Best Florida Springs to Visit: paddleboarding with manatees, gators and crystal clear waters
Florida gets a bad rap for a lot of things, but something it’s winning at and can’t be beat by any other state are its natural springs. Florida springs can be found all around the state, but primarily in the central region. The best ways to enjoy the many freshwater springs include paddleboarding, swimming, glass-bottom boats and just walking along them.
Time at the theme parks and resorts is great, and totally fun and relaxing, but if you wanted to spend a day paddleboarding and exploring different Florida springs is an awesome idea. You won’t regret it. Central Florida is home to a never-ending list of fresh water springs and rivers and they’re so easy to experience in addition to your Orlando trip.
What you'll find...
- Paddleboarding Florida Springs near Orlando
- Eastern Florida Springs near Daytona
- Southwest Florida Springs to explore
- Central Florida Springs not to miss
- North Florida Springs to Visit
- What if I’ve never tried paddleboarding?
Paddleboarding Florida Springs near Orlando
So, you know how we’re all about kayaking and do it all the time? Well, after many attempts I’ve had an incredible time Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP) and it’s going to be my new favorite activity. After spending a whole day with Paddleboard Orlando and visiting many Florida springs over the years, I can tell you that SUP is one of the best ways to experience Florida’s back country.
Finding a good, reputable company or guide service is the first step to a great paddleboarding experience. Before spending time with Paddleboard Orlando I stalked them on Facebook and Instagram to see the types of adventures they were taking their guests on and the reactions guests were having. Everybody was having fun and the sights were awesome, so boom! Paddleboard Orlando wins, and they were really great to work with.
Wekiva River – Wild and Scenic River
About 30 minutes outside in the town of DeBary, or even closer to Orlando, is Wekiva Island. Yep, it’s kind of an island in the middle of the state. On Wekiva Island you’ll find a food truck, a bar, meeting space, kayak rentals, and a Paddleboard Orlando station. Google Maps link here to the Island.
All around Wekiva Island is the most still river full of beautiful vegetation and fascinating wildlife. The Wekiva River is one of only two rivers in Florida designated as a National Wild and Scenic River. Paddling up the Wekiva River is a little like paddling through Jurassic Park, only instead of dinosaurs there were turtles everywhere.
The untouched banks and crystal clear water were absolutely perfect for spotting them and watching them swim under us. Also seen along the Wekiva River were alligators, egrets and hawks. The gators were awesome! Most of them were spotted outside of the water, just hanging out on logs or bunches of grass.
Other wildlife to watch for, but that we didn’t see on our paddling journey, includes raccoons, river otters, wild boars and black bears. Next time…
Book this paddleboarding tour here! – weather and time permitting, two Florida springs may be included on this tour
The source of the Wekiva Wild and Scenic River is a gorgeous headspring. Part of Wekiva Springs State Park, there’s a beautiful spring area for swimming and exploring. If you are in the mood for snorkeling, you can check out the crack in the limestone bedrock and the underwater formations, as they’re full of fish.
Note: year round the water that bubbles up out of the headspring is 72 degrees F. While Floridians will say that’s too cold for swimming, jumping in any time of year is a great idea and as long as you’re prepared with a towel or sunshine, you’re good to go! That’s what makes Florida springs so great!
You can also access Wekiwa Springs State Park and the headspring from the park area. There is parking there and a trail system, so if you don’t want to paddleboard up river, you can just drive there too.
Rock Springs and the Florida jungle
Also going out of the Wekiva Island area on the Wekiva River is the jaunt to Rock Springs. A much longer and more wild paddle than the route to Wekiwa Springs, it’s going to take more time and planning, but well worth it. Rock Springs has a smaller head spring but is wonderfully wild. In addition to beautiful birds and gators, you can watch for wild boars and black bears.
The area all around the Wekiva River is so cool and a hidden gem in Central Florida. The many Florida springs make development of the area difficult, so the natural landscape is well preserved.
Eastern Florida Springs near Daytona
For those visiting Daytona Beach or Saint Augustine, it’s tough to break away from the beaches, but there are some INCREDIBLE Florida springs nearby. Both of our suggestions are easy day trips and could even just be half-day trips.
Blue Spring State Park
You probably already know that Blue Spring State Park is one of our favorite places in the state and for sure the prettiest of the Florida springs. We have had incredible visits here with the kids just swimming, hiking through the forest, checking out the springs and counting gar in the water. This is also the destination for hundreds of manatees in the winter months.
I met up with Paddleboard Orlando and we put into the St Johns River at French’s Landing. After getting our bearings on our boards (totally windy day) we started upriver.
Wow! What a different view of a river we’d strolled along so many times. The banks of the river were teeming with egrets and herons. There were bald eagles and hawks flying overhead. And then there were manatees.
