Daytripping with Rick – Gainesville, Florida
by Rick Wright
I’ve been off a couple of weeks taking care of work work. Now back to fun work.
This week’s trip is to a place you probably haven’t heard of, Ginnie Springs in north-central Florida.
Now I’m a Gator. I got my doctorate in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Florida in 1994. I go back to Gainesville as much as I can and still stay active with my department at the university. When I was at school in 1988-89, UF was a middle-of-the-pack football school. Not much else except for swimming. UF has produced 32 Olympic swimmers and 15 gold medal winners including Ryan Lochte and Dana Torres who have each won seven medals. So, Gators can swim.
I went there because it was warm. I won a scholarship and could go any place I wanted for one year of graduate study. MIT is cold, Princeton is cold. Florida is not. While studying for my eventual degree, I had a chance to sample all that makes Gainesville, well, Gainesville. And it ain’t much aside from the university. There is one interesting thing about northern Florida, it lies atop the Floridian Aquifer, a huge underground ocean of fresh water that is close enough to the surface around Gainesville to spill out in the form of hundreds of crystal clear fresh water springs. Ginnie Springs is one of these, and happens to be the most accessible and lovely of them all. Today, we will go swimming at Ginnie.
The drive is a short one from Gainesville to Ginnie Springs, about 30 miles. From the UF campus, head west on FL-26 about 5 miles, then take I-75 north for 12 miles. Exit onto US-441 and turn right toward High Springs. About a mile out of town, turn onto FL-236, Poe Springs Road. Poe Springs is a state park not far from Ginnie Springs. If it were located anywhere else, it would be a prime destination. Alas, it is not. After 6 miles, look for the sign to Ginnie Springs on your right.
Now I could tell you that the scenery along this drive is beautiful. I could lie to you, that is. This is Florida. It’s flat. It has a lot of grass and cows. It has scrubby live oak trees. It is hot as hell in the summer, and a nice place to visit to get out of the cold at other times. But scenic it ain’t.
The road into Ginnie gets progressively worse until it’s pretty much just a sand covered trail. You’ll see the density of trees increase as you near the Santa Fe River. Stop at the guard shack to pay your entrance fee. It’s not cheap, but well worth it. Just past the guard, turn right into the combination dive shop/general store. Ginnie is a prime camping destination, if you are so inclined. I like soft beds and air conditioning, but that’s just me. Inside you can rent snorkeling equipment. Since you probably didn’t travel with yours, get some. They also rent wet suits, but don’t be such a weenie. In summer, the springs are a freezing cold 72-degrees. In the winter the springs are a toasty warm 72-degrees. You get the picture. Winter air temperature can get cold though, so a shorty wet suit that covers your torso might be in order. In the summer, the spring water is wonderful.
You might also want to get a couple of inner tubes for later.
Ginnie contains seven fresh water springs and the south shore of the river. The largest, Ginnie Spring is also the largest parking lot, and the location of the showers and other facilities. The total area is about 200 acres, so it’s not that tough to park here and walk where ever you want to go.
The main spring is huge, maybe 150 ft across. Water from the spring spills into a short 100 yd run to the river. Clear blue water lined by cypress trees. Just gorgeous.
In the middle of the main spring is the cavern. If you’re a strong swimmer, you can free dive about 20 feet to the mouth of the cavern. You can feel the current of the water rushing out of the cave mouth into the spring. All springs are caves. Cave diving is highly technical and extremely dangerous if you’re not properly trained to do it. Ginnie runs classes in cave diving. You can see people on land with blindfolds learning to follow lifelines, nylon string that divers use to mark the way in and out of a cave system. Some of the caves are hundreds of feet deep. Not a place you want to be without training. Every year, untrained divers die in these caves. Don’t be one of them.
While it is really great to dive, I should point out that it’s just as cool to swim here. As you swim away from the spring into the run, you can see below you thin trails of bubbles rising through cracks in the rocks. This the air from the divers in the cavern.
About 200 yards up river you’ll see another wooden platform. This is the Devil’s Ear. The spring is narrow, about 30 feet across at the top and only a few feet across at the sandy bottom 40 feet below. Swimming down the run from the spring you can see the river before you. Right before the run empties into the river, there are larger wooded platforms. This is the Devil’s Ear spring. It sits right at the boundary with the river. This is the main cave diving site. There are no bars on the cave mouth here. The water flow is so strong that you have to pull yourself into the mouth of the cave. I was diving here with my 12-year old son and he was behind me as I came through the tightest point about 50 ft down. I dropped down and the full force of the water hit him squarely in the chest. I watched as he tumbled helplessly head over heels away from the spring.
Go back to shore and get your tubes. We are floating down the river. All the water makes this river fairly fast, so be aware. Don’t fight the current. If you have to get out, head toward either bank and shallow water. The trip down river is a short one and will be over in 15-20 minutes. Look for alligators and turtles sunning themselves. The river water is bizarre. In the summer, the dark water absorbs sunlight and the river can be nearly 90-degrees. Quite a contrast to the 72-degree springs. In the winter, the water is typically much colder than the springs, and the river float is not recommended without a wet suit.
Along the banks of the river, people have placed rope swings in the trees. The river is probably no more than 10-20 feet deep, and the bottom is covered in turtle grass. On your left you’ll see the opening to the run back to Ginnie. As you continue, the river goes relatively straight past Dogwood Spring, then makes a sweeping horseshoe curve ending at Twin Springs.
Back at the main parking lot, get your dry clothes out of the car and go take a nice hot shower. This is what you pay for. There are lots of springs that are off in the woods. They’re free, but when you get out, you’re sandy, muddy, covered in duckweed. At Ginnie, you take a shower, then get ready to head back to Gainesville.
I should point out that Ginnie also makes a good “on-the-way” stop if you’re driving north from Tampa (2 hours south) or Orlando (90 minutes south). We like to stop here for the day sort of as our last chance to enjoy Florida before we head back north.
If you do go back to Gainesville, take advantage of a cultural oasis in the vast desert that is northern Florida. There are great restaurants there and some nice places to visit. If you’re lucky enough to catch a game, give my regards to the Bull Gator just outside The Swamp.
Daytripping with Rick
About Rick Wright
Meet the Rick behind “Day-tripping with Rick”. He’s a nuclear engineer who designs power plants which gives him the opportunity to travel all over the world. Rick has collected some of his favorite trips into informative and interesting posts that go beyond the guidebook recommendations. His wife Denise has a successful food blog where Rick occasionally guest-posts, using his many years of travel adventures for inspiration. A life-long Pittsburgher, Rick spends much of his time supporting the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates, and having fun with Denise and his son, Max. Rick also has two older children, Laura and Ricky, and two grandchildren (with one on the way). When not posting or making electricity, Rick likes ice hockey which he has played for over 40 years. Although he’s too old, he keeps going out there.