The Public Interest Communications Student Association (PICSA) at the University of Florida has partnered with the Florida Springs Council to provide UF students with alternatives to visiting Ginnie Springs.
GO TO A SPRING! BUT NOT GINNIE.
The owners of Ginnie Springs Campground contribute to the degradation of Florida’s springs by pumping and selling water to water bottling companies. We can vote with our dollars, and refuse to condone their actions. While you're at the University of Florida, you're in the middle of the highest concentration of springs on the planet. No other place on earth has springs in this concentration, and they are stunning. Don't let the opportunity pass you by to experience them; we're here to help you do so without supporting exploitative practices!
THE CLOSEST SPRINGS TO UF
GILCHRIST BLUE STATE PARK: The closest spring is Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park, it's just a 38-minute drive from UF. As a state park, it's open every day of the year and costs just $6 per carload. My number one tip is to take a mask or goggles to take a look at the vent - just gorgeous! This is my top recommendation for camping, reserve a spot through the state park system.
Insider's Tip: There's a second spring on the property called "Naked Spring" that is undergoing a revegetation project, worth a short hike to see it. If you're up for a longer hike, ask the ranger for directions to "Johnson Spring." It's on one of the trails, and you seldom see another person there, even on a busy day. Go at opening or dusk on a weekday, on summertime weekends they often reach capacity early.
7450 NE 60th St, High Springs, FL 32643
ICHETUCKNEE STATE PARK, NORTH ENTRANCE: Ichetucknee is a state park, so it's open every day of the year and is only $6 per car for entry. The north entrance is where you'll go if you want to swim, and it's a 46-minute drive from UF.
Insider's Tip: Definitely take a mask or goggles! They don't have to be fancy, but to see underwater is key here, there's lots of fish and turtles. DO NOT MISS Blue Hole Spring! It's about a quarter-mile hike from the main spring and to look down into the cave of Blue Hole underwater is not to be missed.
8294 SW Elim Church Rd, Fort White, FL 32038
ICHETUCKNEE STATE PARK, SOUTH ENTRANCE:
A state park, open every day of the year and only $6 per carload. This is the entrance you want if you want to go tubing down the river. The entire length of this river is a crystal clear spring run - no dark river water here. You can rent tubes and purchase a ride back on the trolley inside the park.
Insider's Tip: Summertime weekends can be pretty packed. Go on a weekday if you can. There are manatees on the river during much of the winter, look into renting a kayak inside the park to explore the river. Nothing disposable is allowed on the river - no snacks in disposable packaging, no plastic water bottles. Study the park's website before you embark on a tubing or kayaking trip to get details and the latest updates.
12087 SW US 27, Fort White, FL 32038
A LITTLE FARTHER BUT WORTH EXPLORING
SILVER SPRINGS STATE PARK:
This was Florida's top attraction before Disney, for good reason. My number one impress-a-date recommendation! Another state park, it's not much farther than Gilchrist Blue and Ichetucknee Springs; it's only 50 minutes from UF. It's worth visiting even if you're staying on land; you can see the spring from a paved promenade, there are boardwalk trails, ice cream shops, a museum and gift shop, and the iconic glass-bottom boats. But I especially like this park for kayaking. The wildlife viewing is about as good as it gets. A bothersome troop of non-native monkeys have established themselves along the river and can often be seen on a kayak trip, and there are manatees that stay year-round, but you usually have to venture away from the main spring by kayak to see them.
Insider's Tip: You can easily rent kayaks right there in the park. But for an extra special trip, arrange for clear kayaks with Get Up and Go Kayaking. It's amazing seeing the resident manatees the fish, and maybe even a resting gator through a clear kayak.
5656 E Silver Springs Blvd, Silver Springs, FL 34488
RAINBOW SPRINGS STATE PARK:
Like the Ichetucknee, where you go to enjoy it depends on what you want to do. To swim the headspring, go into the state park, $6 per carload. It's about a one-hour drive from UF. It was once a theme park, so there are remnants on the trails of man-made waterfalls and gardens inside the park. It's a nice swim, but the head spring inside the park lacks the impressive vent/cave features or vegetation of some of the other springs on our list.
Which is why I recommend instead...
RAINBOW RIVER - KP HOLE COUNTY PARK:
About one hour from UF, this is a great destination for kayaking or tubing! You can rent a kayak, tube, or paddleboard this crystal-clear spring-fed river from KP Hole County Park. From this park you can paddle up to the head spring, and then float back down to KP Hole park (check their website for instructions on planning a day of tubing). Kayak during the winter, tube on a weekday, just avoid those extra busy summer weekends when the park will likely close early due to reaching capacity.
Insider's Tip: Just like at Silver Spring, I think the absolute best way to kayak this river is with a clear kayak. Contact Get Up and Go to arrange a tour.
SILVER GLEN SPRING:
This spring just south of Ocala is an adventure. Think port-a-potties and spotty cell service. But worth it if you've covered the closer springs and are ready to explore. It is NOT a state park; it is inside the Ocala National Forest and has a per-person admission fee. It is an impressively vast spring, another one you want to be sure you have a mask or goggles for. In the summertime it's known for an influx of thousands of striped bass seeking relief from the too-warm water of the St. Johns river. Swimming there during the summer is like being in a crowded fish tank. In the winter, manatees come in to rest and stay warm. Keep an eye out for stingrays, this is one of the few springs where you'll see them!
Insider's Tip: Since cell service can be spotty in the Ocala National Forest, be sure you have a map and directions saved offline.
This isn't technically a spring, this underground pool what we'd call a "karst window," a place where the karst has collapsed, revealing the aquifer below. But it's such a unique experience that I couldn't help but recommend taking advantage of it before you move away from the area. You can only enter Devil's Den with snorkel or scuba gear - no sightseers. Call ahead and make reservations. You can rent snorkel gear there if you don't have your own. It's only 35 minutes from UF!
5390 NE 180th Ave, Williston, FL 32696
HIT LOTS OF SPRINGS AT ONCE, KAYAK THE SANTA FE RIVER
Kayaking the Santa Fe River gives you a tour of many of the area's springs. Depending on the route you choose, you'll float past Lily Spring, Mermaid Spring, Rum Island Spring, Gilchrist Blue, Ginnie Spring (you can take a look without paying admission as long as you stay in your kayak), and many smaller springs and "sucks" (a sort of reverse spring where water disappears underground.) Contact the outfitter RUM 138, they'll get you on the water and bring you back to your car at the end. An added plus is that Rum 138 is also an art gallery, music space, and meeting place of local advocates fighting the water bottling permit (many as part of "Our Santa Fe River.") Only 35 minutes from UF.
This is just a sampling of the springs adventures available within a day's drive of Gainesville. There are over 1,000 springs in Florida, and Gainesville sits nearly in the center of them. If you have questions about springs, either visiting them or protecting them, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org