One leap into the bracing water of a Central Florida spring and it’s clear why native people and Spanish explorers thought these were places of magical rejuvenation. After a long, hot march through vine-tangled thickets, the appearance of a deep turquoise pool of cool, fresh water must have seemed miraculous. And it still seems so as visitors (and manatees) find the refreshing waters (hovering around 70 degrees year-round) restorative. Tourists wanting to swim, canoe, kayak, float, snorkel, dive, watch manatees, or just immerse themselves gratefully in cool, clear water have no lack of choice: Florida may be home to the largest number of freshwater springs in the world, upwards of 700, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. Many of the springs are part of the state or county park system and have very reasonable entry fees. Just be warned: these are not theme parks, but wild waters of Florida, home to alligators, snakes, and other wildlife. Use appropriate caution and obey posted warnings.Here are six springs, some just minutes away from Central Florida’s theme parks, some a bit farther afield, but each a unique example of geological magic.
Wekiwa Springs State Park
Each day, more than 43 million gallons of clear, cold water surges through an underwater limestone cave at the spring head. The deep opening enchants swimmers of all ages, who snorkel over the blue vent. Surrounded by a large, shallow, sandy bottomed bathing pool, the spring is a favorite of families, who set up chairs and beach towels on the well-tended sloping lawn for picnics or to warm up in the sun between sessions in the 73-degree water. For the more adventuresome, canoes and kayaks are available for rent in the park and can be taken for a good distance down the Wekiva River, which empties into the St. Johns River after a 17-mile meander through mostly undeveloped subtropical forest. Tip: Keep in mind that your return trip will be against the current.
Blue Spring State Park
Where: Orange City
The main attraction here happens in the winter, when hundreds of manatee families seek shelter in the relative warmth of the spring run. Humans are not allowed to swim when the manatees are in, but the gentle beasts can be viewed by the hundreds from a raised boardwalk above the water’s edge. The spring and park abound with wildlife, including alligators, turtles, fish, eagles, and owls. Come April, swimming, snorkeling, and diving are permitted at the spring head and down the run to the St. Johns River. Don’t miss touring the historic Thursby House, built in 1872, when steamboats plied the St. Johns, then Florida’s major commercial waterway. Canoes and kayaks are for rent at the mouth of the run, along with boat tours of the river. Cabins and campgrounds are available in the park if visitors want the full experience of an overnight stay. Tip: Manatees have been seen in the spring as late as June, so keep a close watch for a large gray rock-like formation floating slowly along.
De Leon Springs State Park
Where: De Leon Springs
Along with swimming in the large shallow pool, fed by the nearly 19-million-gallons-a-day spring, visitors can rent canoes or kayaks, fish in the spring run, take an ecological boat tour, or relax in the shade of the giant live oaks, where picnic pavilions, grills, and a playground are available. But one of the spring’s most popular attractions is the cook-your-own pancake breakfast at the historic Old Spanish Sugar Mill, a rustic century-old reproduction of the original 1832 mill, the first water-powered mill in Florida. Each table has a griddle, and pancakes are delivered as pitchers of batter. The spring’s history of human habitation dates to at least 6,000 years ago. More recent history includes the sugar mill, a plantation, and a hotel built in the 1880s for winter visitors lured to the area by promises of a fountain of youth. Tip: Swim first, then warm up at the pancake griddle.
Silver Springs State Park
One of Florida’s giant first-magnitude springs (more than 550 million gallons a day), Silver Springs has attracted visitors for centuries. Once a privately owned tourist site famous for glass-bottomed boats, the park was acquired by the state in 2013. Wildlife includes large alligators, turtles, and many species of fish and birds. The clear water once attracted Hollywood filmmakers, who used the 5-mile-long river as the set for Tarzan movies and the Sea Hunt TV series. Visitors today can walk out on a viewing deck to see the headspring, take a glass-bottom boat ride to view underwater wildlife, rent canoes and kayaks right in the park, or go on trail rides through the forest. Tip: There is no swimming in this spring because of the danger of alligators.
Where to Stay: BG Sun Plaza
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
The pristine beauty of the remote Ichetucknee River attracts thousands each summer to float gently from the spring head (declared a National Natural Landmark in 1972) along the 3½-mile upper river, through a lushly forested state park. The group of springs at the head of the river produce a total flow of 212 million gallons each day. Wildlife sightings can include otters, beavers, raccoons, turtles, and many species of birds. Startlingly blue dragonflies can be enticed to land on the tip of a raised finger. Tubes, kayaks, and canoes can be rented outside the park entrance. Once you’ve done the run, there is a tram to return you to the entrance parking lot. Several picnic areas, along with a food concession, ensure you don’t go hungry. Tip: Get there early, as there are entry limits in the summer.
Generations of Florida youngsters have clambered along the forest trails and wooden walkways at Kelly Park/Rock Springs, clutching bulky inner tubes, before they leap, screaming, into the rapidly flowing 68-degree water that spouts from a mysterious cave in a stone bluff, thus the name. After a few jumping sessions the youngsters hop aboard their tubes, rented just outside the park entrance, to float down the 3/4-mile natural lazy river to the shallow, sandy bottomed pool, where the water is warmed by the sun. But few pause before heading back to the top of the run to ride the river again. The family-friendly county park has lifeguards, nature trails, picnic pavilions with grills and tables, a full-service concession stand, and a playground. Tip: The park has become so popular during the summer that officials have imposed a daily maximum on visitors. It’s wise to avoid weekends and call before you go.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Florida Guide