Millions of people visit Florida each year. Very few see all that it has to offer. Just beyond the beaches and theme parks lies a hidden Florida: wild, breathtaking, beautiful. You get there by river – the original interstate. And there's simply no better vehicle than an inflatable paddle board.
Central and northern Florida waterways boast the highest concentration of natural springs in the country. Millions of gallons of fresh water bubble up from these natural wonders every day, creating turquoise blue pools that stay a steady 72 degrees year-round.
The beauty of an inflatable paddle board is you can easily throw it in your car or check it on your flight. You may not want to dedicate your entire trip to paddle boarding, but it's the perfect way to spend at least one day away from the crowds and into the wild.
HERE ARE 5 NATURAL SPRINGS YOU DON'T WANT TO MISS.
Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park. Photo by @tessa.skiles
Weeki Wachee Springs. Photo by @tessa.skiles
1. WEEKI WACHEE SPRINGS
Location: 1 hour north of Tampa, almost 2 hours west of Orlando
Note: no alcohol allowed, only non-disposable containers for food and drinks, reservations required ($10 per person for private vessel)
At Weeki Wachee you have the best of both worlds – an Old Florida attraction plus the deepest freshwater cave system in the country. Since the 1940s, this classic theme park has been drawing tourists with it's water park and mermaid show. But you'll quickly float away from the crowds when you launch your inflatable paddle board into the crystal-clear Weeki Wachee River, shaded with cypress, oaks and Florida palms. Wildlife is abundant, including turtles, otters, storks and pelicans. You may even see a manatee if you're paddling November through March. It's a 5.5-mile point to point paddle with a shuttle to get you back. It should be noted – they won't take your board. An inflatable paddle board in a backpack would be a better choice, but it's up to the driver. Most people send one person back to get the car or leave their boats in Roger's Park and come back in their car to pick them up. Plan for a three- to four-hour trip.
2. CRYSTAL RIVER
Location: 1.5 hours North of Tampa, 1.5 hours West of Orlando
Crystal clear water draws people year-round, but from November to March it's all about the manatees. Three Sisters Spring is where hundreds of sea cows gather seeking refuge from colder Gulf Waters. While it's closed to paddling until March 31, you can easily tie-off outside the springs and swim in. The water stays 72 year-round, so if you want a wetsuit there are local shops you can rent from (you can also rent snorkeling gear). Launch your inflatable paddle board from Hunter Springs Park, then paddle approximately 1.5 miles to the narrow entrance canal. There's a designated tie-down area or you can drop an anchor. Just be sure to check Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge on Facebook before heading out. If temps drop too low, they close the springs entirely. However the boardwalk inside the refuge is always open if you want to see them by land. The Manatee experience is one that is not to be missed!
Three Sisters Springs. Photo by @getupandgokayaking
3. SANTA FE RIVER
Location: 1.5 hours West of Jacksonville, almost 3 hours North of Orlando and Tampa
Known as one of the best Florida rivers to kayak or canoe, the Santa Fe offers six springs to explore: Poe, Lily, Gilchrist, Devil's Ear, July and Ginnie. If you put in at High Springs, you can do a point-to-point paddle covering 15 miles in about six hours (from US 441 to the 47 Bridge). Local outfitters offer shuttle service from multiple take outs along the river so be sure to have your partner selected. You can also put in at Ginnie Springs, paddle upstream then return with the current. As an FYI, it's a popular hangout with the nearby college and can get busy on holidays and weekends. There are inflatable paddle board and boat options for rent in High Springs, but it is highly recommended to use your own inflatable paddle board to ensure an awesome experience.
Ginnie Springs. Photo by @tessa.skiles
"JUST BEYOND THE BEACHES AND THEME PARKS LIES A HIDDEN FLORIDA: WILD, BREATHTAKING, BEAUTIFUL. YOU GET THERE BY RIVER – THE ORIGINAL INTERSTATE. AND THERE'S SIMPLY NO BETTER VEHICLE THAN AN INFLATABLE PADDLE BOARD."
4. MORRISON SPRINGS
Location: approximately 1 hour North of Destin, 30A and Panama City Beach
Just north of some of Florida's most popular beaches lies a remote spring gushing 48 million gallons of frigid water every day. Morrison's breathtaking clear turquoise water is not a well-kept secret, so expect to see lots of swimmers on warm weekends or in the summer. But you'll quickly escape the crowds once you paddle down the Choctawhatchee River. In fact, silence is one of this journey's biggest selling points, along with the old-growth cypress trees that line the shore. You'll need your own inflatable paddle board, as there aren't any rental shops nearby. You can go as far down the river as you like, just be aware of water levels before entering the spring run. The Choctawhatchee's current can be swift.
5. WEKIWA SPRINGS/WEKIVA RIVER
Location: 30 minutes North of Orlando
Located just half an hour from Orlando, the Wekiva River offers true, wild Florida. You have two options to explore it, launching from King's Landing or Wekiva Island. King's Landing is the more remote option, and offers easy access to one of the prettiest sections - the Emerald Cut off Rock Springs Run. You could also launch from Wekiva Island, a private development with a beach party vibe, and paddle 1.5 miles to Wekiwa Springs. Or, you could really put your inflatable paddle board to the test and paddle from one point to the other (8.5 miles). Wekiva to Kings Landing would be upstream, then you could lay back on your inflatable paddle board and drift back just in time for happy hour. Wekiva reaches capacity early on the weekends and parking is first come-first serve (it's $2 per person entry; $10 per vessel). Worried about capacity?Just launch from Kings Landing and grab their shuttle back ($20).