Hot beach got you down? Fill up an inner tube and a tank of gas and head to Central Florida’s beguiling backwaters, where cool springs eternal.
We get it: We’re living the salt life.
Florida’s Gulf Coast topped all the best beaches lists this year. Again.
TripAdvisor named Clearwater and Siesta Key Beaches No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on its 2018 list of 10 Best Beaches in the United States. In fact, six of the 10 coastlines mentioned were in the Sunshine State, which makes perfect sense because our beaches are incredible.
But here’s the dirty truth about Gulf Coast beaches: They stink in the summer. Literally. You sweat. Profusely. And the temperature of the gulf in August can reach 90 degrees.
Is the ice bucket challenge still a thing? If so, please douse me when I’m chasing my kids next month in the blazing heat on the beach.
So where to go instead? One word: springs.
One tank of gas will get you to Central Florida, home to a treasure trove of 72-degree year-round, Caribbean-blue freshwater springs, in which you can swim, dive, float and peel back the serious layers of adulthood.
There’s a reason Ponce de Leon combed this area 500 years ago for the Fountain of Youth. A trip to the springs can make you feel like a kid again. Whenever I get fed up with traffic, people, work and the grind of modern life, I pack up my kids, a tent and a cooler and head for the wilderness of Alachua County.
Home to Gainesville and the sleepy Santa Fe River, Alachua and its neighboring counties harbor some of the most beautiful springs in the country. What surprises me most about these azure waters isn’t their mystical splendor and middle-of-nowhereness, it’s that most of my friends — many of them northern transplants — have never set foot in them, much less heard of the wild and enchanting Santa Fe River.
So in the spirit of spreading awareness, I decided to compose my own “Best Of” list: the four coolest springs on the Santa Fe River.
5000 N.E. 60th Ave.
High Springs, 32643
Camping accommodations: 129 water and electric campsites for tent and RV; 250 acres of primitive sites for tent and RV, and The Ginnie Cottage, a three-bedroom, two-bath cottage that rents for $175 a night.
Nestled deep in the woods about seven miles up the road from Blue Springs is Ginnie Springs, considered the crown jewel of High Springs. A privately owned park in Gilchrist County, Jacques Cousteau once proclaimed its crystalline water “the clearest in the world.” The park’s springs — forebodingly named Devil’s Eye, Devil’s Ear and Devil Spring — are an international mecca for scuba and cave divers, while its bustling campground is like a freewheeling summer camp for adults. Although only certified cave divers are allowed in the park’s eerie underwater passageways, regular parkgoers can enjoy the tranquility above the water by kayaking, tubing and paddle-boarding down the adjoining Santa Fe River. (Drop in is at Beaver’s Landing and take out is at Twin Springs.) Depending on the current of the Santa Fe, your trip can take anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes. Bring your own floating device or rent one from the park. FYI for first-time floaters: Ginnie Springs does not provide transportation back to your car. After a lazy hour meandering downstream, you should be able to handle the 15-minute trail-trek back to your car.
Poe Springs Park
28800 N.W. 182nd Ave.
High Springs, 32643
No on-site camping available
Low-key Poe Springs is the most underrated and least crowded of the Santa Fe River’s spring system parks. Locals love the spot because it’s secluded, quiet and admission is free — a rare treat since most state and private parks charge admission. The Alachua County-owned park packs a lot of amenities in its 200 acres: swimming, hiking trails, volleyball courts, a playground, soccer fields and a giant lodge equipped with a small kitchen, complete with a refrigerator, stove and sink. The trails winding through this park offer some of the best views of unspoiled Florida in all its craggy, marshy, cypress-y glory. Parents with small children love this park because its less rowdy than Ginnie Springs, and its shallow waters are less intimidating than the deep swimming hole at Blue Springs. Scuba diving is not allowed, but a small underwater cave is all yours to explore if you can hold your breath for up to 25 feet. The park is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday to Sunday, so make sure you don’t plan to visit on an off day.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
12087 S.W. U.S. 27
Fort White, 32038
Camping accommodations: The state park doesn’t offer on-site camping, but RV and tent sites are available at Ichetucknee Springs Campground five miles away. For reservations, call (386) 497-2285.
The spring-fed Ichetucknee River is so pristine the U.S. Department of the Interior declared its head spring a National Natural Landmark in 1972. It flows for only six miles before it joins the Santa Fe River, but its short journey through shaded hammocks and sun-drenched wetlands is so picturesque you could get lost in the scenery. For this reason, Ichetucknee Springs State Park is the region’s No. 1 destination for tubing. Located in Columbia County, about an hour northwest of Gainesville, it is considered the best “natural lazy river” in the state of Florida. From the end of May until early September, locals flock to this state park to commit to a three-and-a-half-hour drift down a 72-degree river. Shuttle service is offered at the bottom of the river and tube rentals are available at the park’s general store and concession stand. The park is open seven days a week, but its entry points are famously at capacity by 9 a.m. during the summer. So if you plan on floating, book a night at nearby Ichetucknee Springs Campground and get an early start the next day.