American naturalist William Bartram visited Manatee Springs in 1774 and wrote about it a little over a decade later in his popular book in 1791. But people had been coming to this area long before Mr. Bartram. Paleo Indians probably discovered the cool, first-magnitude spring about 10,000 years ago. It's been a popular spot ever since.
Today, Manatee Springs State Park may be best known for its 800-foot boardwalk that juts out into a deep cypress forest and ends past the east bank of the Suwannee River. You can see many manatees here, especially during what passes for cooler months in Florida. Other activities include local hiking trails and a connection to the 32-mile Nature Coast State Trail.
Let’s face it. Most people come to Manatee Springs State Park to see manatees and springs. The summer is the best time to go scuba diving. The spring pumps out about 125 million gallons of cool, clear water every day, so this part of the Suwannee River never gets really warm. The state regulates scuba divers very closely, and there are too many rules to reprint here. It’s better to focus on the fun anyway.
Just off of FL-320 on FL-115, you can reach Manatee Springs State Park from US-98. It is only six miles northwest of Chiefland and 11 miles southwest of Andrews. If you were thinking of visiting Jacksonville, it is only 121 miles to the northeast. You should not have any trouble getting to the park as the roads are mostly wide-open highways with well-paved surfaces.
However, once you get into the park, you will need to slow down and pay close attention. Of course, you should always go slow in any park, but this one has some large potholes, bumpy gravel roads, and the trees can be very low hanging during much of the year. Larger rigs should try to get a spot in Hickory Loop or Magnolia 2 Campground because Magnolia 1 Campground can be difficult for RVs over 30 feet.
Many visitors to the park prefer to leave the rig at the campground and drive another vehicle, ride a bike, or walk wherever they want to go. If you don’t have a bike, you can find bike rental services at the concessionaire near the beach or in town. Parking your rig is iffy in many of the parking lots around the park so if you do not have another vehicle, foot power is the best way to get around.
Magnolia 1 Campground at Manatee Springs State Park has 40 campsites with 30 that can accommodate RVs from 15 to 40 feet in length. Some of the sites are much smaller and can only handle a pop-up or a tent. Make sure you check the length limits when you book your reservation. Each site is partially shaded by moss-covered cypress and maple trees. You’ll enjoy full utilities with 30- to 50-amp electric and water hookups. Some sites also provide sewer hookups.
Many people prefer to cook outdoors on the provided campfire grill or their own camp stove. After all, you came to the park to enjoy the outdoors, not the inside of the RV. Your family can all fit around the large picnic table where you can eat without having to worry about holding your food in your lap as you eat. The campground also has a comfort station right in the middle with modern restrooms and showers. Pets are allowed but must be leashed or crated at all times during your stay.
Just to the west of Magnolia 1 Campground, Magnolia 2 Campground has 16 sites that can handle rigs from 25 to 35 feet in length. These prime sites are spaced further apart and are closer to the river than the other campgrounds. Each of them has 30-amp electric, water, and a large open area to play. Also, there is a restroom with running water and a bathhouse with hot showers nearby.
You can cook and eat indoors or out since the park provides a large picnic table that seats eight people and a campfire grill with plenty of room to cook on. You can bring your four-legged family along as well so they can enjoy the park, but they must be contained or leashed at all times. Reservations are required and can be made up to 11 months in advance. Be sure to bring plenty of bug repellent to keep the ticks and mosquitoes at bay.
If you are bringing the kids, make your reservations early so you can get a spot in the Hickory Loop Campground. The little ones will love the two playgrounds nearby and the bigger kids will enjoy the trails, swimming, and boardwalk accessibility. These 17 sites have 30-amp electric hookups and water so you can cook indoors or outside on the campfire ring provided by the park. You can also bring your own BBQ pit or a camp stove to use if you prefer.
This campground is the closest to the Catfish Sink Hotel, which is right down the walkway. There is also a path that takes you to the springs and picnic areas by the boardwalk. You will have plenty to do to keep everyone busy. You can even bring your pooch. However, you will have to supervise them and keep them leashed or otherwise restrained during your stay. Reservations are required and can be made from one day to 11 months in advance.
With two different group camping areas, you have your choice of which is best for your needs. Each campsite can accommodate up to 35 guests and are located just off of the main road between the main campgrounds and the ranger station. You will have access to potable water spigots, an outdoor shower house, and a port-a-potty. Each campsite also has a campfire ring with a grill to cook on and several picnic tables. You don’t have to worry about the kids having to balance their food on their lap in a camp chair.
You will need reservations, which can be made from one day to 11 months in advance. It is best to book your site early since there are only two of them. There must be one adult per 12 children at the campsite; no exceptions. Pets are not allowed, and neither are alcoholic beverages. However, you are allowed to have as much fun as you want. Hiking and biking trails are nearby, and it is just a short walk to the playground, beach, and boardwalk.
Part of the fun here includes the Catfish Hotel. As the name implies, it’s an underwater cave where catfish abound. If you’ve never been scuba diving as catfish pass a few inches from your eyes, you should try it. This is a pretty cool experience. A solid layer of duckweed covers the water, so when you come out, you’ll look a little bit like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was filmed nearby. A concessionaire rents snorkeling and scuba equipment. You have to register with the ranger with your certification or with an instructor who has certification for cave diving.
If you are not a certified diver but still want to see some amazing underwater sights, why not try some snorkeling? This is one of the best parks to enjoy this activity because of the crystal-clear water in the springs. You can spot some vibrantly colored fish and other aquatic creatures in the sink holes, as well as the Suwannee River. However, the river has a strong current so be careful there. Be sure to wear a life jacket if you are not a seasoned swimmer. If you don’t have snorkeling gear or want to know the best spots to snorkel, check out the concessionaire in the park.
Although you are not allowed to fish near Catfish Hotel, you can find plenty of other places to drop a line elsewhere in the park. The Suwannee River does not have very many large, trophy bass, but it does have a lot of somewhat smaller fish. Look for deep water areas or spots where the water flows around cypress trees. These fish also like to congregate around water lilies, fallen logs, and other water shelters. In the fall, you can catch shrimp as well as bass.
This portion of the former Atlantic Coastline Railroad track runs from Chiefland up Highway 98 to Wilcox. Bikers can then go east to Trenton or west to Cross City. It’s a wide, paved trail that cuts through thick forests. Don’t miss the historic Suwannee River Railroad Bridge in Old Town. In Florida, bikers under 16 must wear helmets, and everyone else should wear one too. This trail and others like it have so much to see and do; it is a good idea to bring a backpack with snacks and water. You should also pack a first aid kit just in case.
Speaking of other trails, the North End Trail is popular with hikers and bikers visiting Manatee Springs State Park. In this part of Florida, the weather almost always feels like mid-spring. So, the climate is excellent for exploring the winding, 8.5-mile North End Trail system. The landscape is mostly sandhills and hammocks. However, the cypress swamps are amazing so bring a camera along. The trail is well-marked and almost countertop flat, and there are two restrooms near the youth camp center. In addition, the Sink Trail Loop, a hiking-only trail in the southeastern part of the park, takes you on a tour of some of the largest sinkholes in the area. It’s in one of the more remote areas, so there are lots of wildlife viewing opportunities and the trail does not have much traffic.
Are you here to see the manatees? Well, you are in the right spot. However, you will need to come during the right time of year for the best possibility of seeing them. The best time to spot these majestic peaceful creatures is the winter between January and April. These amazing West Indian manatees are one of Florida’s endangered species, and there are strict rules about keeping your distance. It is best to view them from the 800-foot boardwalk. Be sure to bring your camera so you can share some pics on your favorite social media pages.