Tip: for info about wildlife safety, including how to respect manatees, check out our article here.
Manatee encouters via SUP
We’ve seen manatees plenty of times, including snorkeling with them in Crystal River, but nothing was like the close up encounters and sheer numbers of them at Blue Spring State Park. We approached the headspring area as far as the buoys and just sat there. The manatees are naturally curious (and they seemed to know our guide) so they were quite playful and interactive.
Note: paddleboards, kayaks and boats aren’t allowed past the mouth of the headspring area during manatee season, but there are so many you’ll still have an incredible time.
After hanging out and being visited by several manatee families, we pulled our boards ashore in the appropriate area and headed for the boardwalks. Observing the manatees and anihingas (water birds) from the platforms along the waterway was awesome! They’re such huge beasts and are so calm. The wildlife pairs with really beautifully with the crystal clear water.
If you have little kids with you, often it’s calm enough to paddleboard with little ones sitting on the boards. Check with your guide in advance if that’s an option for you paddleboarding destination. Sharing wildlife experiences with kids makes for an unforgettable paddleboarding trip to Blue Spring State Park.
Book this exact Florida springs paddleboarding tour here! – know that the number of manatees varies and is out of the control of any guide or Florida State Parks.
Ecotours at De Leon Springs State Park
Florida loves their attraction state parks. De Leon Springs is a wonderful state park very close to the Daytona area. About a half hour’s drive, you can plan a visit for a meal and some wildlife viewing.
De Leon Springs has been built up around the main headspring to be a perfect swimming hole. The spring feeds a larger river when you can actually take a guided eco-cruise to look for manatees, alligators and more. This park is one of our family’s favorites when we’re in the Daytona area.
Southwest Florida Springs to explore
Seriously, there are so many springs to explore all around Florida. While there aren’t guided tours to all of the many Florida springs, a lot have interpretive displays or visitor centers. You can always visit on your own and explore at your own pace.
Florida Springs w/ Mermaids: Weeki Wachee Springs
Another amazing Florida spring to check out is Weeki Wachee Springs. It too is a state park and a haven for manatees… and mermaids. Yes, when it’s not manatee season there is actually a live, underwater mermaid show. I know it sounds bizarre, and it is, but it’s also wonderfully vintage-Florida.
There are all kinds of activities and attractions at Weeki Wachee Springs, so be prepared knowing that a visit to these Florida springs will be very different from the pristine nature of Blue Spring State Park.
Crystal Springs and Crystal River
Crystal River is a famous destination in Florida. This is the most popular place in the state for swimming with manatees. Manatee interaction with humans is closely monitored and managed, so Crystal River is the place to go for having an in-water experience with manatees. Snorkeling at Crystal Springs is a busy experience because there are many licensed vendors taking guests out, but if you can go early, it’s magical.
For the best experience swimming with manatees at Crystal River:
- book your snorkeling tour in advance
- visit as early as possible for the greatest manatee presence
- ASK ABOUT WATER CLARITY – when there are a lot of boats on the river, the clarity drops greatly, making it very difficult to have a good manatee experience
Really, this is a very special place, but you must be sure you’re booking your experience to be the best possible. It will run about $80 – $100 per person for a credible guide, but it’s a once in a lifetime experience. Check out our full article on staying at the Plantation on Crystal River and our manatee swim.
Three Sister Springs Refuge
Located in the town of Crystal River, this Florida spring is one of the best places to OBSERVE manatees in the winter. The area is a refuge, and although the manatees can come and go as they please, their numbers soar in the winter months.
In the summer, Three Sisters Springs is a really cool park for swimming and kayaking. They also have a boardwalk system, so exploring and appreciating this gorgeous area is easy.
Visiting Homosassa Springs State Park
Homosassa Springs is a bit different. This isn’t a spring for swimming, but this is a great place to… GO UNDERWATER! The park has been around since 1920s when it was first set aside for preservation. It’s also a wildlife park, meaning that it’s kind of like a zoo, housing several species of mammals and reptiles native to Florida.
The highlight really is the underwater observation room just above the spring. Here you can spy fish, turtles, and sometimes manatees. There is also a medical facility here at Homosassa Springs that is used to treat injured manatees.
Central Florida Springs not to miss
We’ve separated this area from Orlando because it’s just not a half hour or so; it’s about two or more hours from Orlando to either Ocala or Dunnellon. These can still be day trips from Orlando, but they take more planning.
Silver Springs State Park
Heading a bit farther north you’ll find Silver Springs State Park. This is also a very popular spot for finding manatees, gators and birds of all sorts. Popular for both SUP and kayaking, Silver Springs is gorgeous and, dare I say it, very Instagramable.
