Last updated on November 20th, 2019 at 07:40 pm
Exploring the southern Suwannee River in Northwest Florida
Where is this Florida wonderland? It’s so far off the beaten path that it’s hard to describe. The nearby “cities” are tiny Chiefland and Cross City. About an hour west of Gainesville, this area is sometimes called the Nature Coast or the Hidden Coast and local tourism boosters are trying to brand it Pure Water Wilderness.
Whatever you call it, the area has some outstanding features, and that starts with sister state parks located 10 miles apart on the magnificent Suwannee River — Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs.
Two state parks for cabins or camping
Both Fanning and Manatee have stunning turquoise-blue crystal clear springs, popular with swimmers in the summer and with snorkelers and divers year round.
What makes these parks such a great pair is that one – Fanning Springs – has great cabins and the other – Manatee Springs – has great campsites. With their remote location, these cabins and campsites are easier to reserve than many in the state system.
Whether you camp or stay in a cabin, you are well-situated for a variety of activities. Within a 20 mile radius, you can bike a long paved trail, kayak a wild stretch of the Suwannee River, hike in forests or explore several small springs. Take a scenic 45 minute drive to the Gulf, and you find unspoiled Gulf fishing villages.
Fanning Springs State Park
This park is small for a state park and known mostly by locals. The spring itself has swimming-pool clear water and is a dazzling blue in the sunlight. In has been a popular summer swimming hole for a century. Its water is a brisk 72 degrees year round. Snorkelers and scuba divers come for the underwater view and winter visitors occasionally get lucky and spot visiting manatees.
The park has some short hiking trails, including beautiful boardwalks around the spring and down to the Suwannee River. It’s also an excellent place to put in canoes or kayaks for paddling the Suwannee.
The real find here, however, are the five state park cabins. Each has two bedrooms, a full kitchen, an expansive screened porch with rocking chairs and picnic tables and a campfire ring and grill. Surrounded by forest and within a short walk to the spring, these cabins, which sleep six, are bargains at $100 a night. It’s wise to reserve well ahead for weekends, but these cabins are often readily available weeknights. For campground reservations, call (800) 326-3521 (8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern) or TDD (888) 433-0287, or online at Florida State Parks.
Fanning Springs is two minutes off US-98, so it’s also good for a quick leg-stretcher or picnic while you drive through the region.
Manatee Springs State Park
Twenty minutes south of Fanning is another spectacular group of springs, Manatee, a first-magnitude spring, meaning it pumps more than 100 million gallons of water daily.
Manatee Springs is an exquisite sight, with clear blue-green water ringed by cypress trees and knees, all draped with Spanish moss. Extensive boardwalks give you many good views of the spring and spring run and there are 8.5 miles of hiking trails in the park. The spring is a quarter mile off the scenic Suwannee.
The spring has a well-developed swimming area and a concessionaire, Anderson Outdoor Adventures, which makes it easy to enjoy the spring and river.
You can rent canoes, kayaks, small motor boats and snorkeling gear plus Anderson will shuttle you upstream so you can paddle with the current back to the park on short or longer trips. (Rentals range in price from $20 for two hours in a two-person kayak or canoe to $55 for a shuttle to a 9.5 mile Suwannee River trip on a two-person kayak or canoe.)
Anderson also offers a two-hour tour on board a six-passenger pontoon boat guided by a knowledgeable captain, who will point out wildlife and talk about the area’s history.
Given its name, you would expect to see manatees in this spring in the winter, and, if you’re lucky, you may, although manatees are not consistently present.
Manatee Springs has 86 woodsy well-spaced campsites, some just for tent campers, some for RVs. The campsites get high marks from campers, who frequently report seeing deer.
To top it all off, the Fanning Springs concession includes a popular casual restaurant serving barbecue and beer.
Kayaking and canoeing the Suwannee between the parks
There’s a kayak or canoe launch at Fanning Springs and it is an easy 9.6 mile down-stream paddle to Manatee Springs. Anderson’s Outdoors Adventures will livery you back or rent you kayaks or canoes.
The Suwannee River here is wide and lined with giant cypress trees. Signs warn that this is the area where huge leaping sturgeon can be a hazard in the spring.
We saw no alligators (although I am sure they are present) but plenty of birds. On our November canoe trip, we saw five or six manatees at the mouth of Manatee Springs. They hung around a long time, with kayaks floating among them amid squeals of delight.
The water here is tinted orange with tannins and the current is two or three miles per hour.
Despite the forested shoreline, you’ll find little shade while paddling, so in warm weather start your paddle early in the day and be prepared with hats and sunscreen.
There are several places to stop along the way and stretch. Andrews Wildlife Management Area is primarily a resource for hunters, but it offers trails and picnic tables right along the Suwannee. Clays Landing, at the border of Manatee Springs, has a boat ramps and more picnic tables.
Nearby bike trail
The Nature Coast State Trail is 31.7 miles of paved bike trail centered near Fanning Springs State Park. There are three spokes to three small towns, each with less than 2,000 people: Cross City, Trenton and Chiefland.
The highlight of the trail is the scenic train trestle located about four miles west of Fanning Springs State Park on the route to Cross City. The rusting metal trestle is located away from roads and cities, so it’s a quiet spot where you can linger and gaze into the swiftly flowing Suwannee.
The most scenic stretches of the trail are from Fanning Springs to a mile or so beyond the trestle and the 7-mile-long leg that goes to quaint little Trenton.This section parallels a quieter county road with shade and farmland.
There are trailheads in Chiefland, Trenton and Cross City with parking, restrooms and a pavilion at each. Trailheads at Old Town and Fanning Springs have only parking. Covered benches are spaced every two miles along the trail.
Unfortunately, there are no nearby bike rental firms, so you must bring your own.
Here’s a Florida Rambler story about the Nature Coast State Trail.
More things to do in this area
Just 15 minutes north of Fanning Springs is Otter Springs, a private campground that also rents cabins and has several springs and trails. We particularly liked the one-mile hike back into the woods to Little Otter Springs, a quiet, unspoiled clear pool with a rope swing inviting you to cool off. Visitors are charged $4 for a day pass – perhaps more than it’s worth for a quick visit.
- Another 10 minutes north of Otter Springs is a Gilchrist County park, Hart Springs, with scenic half-mile boardwalk along the spring run. Hart Spring also offers camping. It has a large swimming basin with an island and a bridge, but the best thing about the park is the boardwalk.
- A scenic drive and destination about 45 minutes west of US98 is Steinhatchee, an Old Florida fishing town with several resorts. Along the way to Steinhatchee, you can stop at a rare sight in Florida: A small waterfall. There’s a park there operated by the Suwannee River Water Management District.
Resources for planning your trip:
- Fanning Springs State Park
18020 N.W. HWY 19
Fanning Springs, FL 32693
- Manatee Springs State Park
11650 NW 115 Street
Chiefland, FL 32626
- Nature Coast visitor information
- Pure Water Wilderness visitor information
- Reserve cabins at Fanning Springs State Park or campsites at Manatee Springs State Park through ReserveAmerica.
- Bicyclists who come for the Nature Coast State Trail often head over to Cedar Key for more riding, just exploring or to dine in some excellent restaurants. Here’s our guide to Cedar Key.
- An hour south: Crystal River, a magnet for manatees and those who love them.
- About 45 minutes southeast: The Withlacoochee Trail, which might be Florida’s best bike trail, one bicyclists want to put at the top of their to-ride list.