The park opens early, and I am the first to meet the ranger at the gate, eager to beat the summer campers. As I park, untie my inner tube, and make the short hike to the river, I walk to the dock and lower myself into the waist deep cool water while balancing my large doughnut-sized tube. Without much effort, I plunge into the tube and the river begins to gently move me down one of the most popular rivers in all of Florida, the Ichetucknee. I am at peace with the world as I float down river. I can do nothing but relax and watch the beauty of Florida’s nature drift by me. I feel serene and am “one” with the river.
Enjoying Florida’s springs when the temperature and humidity rise is a great way to beat the heat. And lucky for us our state offers some fantastic ways to cool off during the summer. Whether it’s the delightful pleasure of swimming in a spring hole or playing in a spring-fed river or bay, kayaking, canoeing, or tubing, you’re sure to find cool summertime fun.
Florida is blessed to have more than 700 springs, the largest collection on earth, mostly located in the central and northern parts of the state. From deep within the underground aquifer, eight billion gallons of water flow from Florida’s springs each day at a constant, 72-degree temperature.
Most of Florida’s springs are located within state or national parks. This offers visitors an array of recreational opportunities, while protecting essential natural resources and making the experience not only fun, but one of Florida’s best bargains.
Here are some springs you don’t want to miss.
Just northwest of Gainesville near White Springs, the Ichetucknee is legendary among Florida tubing enthusiasts. The gentle flow of aqua translucent water caresses you into a state of complete relaxation on a three-hour “chillaxing” drift downstream.
The river is a place of natural beauty and abundant wildlife. On a recent morning drift down the river, shaded by overhanging trees and green luscious foliage, I spotted egrets, wood storks, ducks, limpkins, ibis, and scads of turtles sunning on partially submerged logs. I passed through an area of marsh river grasses dotted with blooming white lilies where beneath me otters swam and played. Nearby, on the riverbank, under a canopy of oaks, I spotted a grazing white-tailed deer. The water, the abundant wildlife, moss-draped trees against the bright blue sky – all came together so perfectly that I knew this would make this one of my favorites.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
12087 SW US 27,
Ft. White, Florida 32038,
Crystal River is located on Florida’s Gulf coast in Citrus County, which boasts a reputation as Florida’s “water lover’s paradise.” An abundance of springs flow throughout the region providing many places to cool off from the summer heat.
Crystal River is a first magnitude spring system, originating in Kings Bay, with more than 40 springs flowing into the river as it meanders six miles westward to the Gulf of Mexico.
To visit this spring system, you’ll have to go by boat. Local outfitters will take you to the springs where a beautiful world, on or below the water, awaits. The largest spring in Kings Bay is called Kings Spring. It’s 75 feet across and 30 feet deep at the entrance to a 60-foot cave. This is very popular for swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers.
Another spring, considered the “crown jewel” and one of the most beautiful springs in all of Florida – is the Three Sisters Springs. Local outfitters transport swimmers by boat to just outside an enclosed swimming and snorkeling area. This enchanting spring, is often heavily populated by manatees.
Location: The City of Crystal River is on U.S. Highway 19 about an hour north of the Clearwater/St. Petersburg area. Several outfitters are available through the Citrus County Convention & Visitors Association.
North of Orlando, and only an hour from the well-known theme parks, Wekiwa Springs State Park is a delightful retreat with an “Old Florida” feel. Wekiwa is an Indian word for “bubbling water” which perfectly describes the freshwater spring that attracts so many visitors to the park. The Wekiwa Springs discharge 45 million gallons of water daily. The second-magnitude emerald green spring sits at the base of a grassy amphitheatre with steps leading to the swimming area.
The 7,800-acre Wekiwa Springs Park is a part of the Wekiva Basin ecosystem. Nearby neighbors such as the Rock Springs Run State Preserve, the Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park and the Wekiwa Springs State Park make up the full basin. Needless to say, there is plenty of Authentic Florida to explore in the area.
If you want solitude, consider a kayak or canoe trip to see more of the park. Rentals are available in the concession area near the spring. An easy paddle on the Wekiva River and up the Rock Springs Run will confirm its designation as a National Wild & Scenic River. Florida wildlife is everywhere – ospreys, limpkins, wood storks, ibis, egrets, herons, alligators and loads of turtles.
[Editor’s note: Spelling for the Wekiwa Springs and the Wekiva River are different.]
1800 Wekiwa Circle
Apopka, Florida 32712
Thirty minutes south of Tallahassee, the Wakulla Springs State Park is a very popular swimming hole with an actual jumping tower near the spring. It’s great fun for anyone wanting to beat the heat, but especially a treat for the throngs of kids who line up to climb the steps and jump into the clear cool hole.
Over 200-300 million gallons of water per day pour out of the first-magnitude spring, which is the origin of the Wakulla River. It is also one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the whole wide world.
You can visit Wakulla Springs State Park for the day, but this may be a place you want to stay overnight. Camping is available, but one of the best experiences is to stay at the Wakulla Springs State Park Lodge. The 1930’s Mediterranean revival lodge has spacious rooms, a spectacular lobby and a delightful restaurant.
I also recommend the ranger-guided Jungle Cruise that covers a three-mile loop through the wildlife sanctuary – riding over the Wakulla Spring. While on the cruise, you’ll see plenty of alligators on the riverbank plus manatees (in season), herons, egrets, anhingas, ospreys, common moorhens, wood ducks, and Suwannee River cooters.
The archeologist in you will be fascinated with Wakulla Springs. An ancient mastodon (now at the Museum of Florida History) was found at the bottom of the spring and the remains of nine more extinct mammals, dating to the last glacial period, have been found.
After your swim in the spring, you may want to hike around the beautiful park on the many trails. The state park guides are very friendly and provide plenty of information that will make your stay terrific.
Wakulla Springs State Park
465 Wakulla Park Drive
Wakulla Springs, Florida 32327
Within the Ocala National Forest, 90 minutes north of Orlando and 22 miles due east of Silver Springs on State Road 40, is Juniper Springs. A limestone wall surrounded by picnic tables and lawn, originally built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, circles the park’s spring. Swimmers and campers delight in the beautiful deep blue water hole. An old historical mill, originally built to provide electricity for the park campground, is adjacent to the swimming area and houses an historical and informational exhibit for park guests.
One of the best canoe runs in all of Florida is located at Juniper Springs. A four-hour canoe/kayak trip down the spring-fed Juniper Creek Run, gives you a one-way, seven-mile ride winding through the park’s Prairie Wilderness Area.
Rental canoes can be reserved at the main concession area along with a seat on the bus for the return trip.
The pristine Juniper Creek Run is a feast for the eyes. A lush, tropical forest of palms, cypress and southern hardwoods surround visitors at every turn. You’ll easily have a sense of what native Timucuans must have experienced years ago. We saw plenty of red-bellied turtles, a few gators (they stay clear), wood ducks, great herons, monarch butterflies and loads of wildflowers.
Juniper Springs, Ocala National Forest
26701 East Highway 40
Silver Springs, Florida 34488