January 2019

Florida Springs: Pure Magic in the Sunshine State

Author: Michele Roldán-Shaw | Photographer: Michele Roldán-Shaw

You’re longing for that perfect shade of crystal water—Caribbean blue, swimming pool blue, dreamy vision of the tropics. But have you ever seen it surrounded by a ring of cypress trees, or in an unexpected swim hole along a blackwater river, or flowing out a jungly cave? The Florida springs, bubbling up through porous limestone from their source in the underground Floridan Aquifer, create hundreds of magical spots throughout the north, central, and western parts of the state. Giving rise to lush, exotic ecosystems of their own, many have been preserved as state parks or recreation areas. Here are a few of our favorites.

Best springs for swimming
There is nothing like immersing yourself in the airy, perfect waters of a Florida spring. Gushing at a pleasant temperature year-round (about 70 degrees), these are the same pure waters sourced for drinking. (Although it is not a good idea to gulp while swimming!) Many, though not all, are open to the public, and a standout is Silver Glen Springs in the Ocala National Forest. A wide, white sand-bottomed pool, it isn’t shady like some others and gets plenty of sunshine that highlights the spectacular color of the water. Take a picnic, walk the trail to nearby Lake George, and see the “sand boil,” a tiny spring in the woods that creates a strange phenomenon of bubbling sand. At Manatee Springs State Park, an exquisite deep teal hole sits in a natural grove of bald cypresses; cool off after a hike around the nature trails, where you might catch sight of wildlife like snakes and gopher tortoises, and the “chickee hut” (open palm-thatch dwelling of Florida’s native tribes) tucked away in the forest.

Best springs for diving
Blue Grotto offers a 100-foot plunge into a pristine and wondrous freshwater cavern and is considered safe for beginners. Same with Devil’s Den, where fossils of extinct prehistoric animals have been discovered. Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park is a world-class dive site with one of the longest underwater cave systems in the United States, only open for certified scuba divers to explore. However, if you just want to snorkel or take a dip, this quiet place in rural North Florida features enchanting turquoise waters where you may find only ibis, butterflies and curious otters as your companions.

Best springs for tubing
Kelly Park in Apopka provides the best old-fashioned fun. Jump in at the headsprings, an incredible limestone grotto overhung with ferns and palm fronds, and arguably one of the prettiest spots in the state. Float the spring run of shallow sparkling waters over white sand and limestone hedged in by the jungle, then half-hour later get out and walk back along a pretty trail to do it all over again. For a more epic float expedition, Icheetucknee River is perhaps the most gorgeous and pristine run in the state, fed by numerous springs so that it flows clear rather than black through miles of lush undeveloped subtropical forests.

Best springs for paddling
Despite being just outside Orlando, Wekiva River is one of only two designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers in the state. Yes, there are gators—that’s part of the fun! Start at Wekiwa Springs State Park and journey as far as the St. John’s 16 miles away; or put in at King’s Landing and paddle the beautiful Rock Springs Run to where it connects with the Wekiva. Both of these trips require shuttles by local outfitters. Juniper Springs is a hidden oasis in the Central Florida pine scrub; rent a canoe (or bring your kayak) and shoot the run through an incredible jungle tunnel that is like a lost world unto itself. But for the ultimate wilderness experience, you cannot beat Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on the west coast. This huge preserved area has miles and miles of paddling along the Chassahowitzka River to the Gulf, exploring little spring-fed tributaries to find secret rope swings over spots like The Crack, or stopping to swim in the Seven Sisters where you can dive down into one gem-like hole and pop back up in another. This place is truly one of Old Florida’s treasures.

Best springs for camping
The Ocala National Forest in Central Florida has a number of popular springs, all within hundreds of thousands of acres where you can hike, camp, and ride horses or ATVs. Alexander Springs, Juniper Springs and Salt Springs have full-service campgrounds with swim areas close at hand. For more rustic camping, Hopkins Prairie makes a lovely base-camp to explore the springs and other attractions on day-trips, including section hiking the Florida Scenic Trail that runs right through the campground. There is also dispersed primitive camping throughout the forest. Plan for several days of adventure in the Ocala.

Best springs for family fun
Take a glass-bottomed boat ride at Silver Springs State Park, or go paddleboarding before having an ice cream cone at the spring-side cafe. At Wakulla Springs State Park, dive off the 20-foot platform, then watch the old black and white horror movie Creature from Black Lagoon, which was filmed at Wakulla along with the original Tarzan. Stay at Wakulla Springs Lodge to soak up vintage elegance combined with the funky charm of Old Florida. They serve amazing shrimp and grits in a grand dining room guarded by “Old Joe,” the massive taxidermized alligator that used to live by the swim area and never bothered anybody until one day he was tragically shot by poachers. At Ponce De Leon Springs State Park, cap off your dip at the Old Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House, where you make your own pancakes on a griddle in the center of the table. For cabin rentals, the charm and economy of Fanning Springs State Park is unbeatable—homey wood cabins sleep the whole family, have rocking chairs and grills on the wraparound porch, and are a bargain deal yet surprisingly clean and modern inside. Fanning Springs itself is lovely and empties right into the tea-colored Suwannee River, where, in warm weather, you can see massive Gulf sturgeon leaping right and left.

Best springs for manatees
Blue Springs State Park, quickly accessible off Interstate 4, is a big blue bowl surrounded by high bluffs overlooking this favorite winter resort of gentle beasts beloved for their friendly curiosity. Crystal River in West Florida is another great place to see them, with its hundreds of spring sources that draw manatees and kayakers alike; in particular Three Sisters Springs is a hot spot. But your surest bet is Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. A rehabilitation and rescue center for the endangered manatees, it features a unique underwater viewing tank that allows visitors to look in on them, as well as the fish, alligators and other wildlife swimming freely in the springs.

Best springs for mermaids
No survey would be complete without Weeki Wachee, the pinnacle of Florida kitsch. Their live mermaid show features young ladies in magical costumes doing synchronized swimming performances of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid,” as real turtles and fish swim around their swirling hair in a natural underwater cavern that has been made into a one-of-a-kind theatre. Your kids will thank you forever.

For more information on the history, ecology and conservation of the springs, as well as a locator map, visit www.floridasprings.org.

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