Showcasing the topography of the lower Suwannee River, Manatee Springs State Park a spring run so clear you can see schools of fish racing down it to the river.
Its trail system leads around deep sinkholes, through ancient forests, and down a boardwalk that ends at an observation point along the Suwannee River.
The spring itself is one of Florida’s largest, a first-magnitude spring. Its surroundings have been left mostly wild, preserving its natural beauty.
Resources for exploring the area around Manatee Springs
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Address: 11650 NW 115 St, Chiefland
Fees: $4-6 per vehicle
Land Manager: Florida State Parks
Open 8 AM until sunset daily. Leashed pets welcome except in vicinity of spring basin. The swimming area and boardwalk may close when the river floods.
Use insect repellent: forests along the Suwannee tend to have more than their fair share of ticks, and there are a lot of mosquitoes in the shade.
From US 19 / Alt US 27 in Chiefland, take CR 320 west into the park.
About the Park
Look into the brilliant boil of Manatee Springs, and step back into the past.
Although the popular state park that surrounds it has campgrounds, concessions, and trails, the spring and the spring run are timeless.
After he paddled across its surface in 1774, famed botanist William Bartram was the first to write about this spring.
“The ebullition is astonishing, and continual,” Bartram wrote, “…a lucid sea green color…throwing up small particles or pieces of white shells, which subside with the waters…”
The aquamarine hue of the spring is from microscopic limestone particles suspended in the water, much like the tint of a glacial lake from “rock flour.”
A deeply shaded campground, extensive trail system, and picnic areas make this a welcome retreat, especially in spring and fall.
Suwannee River Boardwalk
The quarter-mile round trip boardwalk at Manatee Springs is arguably its most popular trail, since every visitor gravitates towards it.
And for good reason. We’ve seen a literal parade of forest creatures browsing through the floodplain forest when it’s dry, and plenty of wildlife along the edges when it is wet.
Overlooks let you see the manatees that drift upstream during the winter months.
The trail ends at the Suwannee River at a dock where you have a nice panorama, and more manatee sightings.
From the end of the Suwannee River Boardwalk, you can continue upstream along the spring run to Manatee Springs itself.
A network of about a half mile of paved paths, boardwalks, and footpaths connects areas of interest around the springs.
Follow the walkway to a boardwalk that leads into the cypress forest that towers over the spring. Make a left at the T intersection. The path to the right connects to the North End Trails.
Becoming a footpath, this short trail loops around the tall stand of cypress and leads to a little cove on the shoreline of the spring run.
The cove is a popular destination for families with very small children since there is a little bit of shallow water.
However, this is a wild shoreline, so be aware of your surroundings.
Both alligators and water snakes, including venomous water moccasins, have been spotted along the spring run.
There is a branch of the trail that connects the Main Spring with Catfish Hole as well.
With its own small trailhead along the park road, the Sink Trail is a 0.6 mile interpretive loop.
This nature trail provides a great introduction to how sinkholes form above an underground stream.
North End Trails
The North End Trails network stretches for 8.5 miles. It has some perplexing dead ends since the trails follow old forest roads through an area logged long ago.
We made a 4.7-mile loop along the trail network for 50 Hikes in North Florida and a shorter one for Hikers Guide to the Sunshine State.
Shacklefoot Pond is a beautiful destination, a dark, primordial place ringed with tall cypresses. A historic graveyard lies at the southernmost point of the trail system.
Using the Clay Trail and the Shacklefoot Trail, the Scenic Trail makes a 2 mile loop. It had a related interpretive brochure the last time we hiked it.
You can also do a loop of slightly less than a mile out of the North End Trails trailhead on the Loop Trail.
A 0.4 mile connector trail connects the Springs Trail at the springs with the North End Trails.
Cyclists are welcome on the paved park road as well as along the North End Trails, which mainly follow a network of forest roads. You’ll need an off-road bike to tackle these.
If you follow the park road out of the park, a side path parallels SR 320 to meet the Nature Coast Trail. The terminus of the trail is at the south end of Chiefland.
This long-distance bike path stretches north to Fanning Springs, where it splits in two directions to pile on more mileage along old railroad routes.
The launch into Manatee Springs Run is a short walk from the main parking area. Buoys mark the limit of upstream travel to keep swimmers and snorkelers safe.
Heading downstream, you parallel the Suwannee River Boardwalk. Sightings of manatees are common, especially during the winter months.
The spring run empties into the broad Suwannee River, which has a strong current at this junction in the floodplain forest.
If you decide to paddle on the Suwannee, it’s best to turn right and paddle against the current to drift back more easily to the spring run.
Be aware the Suwannee has both high-speed boat traffic and navigational hazards in the way of fallen trees near the shorelines.
There are also sturgeon and mullet that leap out of the water. The sturgeon can be dangerous because of their size.
With its campground situated close enough to the spring that you can walk right over for a swim or paddle, there are 80 campsites to choose from on three loops.
Fourteen of these sites are set aside for tent campers, making this a very popular campground in winter for families with children. Leashed pets are welcome.
All sites are deeply shaded. Each has water and electric hookups along with the usual picnic bench and grill. A central bathhouse includes a laundry facility.
Maximum size for an RV is 40 feet. There are a limited number of sites with sewer hookups, but a dump station is available.
Groups can choose from two other camping areas that are strictly for tent camping, each of which has its own bathhouse.
Diving and Snorkeling
On every visit, we’ve seen snorkelers and divers in the springs. This is a dive training location, so you will see groups with instructors on hand.
Both open water and cave diving are available. You must have your certification card with you and register at the ranger station before diving.
In addition to the beautiful Main Spring, the adjacent Catfish Hotel is also used by divers.
It’s a large karst window in a sinkhole a short walk from the Main Spring. Swimmers may not enter it.
See our photos of Manatee Springs State Park
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
One of Florida’s more remote National Wildlife Refuges, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge spans two counties, protecting a sweep of more than 53,000 acres and 30 miles of coastline along the Big Bend
One of the Suwannee River’s largest swimming holes is the clear, cool reflecting pool of Fanning Springs, located along the edge of its namesake town
A beauty spot along the Suwannee River north of Fanning Springs, Hart Springs offers swimming, hiking, camping, and cave diving in a rural setting near Trenton.
On the long dead-end road (SR 24) to Cedar Key, the route John Muir walked nearing his end of his Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf, Cedar Key Scrub State Reserve protects upland scrub habitat for one of Florida’s rarest birds, the Florida scrub-jay. They travel in families, so if you see one, you’ll probably see several.