Springs have provided natural water sources in the South since the earliest of times, allowing rural families and their animals to obtain fresh water without digging a well. However, Florida’s springs offer something unique: they have produced in many cases quite large basins with high flow, meaning that instead of being a mere trickle of water they establish crystal-clear—sometimes very deep—bodies of water perfect for swimming or diving. This is due to the limestone karst of the state and high water table (geological topics too complex to address here), and it also results in water that is around 73°F year-round, meaning the springs are extra-refreshing during the hot summer months (May through September in Florida). Happily for humans, it also means unwelcome reptiles are unlikely to swim into the springs since they favor the warmer water found in rivers and ponds.
North-central Florida has the state’s highest concentration of recreational springs open to the public, either as state parks, other public lands, or private campgrounds or other venues. The state under several governors has made a strong effort to purchase such springs and convert them to state parks whenever possible, allowing for a lot of springs to visit. The area around Gainesville, home to the University of Florida, is rich in springs, and there are some exciting ones scattered throughout the panhandle region also. The town of High Springs, about twenty minutes north of Gainesville, is, as its name would suggest, known for its springs, boasting Blue Springs, Poe Springs, and Ginnie Springs, and is close to a few others, including the Ichetucknee Springs State Park. This park offers the opportunity to wind down the slow Ichetucknee River in an inner tube, a favorite Florida pastime during summer. Also at Ichetucknee Springs is the Blue Hole, a spring-mouth that goes straight down, making it a favorite with cave divers.
And speaking of cave diving, these springs—many of which lead into cave passages large enough for a human to explore—attract cave divers from all around the world. To cave dive, you have to be certified as the sport is quite dangerous: uncertified divers, even those with open-water certifications, have perished in Florida caves when they’ve attempted dives beyond their skill levels. For those with the training and expertise, however, cave diving is a chance to see part of the earth that looks like an alien world.
The Luraville Country Store in tiny Luraville has welcomed some of the biggest names in cave diving and diving photography over the years (from as far away as Japan) as these folks stop in for breakfast or sweet tea. The late Wes Skiles, one of the greatest diving videographers of our time, was from Gainesville, and now a state park near Luraville—Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park—is named for him. That gives some idea of the draw and gravity of cave diving in this region, yet to enjoy and appreciate the springs, you don’t need to be a cave diver: free-divers (diving without any SCUBA gear) and even swimmers can find plenty to amuse themselves as well.
Blue Springs, which is a privately-owned campground open to the public, is just outside High Springs and has some of the clearest water in the state: It’s neither difficult nor uncommon to gaze all the way down to the bottom and spot a large turtle swimming about. Nearby Ginnie Springs features a variety of actual springs within the scope of another private campground and has long been a summertime favorite for camping. Both Blue and Ginnie are on the Santa Fe River, which is a great day trip in a kayak or canoe. Rum Island Spring, which is a county-owned park, is also on the Santa Fe and is often visited by boaters. A variety of wildlife can commonly be spotted on the Santa Fe including alligators, various birds, snakes, turtles, deer, and even the more elusive foxes and bobcats. And fish—of course there are all kinds of fish. Whether you want something active to do—like free-diving—or something more relaxed like simply cruising down the Santa Fe in a canoe, there’s something for everyone.
The Santa Fe itself actually flows into another river—the famous Suwannee. Several noted springs also can be found directly on the Suwannee, including Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs, both near Chiefland (about a half-hour from Gainesville to the west). Further southwest is Rainbow Springs State Park which features access to the crystal-clear Rainbow River and some of the most scenic and lush vistas of any of Florida’s state parks or any of the state’s many springs, for that matter. Part of this is by intention: prior to being purchased by the state, Rainbow Springs was developed as a nature-based theme park decades ago and the developers added “tropical” features such as manmade waterfalls and gardens. As these features are quite lovely and part of the history of the park, if not actually natural for this region of Florida, they were allowed to remain when the state took over.
Back to the north in High Springs—which is a good base from which to explore all of the springs—the Great Outdoors Restaurant is a gem of a restaurant and bar with both indoor and outdoor seating areas, live music, and a rare attention-to-detail in its design aesthetics. This space was once used as an outfitter, and in honor of that heritage and the town’s role in outdoor tourism, wooden canoes hang from the ceiling while the natural world even turns up in aspects such as charming bathroom tiles decorated with fish, turtles, and other critters. High Springs also features several well-regarded bed-and-breakfasts and actual outfitters that can take care of canoe/kayak rentals and other adventuring needs. There are also two dive shops in High Springs that cater to cave diving, Extreme Exposure and Cave Country (Amigos Dive Center in Fort White is closer to Ichetucknee Springs). Aside from Great Outdoors, High Springs also boasts a good take-out pizza joint and a number of other restaurants. Nearby Gainesville, expectedly, has a vast variety of restaurants with some of the more outstanding ones including Blue Gill Quality Foods and The Top.
There are several more springs but they really deserve an article themselves. On a nice sunny day really any of these springs are a superb experience, but each has its own personality and benefits, so it’s worthwhile to visit as many as possible. I am diving and swimming in these springs most weekends when I’m home in Florida in the summer and never once have tired of it. Most visitors to this magical and unique world in north-central Florida seem to agree.