A fantastic park for a winter getaway. Wildlife, cypress swamps, boardwalks, and a whole world of other adventures. Manatee Springs was our first destination on a road trip from Minnesota to Florida in February of 2022. We were in need of a break from the winter weather and I had grown antsy in the camping department. Our daughter Sandy was craving the warmth and I was craving a camping adventure. A compromise was struck and this state park delivered.
Location: 11650 N.W. 115 St. Chiefland FL 32626
Cost to Camp: $20 per night +tax, $6.70 reservation fee
Reservations: Make reservations at the Manatee Springs Webpage
While driving to this state park, there is a very country, non-vacation destination feel about it. It’s certainly a different version of Florida than our daughter was expecting. Once there, with the palm trees reaching over the roads and the sand at the wooded campsite, relaxation and warmth began to set in.
There are 80 campsites available at the park, some are RV friendly while others are tent only. We stayed in the tent only section. The camp areas weren’t particularly secluded, but the other campers in the area were quite respectful of noise and boundaries. We are all after the same relaxing camp experience.
Our site was located on the border to the “Catfish Hotel.” It was a unique view for our first camping trip to Florida. The sites are spacious enough to set up a tent a fair distance from the the fire ring and picnic table. The parking space is basically inside the camping area. Our site also had an orange tree in it. That was pretty neat.
Boardwalk in the Cypress Swamp
Manatee Springs has an amazing 800 feet of boardwalk that weaves through the Cypress Swamp, immersing hikers right into the Florida wildlife. The boardwalk leads from the springs out to the Suwannee River. We spent a lot of time on this board walk. Every direction you turned, there was something new to see. There is also fishing available at the end, don’t forget your gear and your fishing license.
The springs at this park are crystal clear. Perfect for snorkeling and swimming. Two words of caution; brr and alligators. The water is quite cold, even for a desperate Minnesotan looking for sunshine. Numerous postings that state the risk of alligators are scattered about the area. We did see alligators near the springs, it is a “swim at your own risk” situation. That being said, we didn’t have any issues while swimming and had a great, yet chilly time. Sandy even got up close to a turtle with her snorkel.
Scuba diving is allowed at the springs and the Catfish Hotel. The Catfish Hotel is a 35 foot deep spring that has catfish in it. The diving is heavily regulated and is on a first come, first served basis only. We did not dive on our trip to Manatee Springs, but we did see several divers getting ready for their adventure. It was quite intriguing.
Fun in the sun! Who knew that a simple playground would be one of the top attractions for our kids. They were so happy to run in the warm sunshine and play on a playground that wasn’t covered in snow. It’s a great park with seating for exhausted parents to watch their kids burn off endless energy. Take time to slow down and let them run on this park within the park.
Wildlife is abundant in this park, but watch closely, the camouflage is impressive. We did see alligators and snakes, but sadly, no manatees. After speaking with some other campers, we learned that the manatee pod had left the day before we arrived. The only manatee we saw was the statue at the beginning of the boardwalk. That was too bad for us, but we did get to see plenty of other species in the park. The most entertaining and least exotic was the squirrel. They were so funny, racing around, stealing and burying nuts. Aside from the charismatic squirrels, we did see many species in the park:
- American Alligator
- Variety of Birds
- Lizards (Killian loved the little ones around camp)
Some we didn’t see but rumor has it, they are in the park:
- Armadillos (this would have been cool to see!)
- Of course, Manatees
During out stay at Manatee Springs, we took advantage of a shuttle/canoe rental service provided by Anderson’s Outdoor Adventures. We were picked up from the spring area and shuttled to a boat launch farther up the Suwannee River. Here we were dropped off with our fishing gear, canoe and paddles. The canoe experience was so unique and I was very thankful for being able to enjoy one of my favorite outdoor activities on new waters with my family. They currently offer canoe/kayak trips on the Santa Fe River, check them out for a paddle adventure.
Keep a good hold of your sunglasses. Killian was looking over the side of the canoe and his slipped off. He was convinced that the alligators ate them. He still talks about those “naughty” alligators who ate his sunglasses.
There are 8.5 miles of hiking trails available at Manatee Springs. We only took advantage of a short distance, it was quite hot for our northern blood down there. We did get a chance to experience some good Florida woodland here. If you choose to go hiking, watch for snakes and bring plenty of water, the heat is unreal after a MN winter. Our little man was tired when we started and ended up falling asleep on me. We all stayed hydrated by bringing water bottles along in the child carrying pack.
I am going to throw out a restaurant suggestion here along with a fair warning. Don’t let the drive to the restaurant deter you from getting there. It is a sketchy and nerve wracking drive for northern folks. The road is full of holes, the homes along the way obviously have suffered a great deal of damage and disrepair, many of them are on stilts. Scott and I gave each other many questioning looks on the drive there. I am so glad we stuck it out, though. Once there, the restaurant did not disappoint!
Suwannee Bell Landing: 282 SE 989th St, Old Town, FL 32680
New meals were tried and we were blown away. Sandy and I tried alligator tail for the first time, they did it right at the Suwannee Bell. The meat was juicy and flavorful with a crispy breading, not at all what I was expecting. Sandy also tried some of the seared Ahi. She enjoyed that too, Scott and I were impressed with her willingness to try new things. The Alfredo was sensational! And award winning, we were told. I highly recommend a stop at the Suwannee Bell Landing for a sensational dinner if you’re in the Manatee Springs area.
Watching the sunset over the Suwannee River from the upper level was an amazing end to a great day in Manatee Springs State Park.