You’re hiking a dirt track through the woods, well-worn from years of foot passage. You notice fresh deer tracks on the trail and maybe the peculiar paw print of a raccoon or two. Up ahead, sunshine filters through an opening in the canopy and you spot a sparkle of light dancing through the trees. Have you just stumbled into an enchanted fairyland?
You move closer and note the sparkle is coming from the sun reflecting off water, a watering hole in the hidden in the forest. But this is not just any watering hole. This water glows a bright emerald color with a deep turquoise hue in the center of the pool. You can see clear down to the limestone floor, where the earth has dropped away, forming an underwater cavern. Mesmerized by the beauty, you move towards the embankment and bend down to scoop a handful of this magical-looking water. It trickles through your fingers, icy cold, as if someone had melted a pool of ice in the middle of the forest.
You look around- there’s not another soul in sight. Is this real or are you dreaming? Relax, your mind isn’t playing tricks; You have just stumbled across a natural Florida spring!
This is Florida. We’re surrounded by water on three sides and a whole lot more in the middle. We have swamps, salt marshes, lakes, and flowing rivers (there’s even a waterfall or two or three for the intrepid adventurer), and we also have the largest concentration of freshwater springs in the entire world.
Because Florida lacks elevation, it’s closer to the aquifer. The water that is filtered through the ground from rain and natural drainage, collects and builds up pressure. It needs to escape, so it literally pushes itself out of the ground like a broken fire hydrant. In some places it bubbles up in sandy river beds and ponds, creating boils. Stronger pressure will cause the water to spew through cracks in the limestone, forming vents. When the pressure is exceptionally great, it forcefully pushes out of the earth, eroding away the limestone and carving great underwater caverns with time.
Florida’s springs are a phenomenal natural wonder and we have 1,000 named springs in our sunshine state- with the highest concentration around north central Florida (it’s that lack of elevation-thing). A lot of these springs are accessible to the public in state parks. The state park system tries maintain the health of their springs by using conservation practices like building boardwalks to stop human impact and erosion surrounding the spring and lands and limiting access to a certain number of people at a time.
Choosing what springs to visit is the hardest part. If you are new to Florida or just Florida springs, or on limited time, here are the top 5 springs in Florida you should make it a point to visit this year. Each of these has a unique factor that puts them on this list. They are family-friendly and easily accessible, so you can store those hiking boots for now and adopt our Florida flip-flop style for these treks. Grab your kids and make it a spring break adventure (or anytime of year) and go hunting- Florida spring hunting.
Top Five Florida Springs You Should Visit This Year
Where: Silver Springs State Park
Unique Factor: Top Dog of Springs
Located at the head of the Silver River near Ocala, this spring is the mother of all springs- not just in Florida either. A 1st magnitude spring, Mammoth Spring spews out 550 million gallons of freshwater daily. That’s a whole lot of agua! Mammoth is the largest freshwater artesian spring in the world. Though drinking directly from the spring is not recommended, you can buy Silver Springs bottled water.
Being the head-honcho of springs is not the only reason this gaping cavern in the ground is famous. Mammoth comes with a roster of A-list celebrities that have indulged in underwater antics for the silver screen. Sea Hunt was shot there, James Bond met his match there in Never Say Never Again, and even Elvis Presley performed there (on land though). You can explore the film-scene of Silver Springs and Mammoth Springs in their on-site museum.
Best Way to Experience: Glass Bottom Boat
You can rent a kayak or bring your own and paddle over the spring, but the true best way to experience Mammoth without the glare of the overhead sun marring your view, is from the comfort of a glass bottom boat. Now electric-powered, these historic boats have been taking tourists over the Silver River Springs since the late 1800’s.
What to look out for: The Greek Statues.
Leftover movie props from the I-Spy television series, these iconic Greek statues have been a part of Mammoth Springs since the 1960’s. If you want to have a closer inspection or miss out on that great photo-op, they keep a dry one in their museum.
Cost: Admission to Silver Springs State Park: $2 per person; Glass Bottom Boat ride: $11 adults; $10 seniors; $10 children 6-12; Kids 5 & under free.
Silver Springs Park is located at 5656 East Silver Springs Blvd, Silver Springs, Florida 34488
Where: Ocala National Forest
Unique Factor: The Perfect Family Swimming Hole
The first Timucuan Indian that stumbled across this emerald swimming hole must have thought he found paradise- and then he proceeded tell his friends, who then settled around this hidden oasis. Set in the middle of the woods in the Ocala National Forest, this spring basin is an unexpected surprise. Alexander Spring is located at the far right of a large open crystal clear basin of water where the water turns a deep blue hue. The basin itself is shallow with a walk-in entry and gradual descent of depth, making it a great swimming hole for families with little kids. However, closer to the spring, it can reach depths of up to 10 feet. Alexander is another 1st magnitude spring, and pushes out 70 million gallons of water on a daily basis. The 72F water is a good way to beat our Florida heat on a hot summer’s day.
Best Way to Experience: Snorkel
Grab a snorkel & mask and swim to the spring, but leave those flippers behind, as they stir up the sandy bottom of the basin, making it cloudy for viewing. Because of the depth, viewing the actual spring itself is for swimmers only. You can take the Timucuan Nature Trail around the basin for different viewing points of this spring from land.
