Planning three days enjoying Florida’s springs isn’t so tough when we have such a great selection to choose from. For folks in the Tampa area, a drive up US 19 leads to a series of popular springs that will keep you busy with a broad range of outdoor activities.
Day 1: At Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park off US 19 in New Port Richey, take a wander down the mile-long Springs Trail to see Cauldron Spring and Salt Spring, Florida’s deepest spring, at 320 feet deep. No swimming, but you can launch a kayak to paddle up Salt Springs Run, a 3-mile trip.
Continue north to Weeki Wachee Springs. A state park renowned as a roadside attraction as the “Home of Live Mermaids,” the head spring is best visible from the mermaid show’s underwater theater.
Rent a canoe or take a guided boat trip down the river to marvel at its crystalline waters. Buccaneer Bay, a water park along the edge of the springs, provides access for swimming and snorkeling the 72*F water. Scuba is permitted into the depths at certain times of day with advanced reservations.
Camping afterwards? Consider Chassahowitzka River Campground to start Day 2 off with the next springs adventure.
Day 2: Whether or not you stay at Chassahowitzka River Campground, the boat ramp is the launch point for Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, which can only be explored by water. A dozen springs form the headwaters of the Chassahowitzka River, one of the more pristine waterways in this part of the state.
After a morning paddle, head up US 19 to visit Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Some of my earliest memories are of “Nature’s Fishbowl,” a floating underwater observatory that lets you stare out at the springs, the fish, and the manatees that live here. The park has a manatee rehab center, lots of native Florida wildlife, and more springs visible from the walkways.
Finish the day in Crystal River with a visit to Three Sisters Springs. This gathering spot for manatees can be accessed by boardwalk, which should be open regularly by November. During the manatee off-season (April – mid-Nov) you can paddle in from Hunter’s Spring Park and swim or snorkel in the spring.
There are several nice campgrounds around Homosassa Springs, or you can continue on to Rainbow Springs to camp.
Day 3: Rainbow Springs. One of my favorite places since I was a kid, Rainbow Springs opened in the 1930s as an attraction around the springs. Besides swimming at the springs and paddling the clear waters, it’s enjoyable to walk the park paths to small riverside coves to see all the tiny bubbling springs that make up the waterway.
The Rainbow River is well-known as a tubing destination. Tubing is a summer activity, however, with shuttles available Apr 1-Sep 30. Local outfitters can get you dropped in either at official put-in for the state park (2 hour float) or at KP Hole Park (4 hour float) with takeout at Blue Run Park.
When it’s not tubing season, plan a longer paddle on the river or head back to Crystal River, manatee central. It’s here you can book a trip to snorkel at the offshore springs in Crystal River where the manatees gather.