Florida's freshwater springs, the real fountains of youth

Got five days you want to spend well? Do what visitors to the Sunshine State and native Floridians have been doing for generations: spend time at natural springs in Florida.

By Kevin Mims

Freshwater springs are the ultimate year-round Florida attraction, and we've got more of these crystal-clear natural wonders than any other place in the country.

The highest concentration of natural springs in Florida is in the north and central regions, making it super simple to create your own personalized trip, depending on your schedule and how much you've previously traveled in the area. If you haven't had the privilege of visiting many Florida springs in the past, here's a sample trip that follows a fairly linear route with a stop at a spring a day. Let's hit the road:

1. Wakulla Springs State Park

Located just 15 minutes south of Tallahassee, Wakulla Springs State Park is the perfect northern anchor for a road trip exploring springs in North Florida.

For starters, this is the deepest freshwater spring in the world; don't miss a chance to perform your best cannonball from the swimming platform. History, nature and film buffs, if the scenery looks like something from a Tarzan movie, that's because it is. Wakulla Springs is the location of many Hollywood classics, including "Creature from the Black Lagoon." Be sure to take the famous river cruise while you’re there, too.

2. Ichetucknee Springs State Park

If you've been in Florida for any length of time, this is probably the spring your parents told you about.

While there are several places around the state where you can take a tube trip, the Ichetucknee River rules them all. It's a no-frills, easygoing adventure that can be enjoyed by all, no matter if you’re 8 or 80. While there, hang out at headsprings and take the half-mile trail to Blue Hole Spring, another outstanding gem located in the park.

Trust me, this is Old Florida at its finest and one of the best springs in North Florida. See more at this website.

3. Fanning Springs State Park

The next three stops happen right along scenic U.S. 19 along Florida's Nature Coast. Make a stop at Fanning Springs State Park for a relaxing afternoon of swimming and picnicking.

If you have a kayak, make sure to bring it along – Fanning Springs feeds the legendary Suwannee River, so you'll definitely want to spend some time paddling while you’re there. Alternatively, Manatee Springs State Park is located just a few miles north of Fanning Springs in Chiefland, so you have a couple of great options in this area.

4. Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Three Sisters Springs

Folks, this is manatee country. While you'll be out of the water at Homosassa Springs, you will be entertained by plenty of wildlife exhibits and attractions. Make sure to visit with Lu the Hippo, one of Homosassa's most famous residents. So famous, in fact, that he was granted special Florida citizenship in 1991 by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

You have another option for adventure just seven miles away – Crystal River's Three Sisters Springs, one of the most magnificent jewels in the state. In the winter, expect to see more manatees than you've most likely ever seen in once place. Most visitors access the spring by tour boat, kayak or paddleboard, but the new Three Sisters Springs boardwalk is open on a limited basis.

5. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

For the grand finale – or a grand start if you’re beginning your trip in the south – you'll be greeted by the world-famous mermaids who have made Weeki Wachee Springs State Park loved by visitors from around the globe.

The mermaids have been delighting guests since 1947 and the tradition continues during several regular performances, 365 days a year. Also, in the summer months, hang out at the park's Buccaneer Bay attraction, with water slides and a white sandy beach that's perfect for getting the ultimate Florida tan. Round out the whole experience with a kayak trip on the Weeki Wachee River, one of the most scenic paddling trips found anywhere. No equipment needed – just head over to Paddling Adventures, the park's outfitter.

Florida Travel: Kayaking the Weeki Wachee River