Imagine paddle boarding amongst massive cypress trees as lazy manatees drift along belong you. That was our experience at Manatee Springs State Park in Florida. Although we only had time for a day trip, it was a magical experience.
We have visited a number of freshwater springs in the area, and so far, Manatee Springs has been our favorite. Believe it or not, The Manatee Spring releases 100 million gallons of water every day!
For this SUP board adventure, we camped at Hart Springs RV Campground, a county-run park, and campground in Bell, Florida. The park and campground were well-maintained and picturesque, with hiking and walking pathways between the campground and the springs.
The Suwannee River was running so high that Hart Springs was flooded out during our stay. Despite the flooding, we could tell the springs below the river water would be stunning. We used a long wooden boardwalk to traverse the swamp and enjoy the unique flora and fauna without getting our sneakers wet!
Getting to Manatee Springs
Manatee Springs State Park is a half hour away from Hart Springs by car. Along the way, we passed Fanning Springs State Park, which we considered visiting. However, due to the high river water, the springs were “browned out.”
So we continued the journey to Manatee Springs, passing many other options as we went. For example, there is an option to paddle the Suwannee River, but another option we considered was paddling the Suwannee River from Fanning Springs down to Manatee Springs.
The stretch between the two state parks is six river miles, winding through dense forest. We met some folks on a multi-day trip along the river in their kayaks, proving there are many ways to enjoy the area.
At Manatee Springs State Park
When we arrived at Manatee Springs, we explored the scenic boardwalks and hiking trails. We found the Spring area where other visitors were swimming, playing, and basking in the clear waters.
At the end of the swimming area, there was a boat launch for kayaks and paddleboards. From the launch, we could see kayakers floating while manatees swam around them, and we couldn’t wait to get on our paddle boards!
We had the Hala Atcha 86 and the Hala Carbon Playa in the car, waiting to explore. Inflating the boards is a breeze with our Shark high-pressure SUP pump. And, I have to admit it had been a while since I had the Atcha 86 on the water, and at first, I installed the fin backward. But happens to the best of us!
My husband went to the water with the Carbon Playa, and I wasn’t far behind him. It did not take as long as I expected to get the fin turned around. I’m not sure dodging Manatees came to mind when Hala was designing the retractable fin, but I was glad to have it in this environment.
On the Water
We got our boards floating and jumped on. The group of manatees that had been hanging out around the put-in had moved along to deeper waters. Luckily we were well-equipped to find them.
We explored a quarter-mile run between the spring's swimming area and the Suwannee River. Along the channel, the park maintains a boardwalk for folks on foot to walk along and view the wildlife and beautiful surroundings.
We were on foot…but also floating. So we paddled up, down, and around the channel and out into the river. It was stunning! We saw manatees, turtles, giant fish, and many different birds.
Throughout the day, my husband dove off his board and snorkeled alongside a Manatee, dragging his SUP behind him. We were even able to paddle through the trees along the river due to the high water levels. It felt like we were in an enchanted forest.
We recorded a few Marco Polo videos to share with our friends and family. I opted to snorkel in the swim area where the springs originate. While in the water, I spotted turtles, rock formations, and underwater caves through the crystal-clear water.
Manatee Springs State Park = Must-See!
There is nothing like paddling over manatees while ancient cypress trees tower above you. And in the unlikely event, you get bored at Manatee Springs, there are many adjacent rivers and springs perfect for stand-up paddle boarding.
The waters are well-known but felt like uncharted territories as we paddled alone for most of the day. If you get the chance, definitely check out the area. You won’t regret it!
Emily Barnes discovered SUP 12 years ago as a way to cope with drug and alcohol addiction. She has since tried whitewater SUP, ocean surfing, and has even explored bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico.