By Ron Cooper
Most of my relatives think of central Florida as — one, a place to pass through on the way to Mouse Land and, two, where cousin Ron lives from whom they can sponge some free lodging. For years I fished around for a way to convince these people that the area is much more than a buffer zone for an amusement park, but my other suggestions left them unmoved. Horses? They’d seen them, been bitten by them. Beach? The sand sticks to them for days. Jai-alai? Blank stares.
I dug deep into the tackle box for my favorite lure, the best part about life in the heart of Florida — the springs.
“Springs?” Uncle Claude asked. “What, they make clocks there?”
“Water springs,” I said. “Beautiful scenery. No crowds.”
“No crowds, you say?” A nibble.
“And mineral-rich water to sooth Aunt Beulah’s bursitis,” I said. “It’s warm, too, 110 degrees, like taking a bath. You just jump in, right?”
“That sounds real good,” Aunt Beulah said. A big bite.
Now to set the hook. “I’m paying,” I said.
We were off.
Hours after Uncle Claude did his famous can-opener entry into the 68-degree water and emerged with some terms of endearment aimed at me, they all agreed on the way home that this time my choice — unlike college, career, and truck — was a good one.
Now that summer is here and the kids are complaining about the heat and the relatives are descending like locusts, throw them all onto the flatbed and head to the springs. They’re inexpensive (usually just a few dollars a carload), take little preparation (pack a picnic, toss in a few towels), and are clean, family fun. But beware — if you tell your out-of-state relatives about them, they’ll never go home.
1. Alexander Springs
The Ocala National Forest, the southernmost national forest in the continental U.S., is home to a cluster of springs. Alexander Springs is a spring of the first magnitude, which means it discharges at least 100 cubic feet of water per second. How much water is that? Imagine a hose that would fill a bedroom to the ceiling in a second.
Alexander offers a large swimming area with a small beach, campsites for RVs and tents, and a nature trail. Joe Follman, co-author of the indispensable Springs Fever: A Field Guide to 500 Florida Springs website, says, “Alexander has the best snorkeling and skin-diving anywhere.” Plus, it’s a great place to canoe. For a small fee, they’ll even drop off you and your canoe and pick you up. (352-669-3522)
2. Juniper Springs
A few miles away is Juniper Springs. The spring is surrounded by a rock retaining wall, making it look like a huge, egg-shaped swimming pool. You can step off the side into the deep springs or enter through the shallow part separated by a handrail. Watch the kids — if they range out of the shallow part they plunge in over their heads. Connected to the springs is an old mill whose wheel once turned a generator that produced power for a recreation area.
The springs form the head of Juniper Creek, a seven-mile run that’s a favorite for canoers. Rental includes a cart to push the canoe along a paved path to the launch. The narrow run is perfect for first-timers, but experienced paddlers love it for the lush vegetation and wildlife just inches away. Before the hurricanes last year, the park was known for its blonde squirrels. They were just like ordinary squirrels, but yellow. As the flora revives, perhaps they’ll come out of hiding. The little beggars were cute when they unabashedly jumped onto your picnic table. But they bite. Believe me. (352-625-3147)
3. Silver Glen
Silver Glen is another first magnitude spring. Less than a mile from the St. John’s River, you may see more fish here than anywhere else. Two springs form the headwaters that have remained pristine because of development restrictions. A swimming area with a sandy bottom and, unlike most other springs, very little hydrilla makes it popular for snorkelers.
Several middens (shell mounds) left by Timucuans centuries ago are nearby. One was dug out by treasure hunters, exposing a tree’s large root system that looks like a cage that you can walk through. Add a nice picnic/recreation area and you have a place that gets very busy on summer weekends. (Ocala National Forest Visitor Center, Silver Springs, 352-669-0546)
4. Salt Springs
“Inexpressibly admirable” is how William Bartram described Salt Springs over two centuries ago, and he would surely say the same today. It offers great snorkeling and some nice, shallow swimming. The several vents at the head end, however, demand tricky balancing and strategic hopping from rock to rock.
Take your time, hold the kids tightly, and you can all make it to vents that you can straddle and peer down. The water is indeed salty from the deposits through which it flows; therefore, watch out for crabs that have lived here since the peninsula was submerged thousands of years ago. The large, immensely popular camping area has a boat ramp and boat rentals, and you can fish in the run just down from the springs. (Salt Springs, 352-685-2048)
5. DeLeon Springs
Ponce De Leon wrote of “a great boiling spring that the Indians call Healing Waters.” Three-and-a-half centuries later, Volusia County residents decided that De Leon was writing about DeLeon Springs, hence the name. A retaining wall and concrete walkway enclose this large, round spring that flows into Spring Garden Lake. You can rent canoes and paddleboats, the kind with pedals like a bicycle, to skim around the lake.
