By Bonnie Gross
If you look at a map of Florida, there aren’t many places without a tangle of roadways and sprinkling of cities.
Along the Gulf Coast below Northwest Florida, however, there is a wide swath of land with just one major road – U.S. Highway 98 – and towns so small they don’t show up on a statewide map. Instead of towns and freeways, it has rivers and springs.
The area, called the Florida Nature Coast, is the very definition of off-the-beaten path and is well worth discovering.
A good place to start is an appealing cluster of recreational opportunities where U.S. 98 crosses the Suwanee River, right along the road that many visitors take to drive into Florida from Northwest Florida.
Within 20 miles, you’ll find two state parks, a long paved biking trail, a wild stretch of the Suwanee River perfect for paddling, forests ideal for hiking and several small springs. Take a scenic 45 minute drive to Gulf, and you find unspoiled Gulf fishing villages.
Fanning Springs State Park
This small park is one of Florida’s hidden gems, known mostly by locals. The spring itself has swimming-pool clear water and is a dazzling blue in the sunlight. In the summer, it is a popular swimming hole with brisk 72-degree water year round. Snorkelers and scuba divers come for the underwater view. 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 Suwanee River. It’s also an excellent place to put in canoes or kayaks for paddling the Suwanee.
The real treasure 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 because of its out-of-the-way location, these cabins are often readily available weeknights. Make reservations via ReserveAmerica.com.
Fanning Springs is two minutes off U.S. 98, so it’s also good for a quick leg-stretcher or picnic.
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 turquoise 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 has a well-developed swimming area and a concessionaire, Anderson Outdoor Adventures, who makes it easy to enjoy spring, which leads in a quarter mile to the scenic Suwanee. 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 Suwanee 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 seen here.
While Fanning Springs has great cabins, 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.
Nature Coast State Trail
The Florida Nature Coast 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 Suwanee.
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.
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.
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.
A scenic drive and destination about 45 minutes west of U.S. 98 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 Suwanee River Water Management District.
Resources for planning your trip:
Photos by Bonnie Gross for VISIT FLORIDA