Hart Springs in Bell, Fla., offers convenient dive location

The Suwannee River runs south from Georgia and cuts a diagonal line through Northern Florida, separating the panhandle from the Florida peninsula, before eventually dumping into the Gulf of Mexico.  It has a fascinating history, as it has been more-or-less continuously occupied for thousands of years.  At one time, the river was well-known for its antebellum steamship, the Madison – a sort of floating Wal-Mart for folks living near the river.  After the Civil War, steamships ferried customers from inland to the port of Cedar Key, which, today, is a quaint town with more seafood restaurants than residents.

For the outdoor enthusiast, there’s plenty to do along the river.  About 40 miles west of Gainesville, there’s a wonderful cluster of natural springs that are great for swimming and exploring.  Heading north to south, you could easily visit Hart Springs, Otter Springs, Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs in one day.  Going in order, the drive between parks is never more than 10 minutes.

Suwannee Springs Map

Hart, Otter, Fanning and Manatee Springs all located on a small stretch of the Suwannee River

Unfortunately, all of the parks are managed by separate entities.  Some are state parks and some are owned by private campgrounds, and they all require a separate entrance fee.  The going rate for most small parks is around $6 per car or $3 per person.  Still, head out with a group of friends for the day and you can explore all the springs for less than $15 a person.  It’d cost you more to spend two hours at the movie theater.

What’s more, all of the springs are accessible by kayak or canoe, and particularly with Hart, Otter and Fanning, you could easily get from to another without ever getting in your car.  We’ll take a look at what each has to offer, starting with Hart Springs.

Hart Springs beach and dock

Manmade modifications have turned Hart Springs into a popular summer hangout.

Hart Springs is managed by Gilchrest County, and manage it they do.  Perhaps more so than the other springs in the area, Hart Springs feels like a man-made creation.  The banks of the spring are held in place by ribbed metal barriers, a few sand beaches have been put down near the water, a wood foot bridge dissects the spring and, on all sides, picnic shelters loom.  If you can block all that out, it’s easy to imagine how beautiful this spring would have been in its natural setting.

Despite all that, the springs themselves are gorgeous.  And frankly, once you’re horizontal with a mask and snorkel, everything else fades away.  The spring has two openings and a cave system connecting the two.  The cave system is open and can be explored for a small fee, but only by certified cave divers accompanied by park staff.  For a long time, caving had been banned at the park because of the poor condition of the spring vents.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the springs were clogged with sand from the man-made beaches.  In 2004, they were cleared and reopened on a limited basis.

Even if you’re not a certified cave diver, there’s still plenty to see at Hart Springs.  The larger vent is almost 30 feet deep, and the crystal clear water gives snorkelers a great view down into the cave entrance.  It’s a canyon vent, and with flippers, it’s possible to get pretty deep. The large vent is located in a pool about 50 feet wide, and it’s easily the least occupied swimming area in the park.  Mostly, I think, it’s because it lacks the other amenities.  There’s no jumping platform, no beach, no floating dock and no bridge at the main vent, and that’s a good thing.  I stopped by the park on Memorial Day weekend, and of the 200 or so people there, I seemed to be the only one interested in the spring itself.

Hart Springs big vent

The big vent pool at Hart Springs – about 30 feet deep.

The second spring is a little smaller – about 20 feet deep and in a smaller pool.  Park staff have erected a jumping platform over this vent.  It’s still possible to see it, but you have to dodge the cannonballing residents of Gilchrest County to get there.  Neither spring seems to be pushing out an enormous amount of water, so swimming down is fairly easy.

A short (less than 1,000 feet) spring run connects the springs with the Suwannee, and the spring run is open for exploring as well.  It’s shallow and walkable, if you’re so inclined.

The park also has a rather nice boardwalk, providing easy access to overlooks on the Suwannee.  It’s about a half-mile loop, and it cuts through some scenic cypress groves.  It’s a nice place to relax in the shade once you’re out of the water, but otherwise, it’s pretty tame.  There wasn’t much in the way of wildlife, at least not compared to more inland parks like Silver River, even though the park boasts some rare residents – panthers and bobcats among them.  I’ve still never seen either in the wild, but I’m sure it’ll happen one day.

The park also has the usual county park amenities – camping, volleyball, food, playgrounds, boat ramp, etc.  I’d love to see some non-boardwalk trails, but you can’t complain too much for a measly $4 admission fee.

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I really enjoyed my stop at Hart Springs.  On my next visit (and there definitely will be one), I’ll try to go on a weekday morning and avoid the crowds altogether.  You can’t blame the park for it’s popularity – it really is beautiful – but if you’re going to see natural Florida, plan to visit when the waters are less congested.



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  1. […] off of my guarded endorsement of Hart Springs, we’re headed 10 minutes south to Otter Springs, which, like Hart, feeds the Suwannee River. […]

  2. […] Otter and Hart Springs just to the north, Fanning Springs is a second-magnitude spring that empties into the Suwannee […]

  3. […] the wonderful Fanning and Hart springs, and the slightly less lovely Otter Springs.  And further north, there’s Falmouth […]

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