No one should come to Florida without spending a day or two at Walt Disney World and basking in the sun on the state’s fabulous sugar-fine white sand beaches. But when the last roller coaster has been ridden and everyone is lobster-red, tourists begin to look for other things to occupy their time. Fortunately, Florida is chock full of secret spots and undiscovered gems. One of these is Manatee Springs State Park, located in an area known as Florida’s Nature Coast, which lies between the panhandle of Florida and the Tampa Bay area.
Located a few miles inland from the coast, the park encompasses the entire length of Manatee Springs, terminating where the spring waters empty into the Suwannee River. The 50 to 150 million gallons of water emitted by Manatee Springs each day bubble up in a circular pool surrounded by giant oak draped in moss
At this springhead, waters range in color from the purest turquoise to emerald green to the deepest azure and are so clear that you can see every detail of the rocks 25 feet below the surface. Hundreds of manatee winter here, deserting the colder waters of the Suwannee for the year-round 72 degree temperature of the spring. This year the manatee have arrived early due to a cold snap; they will remain until March or April.
Whether visitors stay on the boardwalk that runs between the spring head and the river or take to the eight miles of marked trails in the park, wildlife spotting opportunities abound. Most days, dozens of vultures sit in the trees along the river’s edge and giant sturgeon jump in the river. One of the most popular native inhabitants is the otter; if you look closely you will undoubtedly spot their sleek bodies diving under the water in search of clams and then popping up amidst the mangrove roots and mosses to munch on their bounty.
With campgrounds, picnic areas, swimming holes, and hiking, this park has a great deal to offer. Kayaks, canoes, and boats sit at water’s edge, available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Many folks arrive fully equipped for a day of fishing from their kayaks, while others paddle down the course of the spring to the wide, placid Suwannee River to watch spectacular sunsets from their canoes.
While the park is a treat any time of the year, the very best time to visit may be the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving when the park hosts Clay Landing Days. The name of the evnet is a reference to the portion of the riverbank where the park is located, which was historically known as Clay Landing. For these two days each year, visitors are treated to wagon rides and hayrides along park trails where reenactors – people dressed as early Florida settlers and Seminole and Timucuan Indians – demonstrate the survival skills used by Native Americans and pioneers. Clay Landing Days activities are free with a paid park admission of $4, which covers a car with up to eight people. Camping fees are $17.44 per night, including tax.
Photos courtesy of Barbara Weibel
Article by Barbara Weibel of Hole In The Donut Travels