Let’s Go Swimming!

When the summer sunshine beckons, but the heat is oppressive, head for these cool aquatic escapes.

Photo by Meagan Gumpert

Lucky Ocalans, living in the center of a peninsula brings us close to innumerable opportunities for swimming—sparkling cerulean pools, water parks and splash pads, gentle rivers, spectacular springs and freshwater lakes—many within an easy hour’s drive. 

One of the most recognizable of Ocala’s water features, Lake Tuscawilla, while not suitable for swimming, is also well-known for the adjacent park and playground, Discovery Science Center and the Reilly Arts Center. Here are a few swimming opportunities as measured by the approximate travel time from Tuscawilla Park, which is located at 829 NE Sanchez Ave., in downtown Ocala.

Mila Naranjo, plays in the cold water at Lily’s Splash Pad
Photo by Bruce Ackerman

Hampton Aquatic Fun Center and Jervey Gantt Aquatic Fun Center

For a family fun pool experience, Ocala Recreation and Parks offers two public pools: Hampton Aquatic Fun Center and Jervey Gantt Aquatic Fun Center. Both facilities offer swimming, water spray features, a waterfall and waterslides. Both pools are ADA compliant. Admission is $2 per child (under 16 years old), $3.50 per adult (age 17 and above). You must pay to reenter if you leave the park. No outside food or drink allowed; you can purchase snacks and drinks at concession stands. No pets, alcohol, smoking or water wings. Appropriate clothing is required. 

Hampton Aquatic Fun Center
(Seven minutes away)
255 NW Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Ocala
ocalafl.org
(352) 368-5517 

Open Tuesdays through Saturdays, morning session 10am to 1pm and afternoon session 2pm to 5pm. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Jervey Gantt Aquatic Fun Center
(12 minutes away)
2390 SE 36th Ave., Ocala
ocalafl.org
(352) 368-5517 

Open Tuesdays through Saturdays, morning session 10am to 1pm and afternoon session 2pm to 5pm. Closed Sundays and Mondays. 

Splash Pads

If you are looking to take young ones somewhere fun to splash, but not swim, Lily’s Splash Pad (Seven minutes from Lake Tuscawilla) at Lillian Bryant Park, 2200 NW 17th Place and Citizens’ Circle Splash Pad, three minutes away in downtown Ocala at 151 SE Osceola Ave., are open sunrise to sunset daily. (ocalafl.org)

In Belleview, the Wilma Loar Splash Park (22 minutes from Tuscawilla Park) at 5615 SE 110th St., is open 8am to 7pm daily. (belleviewfl.org)

The splash pads are free. There are restrooms located nearby. Don’t forget your towel!

Florida Aquatics Swimming and Training facility
Photo by Alan Youngblood

Florida Aquatics Swimming and Training (FAST) (21 minutes)
4635 SW 67th Ave. Road, Ocala 
floridafast.com
(352) 820-4222 

Ocalans are excited about the new, world-class Florida Aquatics Swimming and Training facility (FAST), located in the Calesa Township community at On Top of the World. Circle Square Foundation trustee Kenneth Colen says the aquatic center’s mission is “to train swimmers and athletes of all ages and abilities to go beyond their best through exceptional coaching, premier facilities and cutting-edge athletic programming.” 

The facility has two competition-size pools, one inside a large sunlit space and another sparkling brightly outside, and a “sprayground” splash pad with fountains for youthful frolicking. 

The facility also houses a fitness center referred to as “dryland,” more than 2,000-square-feet of Olympic-style equipment, a fast-fuel cafe, onsite pro shop and seating for as many as 2,000 spectators. 

FAST is open to swimmers of all abilities and offers hours for open swimming, swimming laps in lanes and training. Ambitious swimmers can join the Falcons or the Masters swim teams. 

There are fees to use the facility and a schedule for pool use, which can be found online. 

Springs, Lakes and Rivers

To meet our true Florida natives, bring a mask and snorkel! There are plenty of places to dig your toes in the sand and run your hands through the ribbon grass. Bass, gar, mullet, even crabs and eel may be encountered underwater, while herons, anhingas, otters and turtles can be seen on the banks.

Lake Weir
Carney Island Park (32 minutes away)
3275 SE 115th Ave., Ocklawaha
(352) 671-8560
marionfl.org

Beautiful Lake Weir features several swimming areas and Carney Island Park is the hands-down favorite. A sandy beach leads into the water and the venue offers swimming, hiking, boat ramps, a playground, restrooms, picnic tables and a volleyball area. Open 7am through 8pm April through October, the daily user fee is $7 per vehicle. No pets.

Horseshoe Lake Park & Retreat (38 minutes)
23532 NE 110th Ave., Fort McCoy
(352) 671-8560
marionfl.org

North county favorite Horseshoe Lake features a playground, swimming area, fishing, picnic tables, restrooms, walking trails and cabin and pavilion rentals. Open daily 8am to 8pm April through October. Entry is $7 per vehicle. No pets.

