Go beyond the warm Gulf waters for a refreshing change of pace
Northwest Florida is known for its abundance of waters. A vibrant network of rivers leads to the warm Gulf of Mexico. This is a wonderland for swimmers, anglers, paddlers and boaters, with special spots for each of them. But this region, which stretches from east of Pensacola westward toward Tallahassee, along Interstate 10 and beyond, also features one of the largest concentrations of natural springs in the Southeast.
These easily accessible springs offer great recreational opportunities for family vacationers, adventurous paddlers and even cave divers.
Jackson Blue Spring is the heart of the popular Blue Springs Recreational Area (5461 Blue Springs Road, Marianna, Florida 32446; 850-482-2114), a county park, located approximately five miles east of Marianna. It’s one of only 17 first-magnitude springs in Florida. It feeds an average of 85 million gallons of water a day to Merritt’s Mill Pond (nationally known for its outstanding fishing) and its clear blue headwater area is popular with swimmers and paddlers. Underwater, the spring arises from a cave complex that is popular with both open water and cave divers. Each cave is said to be unique, described by names such as Shangri-la, Twin Caves, Hole-in-the-Wall, Gator Hole and Indian Washtub. Certified cave divers from around the world come to explore them. The park is open from June to September.
Morrison Springs (874 Morrison Springs Road, Ponce de Leon, Florida 32455) is well-known as one of the region’s most popular spots for swimming, snorkeling and diving. Located near Ponce de Leon, the large, sand-bottom spring is the centerpiece of a 161-acre county park. The estimated 48 million gallons of crystal-clear water that flows each day forms a 250-foot round spring pool and a spring run that flows into the Choctawhatchee River. Below the surface are three caves, one reported to be 300 feet deep. The park is also an excellent spot for birding and nature photography. Amenities include a picnic area and a wheelchair accessible boardwalk.
Pitt and Sylvan Springs (6315 East Highway 20, Youngstown, Florida 32466) are the most popular of many springs along Ecofina Creek. As paddlers and tubers float by on the creek, the springs offer a refreshing respite and are a swimmer’s paradise. Amid the native forest setting is a 10-acre recreation area that includes trails and picnic areas, an overlook and a put-in spot for tubes.
Ponce de Leon Springs is located in Ponce De Leon Springs State Park (2860 Ponce de Leon Springs Road Ponce de Leon, Florida 32455; 850-836-4281). Named after the famed Spanish explorer, this could be considered the fountain of youth for which he searched. The 68-degree year-round temperatures are surely refreshing to the snorkelers and swimmers who enjoy the springs and the park’s many amenities. The main spring is a convergence of two underwater flows which produce an estimated 14 million gallons of water each day.
The 68-degree waters of Vortex Springs (1517 Vortex Springs Lane, Ponce De Leon, Florida 32455) are a popular spot for divers from around the world. One of the largest diving destinations in Florida, Vortex produces 25 million gallons of water per day and has a 50-foot-deep basin at the ledge of its cavern. The underwater “room” is well lit from the surface and divers share the space with many indigenous fish. Located on 360 acres of pine forest and rolling hills, the surrounding facility offers a dive shop, campground and other amenities.
Surrounded by private property, Cypress Springs is only accessible via the spring run from Holmes Creek, but it is considered one of the most beautiful springs in Northwest Florida. It is one of 51 springs on Holmes Creek and, with its second-magnitude current joined by lush banks, it is a popular destination for boaters, paddlers and swimmers, all enjoying the beauty of the crystal-clear pool.
The small towns of Northwest Florida are welcoming to visitors who enjoy time above the surface and below, on the water and off. The online resources at ExploreNWFlorida.com highlight the unique towns of Northwest and area visitor centers are great spots to get travel advice and a dose of small-town Southern hospitality.
If you go
Dive and paddle outfitters, guides and instructors:
- Cave Adventurers (5211 Limestone Lane, Marianna, Florida 32446; 850-482-6016) Rentals, guided trips and instruction located at Merritt’s Mill Pond.
- Vortex Spring Adventures (1517 Vortex Springs Lane, Ponce De Leon, Florida 32455; 850-836-4979) Dive shop with gear rentals, air fills and instruction located at Vortex Springs.
- A list of Ecofina and Holmes Creek paddle rentals can be found at VisitWCFla.com/businesses.
One-of-a-kind underwater attraction
Located less than a mile from the sugar-white sand of Grayton Beach State Park lies North America’s first permanent underwater sculpture park, The Underwater Museum of Art (UMA). The museum, a partnership between a local arts alliance and reef foundation, combines art, education and ecosystems and is truly a unique Florida attraction. Divers who wish to visit the site can take a dive boat .7 miles off the coast of Grayton Beach State Park. Charter trips are offered through Dive 30A (133 Defuniak Street, Grayton Beach, Florida 32459; 850-460-1442)
ABOUT EXPLORE NORTHWEST FLORIDA
Explore Northwest Florida efforts are a result of a public/private partnership that promotes travel to the region which includes Northwest Florida counties bordering the Apalachicola and Choctawhatchee Rivers. The partnership encourages sustainable economic development through the preservation and promotion of the natural, cultural, recreational, scenic and historical resources within the rivers’ basins by providing services to enhance and support the tourism industry throughout the region. For more information visit www.ExploreNWFLorida.com.