You’ll find plenty to do here, but my favorite part is the mill house that has been converted into a gift shop and a unique restaurant. Go for breakfast, and they’ll give you pancake batter in a big pitcher. You pour it onto a griddle built right into the table, flip them once, and then slide them piping hot onto your plate. I don’t know if the waters can really heal, but I do know those flapjacks are for whatever ails you. (DeLeon Springs, 386-985-4212)
6. Blue Springs
Several springs around the state are called “Blue Springs,” but this one on the western edge of Volusia County, another of first magnitude, is so popular in the summer that visitors sometimes are turned away. Manatees also like it in the cool months, so no swimming or canoeing is allowed from November through March.
A boardwalk takes you from the parking lot to the springs, along the run, and through what Joe Follman says is “the deepest jungle you’ll see in Florida.” You can scuba dive, camp, or stay at one of the six fully equipped cabins. Although developed years ago, the park is now restored to what is probably close to what John Bartram (William’s dad) saw and praised in 1766. Thick, native foliage grows along the steep banks of the springs. Take binoculars — you’ll see birds aplenty. (Orange City, 904-775-3663)
7. Rock Springs
Visitors also fill Rock Springs to capacity early on summer days, and when you get a look at this beautiful ravine, you’ll know why. The overhang of limestone jutting above the spring cavern is stunning, especially when seen from the footbridge above.
Just down from the spring the run has been widened to create a lovely swimming area. My advice is to rent an inner tube. You can start at the spring and relax for a mile-and-a-half with a water-level view of one of the most beautiful spots in the state. (Kelly Park, a county park, Apopka 407-889-4179)
8. Wekiwa Springs
Stand on the low retaining wall that encircles Wekiwa Springs, and you can see an impressive boil on the surface from the larger of the two springs. This is the source of the Wekiva River (river with a “v, springs a “w”), which you can paddle down if you rent a canoe or kayak. Cabins are also available, and the park has over 13 miles of hiking trails as well as a horse trail within its 6,900 acres. An amphitheater offers interpretative programs on Saturdays, and you will find live animal exhibits in the Nature Center. This is another that gets crowded early in the summer. (Apopka 407-884-2009)
9. Rainbow Springs
Travel west to what just might be my favorite place in Florida, Rainbow Springs. Joe Follman says, “If you go to only one place in your life to see Florida springs, make it Rainbow.” Walk the beautiful trails, and you’ll see the vestiges of an old amusement park: two artificial waterfalls, animal enclosures, and a few non-native plants like an Osage orange. You’ll also walk by tiny springs bubbling through the sand and a butterfly garden.
Plenty of picnic tables are here, but you might prefer to spread a blanket on the grassy hill overlooking the water. This fourth largest group of springs in the state is the source of the Rainbow River, one side of which is developed with homes, but the other side is mostly undisturbed. Down the road is the campground where you can rent a canoe. If you row up the stream around March, you’ll see the banks adorned with more azaleas than you have ever imagined. No wonder this park is so popular for weddings. (Dunnellon, 352-489-8503)
10. Homosassa Springs State Park
Remember your heartbreak as a child when you visited Weeki Wachee and found no real mermaids at all, just girls breathing from a tube? Well, a few miles away you’ll find the real thing at Homosassa Springs State Park. In this rehabilitation center for injured manatees, you can see the gentle giants that live here 365 days a year, only inches away. You can park at the gate or out at the Visitor Center (which has some terrific exhibits) and take the tram or the boat ride on Pepper Creek. At the wildlife park you’ll see crocodiles, panthers, deer, bears, otters, snakes, eagles, caracaras, flamingoes, spoonbills, and former movie star, Lucifer the Hippo.
Everyone’s favorite thing here is the underwater observatory, where you can spend hours watching schools of mullet, sheepshead, red fish, and over two dozen other species swim casually by. You’ll recognize the fisherman — they’re the ones who faint when a 15-pound snook sideswipes the window. The kids, and probably you, too, will squeal when a manatee looks straight at you through the glass. A chart tells you how to identify them. My daughter’s favorite is Rosie, whom she says smiled at her. There’s much more to do here, including viewing an exhibit of Winslow Homer’s watercolors of the river. But don’t bring your bathing suit — to protect the manatees, swimming is not allowed. (Homosassa, 352-628-2311)