Besides the crystal clear waters and tropical vegetation, another interesting sight at Silver Springs State Park are the monkeys. More than 200 macaques run wild in the forest due to being released a long time ago from a private collection and zoo. Today, the monkey’s are closely monitored due to the herpes virus they carry, but can be seen from the waters of Silver Springs. Totally weird.
When visiting Silver Springs State Park, either rent a SUP or kayak to explore on your own OR get a ticket for the glass bottom boat tour. About 45 minutes, the tour will take you down the Silver River a bit for wildlife viewing and to go over the many fissures of the Silver Springs area. It’s a Florida springs site to not miss!
Rainbow Springs State Park
We loved Rainbow Springs State Park. The kids enjoyed swimming in the most colorful waters we’d ever seen and even exploring beyond the springs up in hills. Rainbow Springs State Park has plenty of swimming opportunities as well as dry-land-fun. The site of a former zoo and also an attraction park, there are a bunch of waterfalls (manmade), a butterfly garden, and even creepy old animal paddocks.
The Rainbow River is known to have a solid gator population though, so any paddleboarding or swimming needs to have a high level of caution and alert. Really beautiful though and is one of the most fun of the Florida springs to visit!
If you’re interested in camping and making a weekend of it, just downriver from the headspring is the Rainbow Springs Campground. It’s a great option for where to stay near Rainbow Springs, especially since there are very few accommodation options all the way out here.
North Florida Springs to Visit
Unless you’re driving across Florida for a road trip or you’re heading to Gainsville, not a lot of tourists head to this part of the state. More remote and less touristy, north central Florida has plenty of great options for freshwater springs.
Swimming at Fanning Springs
Feeding into the Suwannee River, Fanning Springs is another one of those picturesque swimming holes. A Florida State Park, Fanning Springs is HUGE and goes deep enough to be an inland scuba destination. Who knew?!
Like with other Florida springs, Fanning Springs closes to human access (for swimming, snorkel and scuba) during the winter months. The manatees come into the springs starting in November and tend to hang around into late February or March. If you want to see manatees, this is your north central Florida destination!
Ginnie Springs for a Florida Springs camping trip
Northwest of Orlando, you’ll find another wonderful of the Florida Springs: Ginnie Springs. This spot is perfect for the camping and kayaking enthusiast. Ginnie Springs is a privately owned area, so it has different rules and regulations than other freshwater springs in Florida, but it’s still beautiful and fun!
Top activities at Ginnie Springs include snorkeling, scuba driving into the springs, kayaking and of course, camping. Check out these great ideas for planning a fun weekend camping trip to Ginnie Springs (Angie Away is our friend and only recommends the best!).
What if I’ve never tried paddleboarding?
Trying a new sport or activity can seem daunting or stressful but it doesn’t have to be. Paddleboarding was both really intimidating to me and kind of hilarious until I did it. Immediately I realized the error of my ways when I discovered that it’s actually fun and much more of a workout than I thought.
You know, you see people drifting by on their paddleboards and they look lazy almost, but paddleboarding is actually a combination of strength, balance and endurance. If you think you don’t have one of those three things, that’s okay. What you lack in balance you’ll make up for in strength. Where you don’t have the strength, you’ll find your endurance. You just don’t know until you try.
Tip: it’s okay to do your paddleboarding experience on your knees or standing. As long as you can paddle, you’re good to go. And remember that everybody does things differently and not everybody is good at everything.
Benefits of paddleboarding
I was discussing this with some other guests of Paddleboard Orlando. Paddleboarding is a unique recreational opportunity where you can access some of the most calm, and beautiful places without any sort of impact on the environment. Same with kayaking. Paddleboarding is incredible exercise that works muscles you don’t realize you have. And it’s so calming too.
Fun challenge: if you’re into yoga AND nature, there are paddleboard companies that will combine the two, using wide, stable boards. Yoga and paddleboarding is one of my big goals for the future.
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So, not that we would ever tell you to stop enjoying your time at Universal Orlando Resort or Disneyworld, but don’t you just want to plan a day out in Florida’s unique nature? Seriously, we’ve been all over and nowhere else has there been sure a combination of fascinating geology, gorgeously clear water, abundant wildlife, and endless fun.
Paddleboarding Florida’s springs near Orlando and beyond is an incredible experience, for the solo, couple or family traveler alike.
Want to pin this for later when you’re planning your Orlando getaway? Go for it!! Also, be sure to check out our plan for a really fun Florida Gulf Coast Road Trip!
Rob Taylor is the founder of 2TravelDads, the original LGBT Family Travel blog. Focusing on ecotourism and education, 2TravelDads inspires LGBT families (and traditional families also) to go beyond their usual getaways and use travel to learn about and be part of a bigger world. “Traveling the globe and giving the kids a broad worldview.”