Here’s a Less Expensive Alternative to the Beach for Summer

A young boy jumps into a Florida spring.
Pristine clear water is one of the defining features of Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park. Nearby state parks can be an inexpensive vacation getaway. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Here in Florida, we’ve got more than a few options for quick, inexpensive trips to waterfront destinations (seriously — you’re almost never more than an hour or two from a beach).

But while we love a good beach trip, the real hidden gems of Florida are the natural springs that dot the landscape from the panhandle down through the center of the state. If you’re headed to Florida, consider putting the springs — any springs — on your “must-see” list.

If you’re not headed to Florida anytime soon, there’s probably a great water feature (a lake, a river or even a natural spring) near you that would make for a fun, inexpensive weekend getaway.

Not convinced? Last year, three of us Penny Hoarders took an overnight trip to a natural spring located near Gainesville, Florida — about a two-hour drive north from The Penny Hoarder offices in St. Petersburg. The grand total? $137.57. Split three ways, that means we each got to take an exciting (and we even managed to make it relaxing!) overnight adventure for just $45.

Want to take a waterfront (or, well, maybe water-adjacent) vacation of your own on the cheap this summer? Here’s exactly how we did it.

How We Prepared

Our plan: A 36(ish)-hour road trip to Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park (which was only turned into a state park in 2017 — for the better part of a century, it was privately owned and passed down through a family before being sold to the state).

On a Wednesday morning, two of my coworkers and I packed a red SUV with a cooler, two tents, three sleeping bags, two day’s worth of food, a few flashlights, a camp stove and various camping and cooking supplies.

Between the three of us, we already had the tents, sleeping bags, cooking supplies, cooler and flashlights. We borrowed the camping stove from a friend and picked up a small tank of propane for it (a 2-pack for $6.24 at Walmart). Additionally, we bought a can of bug spray and a citronella candle to keep the infamous Florida mosquitoes at bay ($5.89 and $5.29 at Target, respectively).

We also bought food for the four meals we’d be eating on our trip, but we’ll come back to that.

Total so far: $17.42

How We Got There

Road trip!

With its mild weather, flat, seemingly unending landscapes and straight-shot interstates, Florida makes road trips an easy decision. We were driving from St. Petersburg, Florida, to Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park, located just north of Gainesville — a 168-mile drive.

We budgeted $60 for gas, and while the round trip itself only cost us about $47, we did quite a bit of driving around town while we were there, so our estimate was pretty accurate.

If you’re renting a car to take a day trip to break up a Disney World vacation or are traveling from out of state, your transportation costs might be higher. But that’s all the more reason to find a natural hot or cold spring, lake or river in your state that would allow for a quick day or overnight trip from your own home.

Total so far: $77.42

Where We Stayed

A young woman sits besides a campfire.
The Penny Hoarder’s Grace Schweizer sits by the campfire at Bowman’s Landing, an Airbnb campground. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

After checking out the park’s onsite campground, a couple of motels in the area and a few listings on Airbnb, we opted for an Airbnb campground facility.

Affectionately dubbed Bowman’s Landing, the sprawling 12.5-acre wooded property on the banks of the Santa Fe consists of a main house, several standalone “tiny” cabins and a handful of primitive tent camping sites, one of which has a six-person tent already set up for those who don’t own one or want to buy one on their way in.

We chose the primitive tent camping sites and paid $15 per person per night for a total of $45, but we were able to use two tent sites. A night in one of the five rustic mini cabins (these sleep between two and five people — the layouts vary) will cost you between $55 and $62, depending on which you choose.

A night in the main house will run you $135, but it sleeps eight people — so if you’re splitting the cost with a group, it’s not a bad option at $16.88 per head.

The overnight campsite rental also comes with access to kayaks and canoes for puttering around the riverfront, free firewood for your campfire and the option to pay an additional $15 per person for a personal river cruise and tour.

We opted for the Airbnb listing for the chance to see a bit more of the Santa Fe river and surrounding areas, but we could have stayed onsite at Gilchrist Blue Springs for just $18 total for a tent or RV camping spot (which accommodates up to eight people and at least a couple of tents).

Total so far: $122.42

What We Ate

We ate as cheaply as we could, and ended up spending just $15 on food for the entire trip.

We each ate breakfast before leaving home in the morning, so we needed food for lunch and dinner, and then breakfast and lunch the next day. We picked up a loaf of bread ($2.39), a jar of peanut butter and a jar of jelly ($2.29 and $2.09), a box of pasta and a jar of sauce (99 cents and $1.89) and protein muffins (homemade, but we estimated $2.50 to make). We also stopped for coffee at a gas station before our morning swim, which added $3 to our total.

All in all, we paid about $15.15 for food for three people eating four meals.

Total so far: $137.57

What We Did

A family canoes at a Florida spring.
Families canoe at Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park. Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

There are a surprising amount of fun things to do at and around Gilchrist Blue Springs — and around most Florida springs parks — despite their often remote locations.

It costs $6 per vehicle or $2 per person (pedestrians and cyclists) to enter Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park with a day pass — a pretty significant difference from the $10 a head the park charged when it was privately owned. (The park attendant on duty when we arrived early that morning gave us free entry — otherwise, our final trip total would have come out to $143.57.)

Once you’re inside the gates, how you spend your day is (largely, anyways) up to you!

There’s a rental station inside the park (other springs parks have similar services) that offers inner tube, canoe, kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals, as well as the option to purchase a mask and snorkel. Pricing varies from $45 for an all-day canoe rental to $7 for an all-day inner tube rental, while a mask and snorkel set will cost you $20.

You’re also welcome to bring your own boogie board, inner tube (you can purchase inner tubes and other pool floats at most dollar stores) and mask-and-snorkel sets. You can bring your own canoe, kayak or stand-up paddle board, too, but if you want to catch the shuttle up or down river, you’ll still have to pay the shuttle fee.

We opted to stick to masks and snorkels (which we brought with us), so we could take in everything below the surface and explore freely without worrying about keeping track of a tube or boat.

In the main pool, a diving platform situated over the spring head lends itself to hours (and hours) of fun, with a constant line of people waiting their turn to jump off it into the chilly water below.

Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park also has a network of hiking trails winding around the various pools and springheads, so we took a few minutes to test them out. They were a little buggy (because Florida), but beautiful — and would be great if you chose to camp within the park and go for an early morning run.

Plus, there’s no better feeling than going for a quick hike or jog and then cooling off in the crisp spring water.

The park also offers wildlife tours, with park attendants detailing the various flora and fauna found within the grounds and throughout this part of the state. If you don’t have time for an official tour, the park attendants (while busy!) were incredibly knowledgeable and seemed happy to answer questions and chat about the park.

When it’s time for lunch, you can find a picnic table — or simply claim a spot on the sloping lawn — to unpack your cooler. The park has outdoor grills available on a first-come, first-serve basis, but a cold lunch is probably a safer bet during the park’s busy season.

Find An Inexpensive Overnight Destination Near You

A man swims in clear blue water.
Eric Parker swims laps before the Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park opens Chris Zuppa/The Penny

So if you’re not within “quick, overnight trip” distance to the Florida springs, you probably are to something in your own state that could be just as fun. Try a trip that ends in a relaxing soak in hot mineral springs or find a nearby river, lake, beach or other water-front campground.

A little Googling will take you a long way (or a short way, depending on how far you’re willing to road trip).

Grace Schweizer is the email content writer at The Penny Hoarder.