Florida by Freshwater

Adventures above and below ground await travelers in the Sunshine State’s springs, rivers and pools.

By Julie H. Case

Sure, Florida has 1,197 miles of saltwater shoreline, but it’s also home to 33 major freshwater springs. In the northern half of the state you can swim with manatees, explore underwater caverns, tour some of the world’s deepest freshwater springs in a glass-bottom boat and even take in a live mermaid show. Read on to discover the many wonders of Florida’s freshwater attractions.

Swim With Manatees in Crystal River

Crystal River, about 80 miles northwest of Tampa on the Gulf Coast, is the only place in the state where you can swim with the manatees. These slow-moving giants are distantly related to elephants and known for their gentle nature. Numerous outfitters offer swim tours in and around Kings Bay, including Plantation on Crystal River and Crystal River Manatees. River Ventures also rents out kayaks and stand-up paddleboards for travelers interested in exploring the area on their own.

Cruise Around a Freshwater Spring

On a clear day you can spot turtles, deer and birds at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, one of the deepest freshwater pools in the world. Visitors have been touring the 185-foot-deep spring in glass-bottom boats since the late 1800s. You can also sign up for a riverboat cruise, available most days. There’s more to do here than sightsee, however. You can swim and snorkel through the balmy waters (the temperature usually hovers at 69 degrees) or hike the surrounding nature trails.

Tube the Ichetucknee

In the summer, tubers take over Ichetucknee River, which flows about six miles through wetlands in the northern part of the state. (From Labor Day to Memorial Day, access to the north section is restricted to allow the river to recover.) You can bring your own tube or rent one from a vendor just outside Ichetucknee Springs State Park. The waters here are crystalline, so swimming and snorkeling abound at Ichetucknee Spring. October through March, scuba divers can also explore the park’s Blue Hole Spring.

Kayak Manatee Springs State Park

Every day about 100 million gallons of water splash through Manatee Springs State Park, between Gainesville and the Gulf Coast. Sea cows love the warmth of the springs, which make them a great spot for wildlife viewing. Kayaks, canoes and pedal boats can be rented on-site, and swimming is allowed at the main springs provided you stay away from the manatees. There’s also a picnic area and playground for the kids.

Watch Mermaids

Who knew mermaids were freshwater creatures? Since 1947 visitors have flocked to Weeki Wachee Springs to view the mermaid show. In 2008 the springs became part of the Florida state park system, but the mermaids remained. Today, visitors can watch the actresses cavort with turtles multiple times a day in the 400-seat submerged theater. Anyone looking to take a dip after the show can play in the on-site water park. About 117 million gallons of temperate water bubble out of the subterranean caves daily and are diverted to four waterslides for maximum fun.

Snorkel Through Devil’s Den

The only sign that a spring-fed cave is hidden underground about 25 miles from Gainesville is the puffs of mist that drift over the grassy fields. Despite its fierce name, Devil’s Den is enchanting. Visitors descend a staircase to the limestone cavern then don fins to snorkel through a brilliant aquamarine pool. Ambient light pierces the water, shining on stalactites and fossils embedded in the rock walls. The result is otherworldly and is yet another reason why Florida’s freshwater springs are worth exploring.

Crystal River Manatees
2880 N. Seabreeze Point, Crystal River; 888-600-7550; crystalrivermanatees.com; tours, $70 a person with a $210 minimum
Devil’s Den
5390 NE 180th Ave., Williston; devilsden.com
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
550 Wakulla Park Dr., Crawfordville; floridastateparks.org
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
12087 SW U.S. Highway 27, Fort White; floridastateparks.org
Manatee Springs State Park
11650 NW 115 St., Chiefland; floridastateparks.org
Plantation on Crystal River
9301 W. Fort Island Trail, Crystal River; 352-795-4211; plantationoncrystalriver.com; tours, from $65 a person
River Ventures
498 SE Kings Bay Dr., Crystal River; 352-564-8687; riverventures.rezdy.com; tours, $59 a person; kayak rentals, from $30 for a half day; stand-up-paddleboard rentals, from $45 for a half day
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill; weekiwachee.com
  • NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.
  • Published: July 2016