My first visit to Tallahassee was decades ago, but I’ll always remember the hubbub in summer around a swimming hole in the Apalachicola National Forest just south of the city, as I was on my way to see Wakulla Springs for the first time. When I asked about it later, I found out it was “the party spot” for locals. Years later, all traces of access had vanished, and the highway eventually moved away from it. While there are many such hidden springs south and east of Tallahassee thanks to the Woodville Karst Plain – the interconnected channels of water-filled caverns that pop up in karst windows, big springs, riversinks, and tiny springs – there also are major springs that welcome swimmers and snorklers and paddlers to explore their beauty. Here’s a guide to the best.
Madison Blue Spring
A little more than an hour east of Tallahassee, one of Florida’s most beautiful springs is the deep blue basin at Madison Blue Spring State Park. A long time swimming hole between the towns of Lee and Jasper, it has a short but shallow spring run that flows out into the Withlacoochee River, creating a section of the river where clear and tannic waters mingle over rocky shoals. The shallow run is best for families, while the deep blue bowl invites cave divers, snorkels, and swimmers to float in a pool of blue.
Steep-sided, it’s accessed by a broad wooden staircase. Trails lead to a picnic area and around to the far side of the spring to the best access to the spring run before it meets the river. Since this is a popular swimming hole, it gets very busy on weekends. There is an entrance fee. More details and directions.
While it’s small, it’s certainly a pretty and deep spring, with a staircase and boardwalk leading down to it. Popular with cave divers, Pot Spring is about a mile downriver from Madison Blue on the opposite side of the river.
We tried to but couldn’t find it ourselves from SR 6, but Suwannee River Water Management District confirms it’s the first turnoff to the right eastbound after you cross the Withlacoochee River bridge upon leaving Madison Blue Springs. Go down the dirt road a little to find the entrance kiosk. View a map to the spring. NOTE: Boardwalk is under renovation 9/1/17.
This used to be a well-hidden spring, except from paddlers, who could see the obvious walls of the spring house that once topped it. You could hear it from the campsite at the Big Oak Trail and from the observation deck at Suwannee River State Park, but it wasn’t easy to pick out.
Suwannacoochee Spring served the now-vanished town of Ellaville by providing water for a sawmill owned by post-Civil War Governor Drew, whose mansion once sat along the road to the spring. Once Suwannee River State Park expanded their nature trail loop and added signage, more and more people found it. Now it’s right along the Florida Trail not far from the Suwannee River State Park Annex parking area off US 90, and hard to miss. A side trail leads down to this small spring, which people still soak in.
The birthplace of the Wacissa River and an old-fashioned swimming hole, Wacissa Springs is awe-inspiring from the sheer size of the spring basin: it looks a lot like Wakulla Springs, but without any development around it.
The waters are not as deep, however, and there are many more springs beyond the one found below the cypress with the rope spring. Learn more.
A 1930s resort turned state park, Wakulla Springs is a must-see for all Floridians. Wakulla Springs State Park protects the world’s largest and deepest freshwater spring, with its spring vent 180 feet deep in the basin. This monster of Florida’s first magnitude springs pours out nearly 400 million gallons of water a day. A visit to the park enlightens you as to the prehistoric treasures found at the bottom by divers. Fed by waters flowing through the Woodville Karst Plain, it has suffered ongoing problems with water clarity as more and more population piles in to the north. See it now.
Swimmers can lounge on the beach, splash in the water, or take a jump off the high dive. Nature-lovers shouldn’t miss the narrated boat tour that takes you down the river and across the spring. And a hike down the Wakulla Springs Trail will lead you past sinkholes and spring runs. On your way out the park gate, stop to see little Sally Ward Spring near the park entrance.
On a paddling trip upstream from TNT Hideway just off US 98 on the Wakulla River, it didn’t take long to find our first springs along the cypress-lined waterway. It shouldn’t have been surprising to see manatees in the clear waters, but there they were, enjoying the coolness. Our guide Rob pointed them out as he was on an SUP and could see them better than we could. This is a third-generation family business and pleasant folks to be paddling with on a guided tour. Tours run 2 to 4-1/2 hours, $47-57. You can also rent a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard to head upriver on your own, $30-45.
Along more than 51 miles of meandering from the edge of Georgia into the Apalachicola River near Wewahitchka, the Chipola River has 63 springs along its length. To see them, you’ll need to paddle (or go tubing along the river in the summer months). The Chipola is broken into two parts north and south of Florida Caverns: the Upper Chipola and the Lower Chipola.
Along the Upper Chipola, Lilypad Adventures, north of Marianna in Campbellton, offers both a launch point and a place to stay, with cabin rentals and campsites. They’ll launch you on a half-day or full day trip along the river to see the springs. Bring your own kayak or canoe or rent one on the spot, $25-45.
You can also put in at Florida Caverns State Park (bring your kayak or rent a canoe) and paddle upstream a mile to find Baltzell Spring, a group of four clear, blue springs mostly surrounded by forest. In addition to access to Baltzell, Florida Caverns has Blue Hole, a swimming spring, at the north end of the park. It’s open for swimming when it is clear. Check with the ranger station in advance as to its status.
For excursions along the spring-fed Lower Chipola, check in with Bear Paw Adventures just south of Marianna. Celebrating 30 years of taking people on the Chipola River, they run 4-hour tubing trips during the summer months, and a variety of kayak trips from 2-3 hours where they provide the shuttle, $35. One of their more popular trips takes you past the weird and wonderful karst features and springs along the Chipola in the Hinson Conservation Area.
Merritts Mill Pond
One of the lesser-known spring-fed gems in the region is Merritts Mill Pond. Blue Springs Recreation Area is the main public access point at the north end of this stunning spring run / reservoir, but it is only open during the summer months – unless you’re a cave diver. Home of Jackson Blue Springs, it’s worth a visit for swimming and snorkeling.
For paddling on Merritts Mill Pond, you can put in at two public ramps to find your way to beautiful springs like Shangri-La and Hole-in-the-Rock, or use a fee ramp at Arrowhead Campground along US 90 in Marianna. See the paddling trail map and directions here.