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.
Since I’m a Gator, and I can swim, I decided to learn how to scuba dive while at UF. This is a good thing as northern Florida is home to the best freshwater diving in the world. This region sits on a vast underground aquafer. The pressure is so great that huge springs well up from underground gushing millions of gallons of the purest, clearest water on earth. These springs are scattered from Tallahassee to Tampa to Jacksonville, but the densest concentration are just north of Gainesville near High Springs. And the best of these is our destination today, Ginnie Springs.
Ginnie Springs – Your Day Trip on the River
1. Gainesville to Ginnie Springs
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.
Walk down from your car and look at the spring. Nothing you’ve ever seen can prepare you for this. On a sunny day, the water is turquoise blue and perfectly clear. Visibility is the same looking through the air or through the water. The water is almost too clean. There are very few fish in the springs as the large volume of pure water contains too few nutrients. It’s like looking into an aquarium, but I’ve never seen one this clean. All the big spring water companies own plants along the Santa Fe. All they do is bottle it and ship it out.
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.
One of the best things they’ve done here is to build treated wood decks and stairs down into the spring. This is especially nice if you’re diving as trying to get in and out of springs in the middle of the woods can be pretty tough with all that heavy gear. The bottom of the spring is rocky, so I like to wear water shoes. The water depth drops away quickly as you walk out from the platform, so make sure everybody can swim. We used to have Max wear an inflatable vest when he was little. But he’s a strong swimmer now and can snorkel and surface dive like a champ.
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.
In the main spring, they have placed iron bars across the mouth of the cave, and open water divers are allowed to bring lights and dive in the cavern. It is awesome! A cavern is defined as a cave where you can still see light at the mouth. The cavern at Ginnie slopes downward from the mouth reaching a depth of about 60 feet at the barred cave entrance. It’s cool to switch off your light at the bottom of the cavern and look back at the sunlight streaming in.
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.
Let’s get out now and dry off. We’ll walk up river to another great set of springs.
2. Devil’s Eye and Devil’s Ear Springs
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.
All of the runs from the springs are crystal clear, but the river water looks almost black. Actually, it is a blood red color as tannin from the cypress trees lining the banks leeches into the water. At the Devil’s Ear, this amazing to see as the clear and red water mix.
3. Floating Down the Santa Fe
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.
4. Twin Springs – Walk back to Ginnie
Exit the river at the platform and dry off in the sun as you walk back to Ginnie. It’s a bit of a hike, but it’s pleasant under the trees. You’ll pass all the campsites. This would be a great place to spend a few days. If only I liked to camp….sigh.
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.
5. 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.
On the off-chance some college sports fans may read this, I’ll share something from my student days. While always a decent football school, their other NCAA team sports were pretty awful, especially basketball. However, when I was there, they did manage to win the SEC basketball title for the first time ever. The sport wasn’t as popular as it is now, and $2.00 and a student ID would get you a ticket in the student section of the O’Connell Center. We would collect IDs from all the foreign graduate students and buy up a block of 10 tickets. I’d give them away to my neighbors and it made for a fun, cheap night out. They had a 7-ft, 2-in tall center named Dwayne Schintzius who was the tallest person I’ve ever seen in person. Dwayne was a great player, but not the sharpest knife in the drawer. One day after class, he went to play tennis with a buddy, then stopped at a local watering hole for a cold one…..or eight. He of course had his tennis racket with him, and soon got into a fight with another drunk. Apparently Dwayne had perfect form on his backhand as he whacked the guy in the head. The police broke it up and Dwayne got locked up until they realized that he was the basketball star (wonder what gave it away?). The story got a lot of ink so that whenever the Gators played on the road, the opposing fans would smuggle in tennis balls and throw them on the court at the end of the game.
So in 1988, the cream of the SEC crop was Vanderbilt. Now Vanderbilt is by far the most high-brow of the SEC bunch and is sometimes referred to as the “Harvard of the South”. Apparently all the straight-A students were home studying the night they played UF in the last SEC game of the season. The Commodores were a game up in the standings and UF had to beat them on their court to win the SEC. As time wound down with Vandy holding a two-point lead, UF called timeout. The noisy fans missed the referee’s whistle and continued counting “Three….Two…..One….”, and then came the tennis balls. But there was still one second left on the clock. The ref assessed Vanderbilt a technical foul. Fittingly, Schintzius sank both shots to send the game into overtime. He then scored the first seven points in OT and Florida won their first SEC title going away.
Because of tennis balls.