The Silver and Ocklawaha rivers offer opportunities to get close to nature in all its splendor.
The Silver and Ocklawaha rivers run like ribbons through Marion County. Unlike many of our waterways, the shorelines of these rivers have not been heavily developed and remain mostly natural. The rivers both offer wonderful opportunities to explore, view wildlife and, in the case of the Ocklawaha, do some camping and fishing.
While the two rivers are connected, they are both unique. The clear waters of the Silver River gush up from the Floridan Aquifer through a cluster of springs at the iconic Silver Springs State Park. The river flows for about five miles through the park and merges with the Ocklawaha River just south of State Road 40.
The often-murky Ocklawaha River comes from Lake Griffin to our south and flows north about 75 miles, where it meets the St. Johns River near Palatka.
Canoes and kayaks are best suited for exploring these rivers, although smaller power boats work as well. There are rental kayaks and canoes available at Silver Springs State Park and at the Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost in Fort McCoy.
Slow is the best speed for various reasons. By law, boats must operate at idle speed on the Silver River, while on the Ocklawaha the prudent skipper takes it easy to avoid damage to propellers from submerged stumps and logs. Slower is also better for wildlife viewing, reducing bank erosion, safety to other small craft and the overall health of the rivers.
To explore the Silver River, you can put in at the head springs and paddle the length of the river to Ray Wayside Park, at the base of the Ocklawaha Bridge on SR 40. As you paddle, watch for manatees, river otters, alligators, countless turtles and fish, wild rhesus monkeys and a wide range of birds. Wildlife is best viewed from a distance for your own safety and also to limit disturbing these critters.
As you approach the end of the run, watch carefully on the left for the canal to the park and takeout area—if you reach the confluence of the Ocklawaha, you have missed Ray Wayside. Also known as the Ocala Boat Basin, this is a state-owned property that has been leased to Marion County since 1976. It offers boat ramps, bank fishing, volleyball, a playground, picnic pavilions and restrooms. There is a user fee. After your trip down the Silver River, you can have someone pick you up here or catch a shuttle back to the state park (call ahead to Silver Springs for details about this option).
The Ocklawaha River offers 20 miles of majestic “Old Florida” scenery between Ray Wayside and the county boat ramp in Eureka. Most of this area is completely natural and the river has a lot of bends. Gore’s Landing County Park lies at the 10-mile mark and offers a good stopover or takeout point for a shorter trip.
Sandy bluffs and small landings along the river make for great primitive camp sites—as long as they are not posted “no trespassing.” Anglers are likely to catch panfish, bass, catfish, bowfin and gar. The river here often runs dark and tends to be less busy than the Silver River.
When on an outing on either river, practice these common-sense safety precautions: Tell someone about your plans and route; be sure to bring a life jacket, sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, water, snacks and a waterproof pouch for keys and phones.
Above all, be safe, take your time, relax, and enjoy what these outstanding local rivers have to offer. OS
Scott Mitchell is a field archaeologist, scientific illustrator and director of the Silver River Museum & Environmental Education Center, located at 1445 NE 58th Ave., Ocala, inside the Silver River State Park. Museum hours are 10am to 4pm Saturday and Sunday. Admission to the park is $2 per person; free ages 6 and younger. To learn more, go to silverrivermuseum.com.