For as well as this park is maintained it sure is in the middle of nowhere. Luckily I was hurrying down from Madison Blue Springs (to grab some pictures before the afternoon rains hit) so it was sort of on the way, but it's quite a trek for anyone living east of I-75. I'm pretty sure it's worth it.
The spring is actually a system of karst windows that navigate across the landscape from the south-west of the parking lot toward the Suwannee. The head "spring" emerges from the ground in a dark window (meaning you can't see into the cave very well - the limestone blocks most of the light). The water is visually separated into two pools, the first of which flows under a limestone bridge and into the other. I observed a turtle in the main pool and attempted to swim under the bridge but the low visibility made it too risky.
The second pool gets very shallow as it approaches the Suwannee River, which makes for some pretty nice wading and relaxing. The beach surrounding the mouth of the run is very wide and good for walking. There's also a set of stairs to the south of the beach that leads back into the park.
I almost left the park without finding the rest of the "hidden" karst windows. After rounding back from taking a couple final pictures, I noticed a trail into the woods just south of the bathroom. It's not cut very well and I was only wearing my flip-flops (mistake), but I crashed ahead and found two large karst windows and what looks like a sink (check the pictures below). I doubt it's a good idea to go into these formations but they were much more picturesque than the main spring.
Overall I really enjoyed the park. It had a nice variety of open springs and wooded karst windows, nice bathroom and changing facilities, and a very clean parking lot. Recommended.
Of the first two-day jaunt, this was probably the most stunning all-around. I don't know if words really work to describe how it shined in the morning; the pictures below do it much better justice.
The park is technically a state park but is maintained by the SRWMD, so there's no visible staff or complex facilities; this probably went a long way to preserving some of the fun of the park. The spring has a direct-access jumping platform and a dock; paths are made of mud and roots, not concrete; there are no ropes to be found in the swimming area. The spring run snakes around a small limestone formation and into the Withlacoochee river, crashing over a line of rocks into the tannic water.
This spring has everything: cave diving, free diving, deep swimming, shallow areas, wading areas, relaxing rapids, river wading, and fishing. My only regret is not swimming. We were in a hurry and it was the first spring of the day, but I do very much regret it. Madison Blue Springs State Park is highly recommended, and I cannot wait to go back someday.
The spring itself is actually about 10ft lower in elevation than the hiking trail, so you'll have to scale down (and up) some fairly sharp clay and sand inclines to get to the spring itself. There is a walkway that appears to have gone down to the spring at one point but the bank has been washed out, making it useless to access the spring.
It's a very pretty spring, although it's very small. It's only about 20ft from the Suwannee, so there's very little if any opportunity to swim. The water falling over the limestone "cliff" is still very cold so perhaps there's an opportunity to swim in that larger area. Cypress trees grow out of the side of the area so look out for the plethora of cypress knees in and around the spring.
I have to say, it's a lot of work to get to this spring, and I don't know if it's worth it. You have to pay to enter Suwannee River State Park, then park at the boat ramp, then walk a good 5-10 minutes, then scale off of the trail to find a spring that you can barely enter and more likely will just observe.
I have to say the decision between making this a major or minor spring was difficult. The spring itself is very nondescript and is composed of many different vents; I challenge anyone to find the "one vent" to call Gold Head Branch Spring. However, the setting and the park surrounding the outflow of water is so pristine and so starkly different from its home in Putnam County that I recommend the trip to the park heavily, if only for a stop-over.
The spring itself is deep in a ravine. Parking next to the walkway signs, I expected to descend a few feet from the looks of the stairs. In reality, the descent is something like 30-40ft. It's breathtaking actually; I could not believe that I was looking so far down to the spring, especially in Florida. The water was ice-cold as always, and there are more than a few places to remove your shoes and walk up the white-sand tributaries. Even on a Sunday it was very quiet with only a few visitors.
The spring area itself is very overgrown and impassable in most areas, but there's an extensive trail system cut in the surrounding area. The park itself has many other hiking trails and swimming areas (namely a lake) and appears to have decent facilities throughout.
I have to admit I was a little euphoric on this trip as I had just purchased my new Honda Fit Sport (2010) the day before. I don't think this played into the trip much, but I was alone and enjoying the sharp turns and curves of the park roads!
Growing up I'd heard that this park was despondent and not worth visiting, but I highly disagree.
It was later in the day when I first visited Manatee Springs, so that probably already threw off the trip a little. The park was moderately busy but the swimming area wasn't very crowded. With only one entrance to the spring pool area it was a little congested getting into the water, but once afloat there was plenty of room to move around.
It's worth nothing that there's almost nowhere to stand in the pool. As far as I could tell, the water pours out of a cave between 30ft and 40ft below the surface. You can swim to the banks near the cypress trees and barely get your toes on the sand, but for the most part this is a snorkeling and floaty spring only.
Diving down to the cave caught me by surprise as I had to clear my ears three times before getting to the mouth, and even then the force of the water escaping pushed me a good five feet downstream. This free-dive isn't for the feint of heart and could be the deepest I've had to dive to find one (save maybe DeLeon). It's enough to make me want to go back in the morning when the water is clearer and the sun is higher.
When they say covered in duckweed, they aren't kidding. There were nice boardwalks leading down to the motionless spring, and there were... odd noises coming from under the duckweed, but nothing really to see or do for the average sightseer or swimmer.
Fanning Springs was the first stop on my five-spring day, so this visit was somewhat early in the morning (9am-10am). The spring itself was very clear and the park was mostly clean. I could have gone for a larger changing area, but that goes for basically any state park. In the morning the spring boil is under a lot of shade, which making snorkeling a little less fun. However, the way it's tucked into the surrounding wetlands with just a short walk down the floating dock to view the Suwannee, it's pretty magical in the morning. A few boats were parked at the floating dock, making it feel like a little microcosm of some of the larger springs.
While there aren't any caves that you can really get into with all the limestone rocks fallen everywhere, the sand boils are plentiful and fun to watch. The depression is also very deep, which allows for a lot of exploring. Many fish populate the spring pool, both in the weeds and out, and there's even a newly-constructed diving/jumping platform that was quite the hit while I was photographing the boil.
Overall, the park is very pristine, offers a variety of depths for swimming, lots of sand boils to watch at the bottom of the depression, and even a safe jumping platform. It can get pretty crowded, but it's one of the better swimming areas in the Florida Springs ecosystem.