Ten miles from the Florida-Georgia border, as the crow flies, you’ll find one of Florida’s newest state parks, Madison Blue Spring. This first-magnitude spring runs only 100 feet over limestone boulders before merging with the lovely Withlacoochee River. Park visitors can swim in the crystal clear, 25-foot-deep spring pool, and certified cave divers can explore a large system of underwater caves. The surrounding woodlands offer a serene setting for picnicking and wildlife viewing, and canoes or kayaks are also available for rent on the river.
For an all-day adventure, start a paddling trip on the Withlacoochee at the County Road 145 bridge on the Georgia border, and canoe or kayak 16 miles south to the park. (Start at the County Road 150 bridge in Bellville for an 11-mile trip.) Not to be confused with a central Florida river of the same name, the Withlacoochee River North originates in Georgia and flows southward into Florida before joining the Suwannee.
Image via Florida State Parks
7. Cedar Key
Where State Route 24 meets the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll find the welcoming fishing village of Cedar Key. This two-square-mile island town, located one hour southwest of Gainesville, is famous for its clams (the local Tony’s Seafood Restaurant won the Great Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, R.I. three years in a row), as well as its crabs, its fishing, its artists and its wildlife. A dozen fishing charters are available for guided offshore or flats fishing for redfish, grouper, cobia, snook, trout, sheepshead and others. If you visit between mid-October and mid-May, be sure to bring or rent some crabbing nets – Cedar Key is a prime spot for catching and eating delicious stone crabs.
And while Cedar Key doesn’t offer much of a beach, several vendors such as the Cedar Key Marina, Cedar Key Paddling and Kayak Cedar Keys rent boats and kayaks for exploring the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge, a set of 13 nearby islands that form a nesting ground for thousands of shorebirds. Paddle out to the islands to fish or observe birds, dolphins, rays, manatees and other wildlife. Note that Seahorse Key, identifiable by its historic lighthouse that houses the Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory, is closed to the public from March 1 to June 30 for bird nesting season.
Image via RNRobert, Flickr
8. Levy County Springs
Further inland from Cedar Key, Levy County hosts multiple springs open for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving. Near a bend in the Suwannee River off of US Hwy 98, Fanning Springs State Park hosts a 200-by-150-foot spring pool with a floating dock and jumping platform, popular for families with children. Certified open-water scuba divers may dive here after registering with park staff.
From Fanning Springs, visitors can also canoe or kayak down the Suwannee River to Manatee Springs State Park, about seven miles away. A National Natural Landmark, the first-magnitude Manatee Spring hosts swimming, snorkeling, open-water diving and cave diving in its clear blue spring pool and 26,000 feet of mapped underwater caves. In winter, the park famously hosts West Indian manatees that migrate upstream from the Gulf to the warmer waters of the spring. Other popular water activities nearby include swimming at Levy Blue Springs County Park and scuba diving in the caverns at privately-owned Devil’s Den Springs and Blue Grotto Dive Resort in Williston.
Image via Florida State Parks
Situated at the mouth of its namesake river on Florida’s Gulf Coast, the quiet town of Steinhatchee offers a Victorian-era fisherman’s retreat. In the summer, Steinhatchee (pronounced “STEEN”-hatchee”) becomes one of the top scalloping destinations in the country, and in winter months attracts numerous anglers for grouper season. Other popular catches include crabs, shrimp, trout, crevalle jack and redfish.
For an even more serene getaway, head eight miles upriver to Steinhatchee Falls, a three-foot waterfall over a natural limestone ledge, which once served as a river crossing for native tribes and settlers. Visitors can swim at the falls with caution, or enjoying canoeing, kayaking, fishing and picnicking along the river. Nearby trails offer a pleasant 3.3-mile hike from State Route 51 to the falls.
Image via SteinhatcheeVacations.com
10. Wakulla Springs
For an informative and spellbinding look at north Florida’s aquatic life, immerse your family in Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, 20 minutes south of Tallahassee. The first-magnitude Wakulla Spring is one of the largest and deepest in Florida, with its 300-foot-diameter circular pool reaching a maximum depth of 185 feet. Call ahead to reserve a ranger-led glass-bottom boat tour, featuring a two-mile, 50-minute loop along the Wakulla River that points out the resident alligators, turtles, birds and plant life, while also telling of the historical peoples, cinematography and cave diving in the area.
After the tour, return to the headspring for a swim – children and adults alike enjoy jumping from the 22-foot diving platform into the 69-degree water – and then warm up with an easy-to-moderate hike on some of the park’s nine miles of nature trails. To enjoy additional fun on the river after you leave the park, try an eco-tour or canoe/kayak rental with a nearby vendor such as T-N-T Hide-a-way.
Image via VISIT FLORIDA
BONUS: Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail
For the confident sea kayaker looking to get up-close-and-personal with Florida wildlife, wait until the weather cools down, and then try paddling a section (or all!) of the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail. This route spans 150 miles of Florida’s Gulf Coast from the Aucilla River south of Tallahassee to Waccasassa Bay Preserve State Park in Yankeetown. The unspoiled shoreline features shallow waters, low-lying islands, and multiple rivers, creeks and sloughs, interspersed by a few small towns.
Along the way you’ll paddle through the Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve and Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, both home to fish, sea turtles, rays, pelicans, bald eagles and other native Florida wildlife. Trail users may obtain a permit to stop over at designated primitive camping sites, spaced every 10 to 14 miles along the trail. Be sure to bring plenty of food, water, sun protection, insect repellent and a map, and avoid starting in July or August. September through June are recommended.
Image via On The Trail With FWC
Haley Fry serves as VP of Marketing & Operations for Sportody, an online information hub for outdoor activities. Headquartered in Gainesville, Fla., Sportody connects adventurers to more than 80,000 recreation venues among 100 sport types, from kayaking and scuba diving to skiing and cycling. Haley loves to be near the ocean – or any large body of water – and at Sportody, she enjoys helping others find great ways to get outdoors.