American naturalist William Bartram visited Manatee Springs in 1774, and wrote about it a little over a decade later in his palaverously-titled epic Travels through North & South Carolina, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges. 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. William Bartram saw a dead manatee, but today’s visitors can see many live ones, 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.
RV Rentals in Manatee Springs State Park
Transportation in Manatee Springs State Park
From Gainesville, take Archer Road (State Road 24) south through Arredondo, Archer, and Bronson. Archer has a decent-sized grocery store and a fairly nice Mexican restaurant (Los Avina on S.R. 24). When you reach Otter Creek, turn north onto Highway 98. At Chiefland, turn left onto Northwest 19th Avenue (Route 320). 320 is a straight shot into Manatee Springs State Park. And we do mean “straight.” There are literally zero curves in this road until you pass a housing development to the east of the Park.
From Tallahassee, take Apalachee Parkway (Highway 27) east to Capps. This road turns into Highway 19 and continues south. HIghway 19 turns into Highway 98 at Perry. Continue on to Chiefland, and then take Route 320 to the Park.
If you need a GPS address, use 11650 NW 115 St., Chiefland, FL 32626.
The main parking area is near the amphitheater, boat launch, and park pavilions.
Campgrounds and parking in Manatee Springs State Park
Campsites in Manatee Springs State Park
Magnolia 1, Magnolia 2, and Hickory Loops
Seventy-eight water and electric hookup sites in three loops. Magnolia 1 also has sewer hookups; a dump station is near the loops. All sites are either gravel or paved. Amenities include restroom/shower facilities.
Primitive Group Camping Area
This facility accommodates up to thirty-five people. The camp area includes drinking water, outdoor shower, portable toilet, and fire circle
Seasonal activities in Manatee Springs State Park
Powered boat launches are at the north and south ends of the Park along the east bank of the Suwannee River. There’s a canoe launch near the boardwalk. Kayaks, canoes, and pontoon boats are available for rent.
Swimming is generally allowed anywhere except the boardwalk, Catfish Hotel, and the spring run. Watch out for the swift river current. Ever since the first Paleo Indians found this area, Manatee Springs has been a very popular spot for swimmers to gather and enjoy the cool, clear spring water.
Snorkeling/Scuba Diving/Catfish Hotel
Let’s face it. Most people come to Manatee Springs State Park to see manatees and springs. We’re getting to that part. 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. We’d rather focus on the fun anyway.
Part of that fun includes the Catfish Hotel. 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. 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, it’s a pretty cool experience. A concessionaire rents snorkeling equipment.
Nature Coast State Trail
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.
North End Trail
In this part of Florida, the weather almost always feels like mid-spring. So, the climate is excellent for exploring the winding, eight and a half mile North Trail system. The landscape is mostly sandhills and hammocks. The trail is well-marked and almost countertop flat. There are two bathroom areas near the youth camp center.
A nice, low-key venue for your next event. The concessions at this Park are quite nice as well. We especially recommend the carry-out barbecue.
Enhance your enjoyment of the Park with a ranger-led tour. They’re available throughout the year, especially on the weekends. Or, you can try an Anderson Outdoor Adventure guided paddling tour or pontoon boat tour. Seasonal hayrides (usually November and April) are available as well.
River Sink Trail
A hiking-only trail in the southeastern part of the Park. There are other sinkholes in this area, but this one is one of the largest. 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.
The 800-foot boardwalk is not just there for grins. Between November and April, large numbers of West Indian manatees gather here. The boardwalk basically follows an inlet stream from the Suwanee to the spring. The boardwalk is actually more like a bridge, so there are plenty of viewing opportunities.
No fishing is allowed near Catfish Hotel, but it is allowed 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.