Tubers float in the Rainbow River near the Blue Run
Photo by Bruce Ackerman
Paddling on the Rainbow River
Photo by Alan Youngblood

Rainbow River

Nearly six miles of cool, clear water make the lovely Rainbow River not only an aquatic preserve and an Outstanding Florida Waterway, but also a very popular place on weekends and holidays. People enjoy swimming, boating, diving and tubing. While one side of the river is populated with homes and rentals, the other is largely undeveloped, with a wild jungle of cypress, palm and sweetgum trees. Small spring boils and bubblers punctuate the limestone and eelgrass riverbed. There are few areas to stop in shade for those who float downriver on inner tubes, so make sure to bring sunscreen and water for the approximately four-hour journey. Because people live along the river, please do not cut across yards or use docks or boats for respite. 

Rainbow Springs State Park (36 minutes away)
19158 SW 81st Place Road, Dunnellon
(352) 465-8555 
floridastateparks.org

Amenities include hiking trails, pavilions (first-come, first-served), bathrooms and an area for swimming. Park hours are 8am to sunset, 365 days a year. Park entry is $2 per person, free for ages 6 and younger. Additional fees apply for tube rental and campground, accessible at the Southwest 180th Avenue Road location. The park closes when it reaches capacity, sometimes as early as 10am. 

KP Hole Park (38 minutes away)
9435 SW 190th Ave. Road, Dunnellon
(352) 489-3055
marionfl.org

Established nearly 70 years ago, this park on the Rainbow River hosts swimmers, canoeists, kayakers, snorkelers and scuba divers. KP stands for the Knights of Pythias, previous owners of the property before Marion County purchased the land for a park. Amenities include swimming, picnicking, restrooms, concessions, boat ramp and rentals of canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and inner tubes for a leisurely four-hour float trip down the river. There is a daily entry fee of $7 per person for swimming and picnicking; free for ages 5 and younger. Additional fees of $20 per diver and $20 per motorized vessel. Tube rental of $30 per person includes entry fee and return shuttle service from the take-out downriver. There is a discount fee of $25 per person if there are four or more people in your tubing group. No dogs, no alcohol, no personal tubes. Park is open 8am to 8pm April through September.

Ocala National Forest 

Half an hour away, tucked in among the cabbage palms and oak trees in the Ocala National Forest, are the true wonders of Florida’s natural legacy. Freshwater springs feed cool, clear water to basins brimming with life. Because it originates underground, the temperature of the spring water reflects the annual ground temperature, typically a cool 72 to 76 degrees. Many of these recreation areas allow swimming, hiking, fishing, boating and camping, among other outdoor pursuits. The gates open at 8am and close at 8pm. Because of their popularity, these recreation areas fill fast, so come early, and on weekends and holidays be prepared to wait in line. 

While access to the Ocala National Forest is free, the recreation areas charge entrance fees of $8 per person on weekdays, $11 per person on weekends. You can purchase an annual Ocala National Forest Recreational Area Pass (also called a Springs Hopper Pass) at recreation area entrance stations or recreation.gov 

Fore Lake Recreation Area (31 minutes)
14434 NE Highway 314, Silver Springs
(352) 625-6312

The area offers swimming, picnic tables, hiking, camping, nonmotorized boats, bathrooms, potable water and a boat ramp. $5 per vehicle for day-use.

Mill Dam Recreation Area (31 minutes)
19657 State Road 40, Silver Springs
(352) 625-2520

Swimming, boating, picnicking, bathrooms, potable water and a boat ramp are available. A lifeguard is present through September 15th, Friday through Sunday from 10am to 6pm. The Mill Dam Lake swimming area and restrooms are wheelchair accessible. $5 per vehicle per for day-use.

Swimming at Juniper Springs
Photo by Megan Gumpert

Juniper Springs Recreation Area (37 minutes away)
26701 State Road 40, Silver Springs
(352) 625-3147

Between Ocala and Ormond Beach on State Road 40, scenic Juniper Springs is one of the most popular and most photographic swimming holes in the forest. A collection of springs are nestled along hiking trails. The circular swimming area, millhouse, campground and picnic area were built the mid-1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The millhouse interpretive display describes the area’s history. Keep an eye out for the unusual albino gray squirrels.

Salt Springs Recreation Area (39 minutes)
13851 State Road 19, Fort McCoy
(352) 685-2048

Some believe that trace amounts of minerals in the waters of Salt Springs can preserve youth and vitality. The shallow spring is a serene and fascinating place to visit, with submerged algae-coated boulders reminiscent of ancient ruins. It is said that Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem Kubla Khan uses imagery of the area derived from the writings of William Bartram. Amenities include a bathhouse, bathroom, picnic tables, boat ramp, canoe rental and camping by reservation. 

Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area (48 minutes)
5271 State Road 19, Salt Springs
(352) 685-2799

Silver Glen discharges around 65 million gallons of water per day from two vents. The water flows into Lake George, the second largest lake in Florida. This gentle spring hosts a large school of striped bass, swirling and flashing. Bring a small wagon (or a strong friend) to carry your stuff from the parking area to the spring. Set up chairs and picnic blankets in the sunshine and enjoy people-watching between swims. Amenities include trails with a boardwalk, portable toilets, changing area, a concession stand with drinks and snacks, and a canoe/kayak launch.

Alexander Springs Recreation Area (52 minutes away) 
49525 County Road 445, Altoona
(352) 669-3522

Surrounded by nature, with a gently sloping sand beach into turquoise water, visitors to this 300-foot-wide basin can see a variety of fish, birds and occasionally otters and other wildlife. The area offers swimming, scuba diving, backpacking, boating, restrooms, potable water and interpretive displays. OS

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