What to look out for: Florida Alligators
You are swimming in Florida, so be aware we have alligators. Steer clear of the far embankments and all weedy areas, where these reptiles like to seek shelter. You can read more about these Florida gators at: 10 Things You Need to Know About Florida Alligators
Cost: $5.50 per person
Alexander Springs Recreation Area is located in the Ocala National Forest at 49525 County Rd 445, Altoona, Florida 32702
Where: Ocala National Forest
Unique Factor: It’s a Saltwater Spring
Salt Springs has not tapped a line into the ocean, nor is it regurgitated seawater. The water from this 2nd magnitude springs derives its salinity from a buildup of a combination of minerals like sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Millions of years ago, Florida was underwater, but when the seas dried up, the salinity and the marine life stayed. You can run across blue crabs scurrying between the limestone cracks in the spring pool floor along with needle-fish, mullet, and bass.
Another favorite swimming hole in the Ocala National Forest, Salt Springs has added archaeological significance. While rebuilding the retaining wall around the spring head, prehistoric artifacts dating back over 5,000 years were found in this spring basin. Salt Springs was a prolific hunting and fishing area for the native Indians.
Salt Springs pumps out 55 million gallons of water daily that will take the 5-mile journey through the wetland marshes to Lake George.
Best Way to Experience: Snorkel
Salt Springs is a group of vents or cracks in the limestone bed, and a snorkel and mask is the best way to explore this underwater world.
What to look out for: Blue Crabs
Finding blue crabs in North Central Florida outside of a restaurant is pretty neat- and the kids will get a kick out of following them too, just watch those claws.
Cost: $6 per person
Salt Springs Recreation Area is located in the Ocala National Forest at Fort McCoy, Florida 32134
Where: Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park
Unique Factor: Underwater Observatory
Another 1st magnitude spring, Homosassa Springs puts out 64 million gallons of fresh water daily that will make the 8 mile trip down the Homosassa River and into the Gulf of Mexico. Visitors can descend into the bowels of Homosassa Springs in the state park’s underwater observatory to get the inside glimpse of a spring and it’s aquatic life without having to hold their breath or get wet ( a win-win situation for moms of younger kids).
You can watch the fish that inhabit these waters. Large schools of them like to dart past the huge glass windows. There’s a handy chart on the wall in the observatory to help you and your kids name them too. If you are lucky, you may even get to see a manatee chomping on some lettuce. Homosassa Springs State Park rescues and rehabilitates injured manatees as part of their program, so a manatee sighting in the park is more certain than in the wild.
Homosassa Springs is a state park and a Florida zoo. Once a famous old Florida attraction, the park dates back to the early 1900’s. The state park continues on the zoo tradition, using the facilities to rehabilitate injured animals. You’ll see many of Florida’s native critters on their stroller-friendly boardwalk paths, and as an added bonus, Homosassa Springs is home to a non-native, and first honorary Florida hippopotamus, Lucifer. You can read more about this famous hippo at: Exploring Homosassa Springs State Park.
Best Way to Experience: The Underwater Observatory
What to look out For: Manatees
Cost: Adults $13; Kids 6-12 $5; 5 and under free
Homosassa Springs is located at 5150 South Suncoast Blvd. (US 19), Homosassa, Florida 34446
Weeki Wachee Springs
Where: Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Unique Factor: Home to the Florida Mermaid
Weeki Wachee Springs is the ‘other’ spring you can walk into without getting wet. The Weeki Wachee mermaids have been putting on performances in the underwater theater of this historic old Florida attraction since 1947. These aquatic acrobats train for hours on end, honing their talents for the underwater shows in this 1st magnitude spring. They battle against the 112 million gallon daily output and often a turtle or two who attempts to get in on their act.
Unlike Homosassa, you don’t have to stay dry at this spring; the adjacent water park, Buccaneer Bay, allows guests to swim and shoot down waterslides, straight into the crystal clear fresh spring waters. Mermaid tails optional.
What to Watch Out For: Buccaneer Bay Schedule
Though you can enjoy the sandy man-made beach and swimming hole year-round, the water slides and tube float at Buccaneer Bay are only open during the season. They keep Saturday & Sunday hours part of the year and switch to full time in the summer. Check out the schedule their website for open dates before you go.
Cost: Adults $13; Children 6-12 $8; 5 and under free. Cost of Buccaneer Bay is includeed in this admission price.
Weeki Wachee Springs is located at 6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill, Florida 34606
Saving Florida’s Springs
These freshwater springs are Florida’s most precious resource. They provide us with not only recreation, but water- the essential ingredient for human survival. Unfortunately, the springs are diminishing and depleting. Their outflow has become tainted with residue from overuse of pesticides and misuse of land practices. Our springs need protecting and their future lies in the hands of our children. The key to raising awareness of this vital issue is by showing our kids first-hand what these springs are and how they benefit us now. Introduce your child to these places- nature at its finest and let them experience these incredible wonders of Florida.
Other Ways to Restore & Protect Our Springs
Always take away your trash from any outdoor activity. Let your kids know why disposing of it properly (in those bear-safe trash bins) is important for the animals and environment.
Participate in river and spring clean-ups. This not only does good for the environment, but also makes your child become more aware of why you shouldn’t leave that water bottle behind on your own wilderness adventures.
Stop using chemicals on your lawns. It leeches into the aquifer and comes out through the springs…and into your drinking water! Lawns are nice, but you can enjoy greenery in other ways, like planting drought-resistant, Florida native plants instead. Take the kids to a local UF IFAS Extension garden to see what Florida natives grow best in your area. You can chat with a master gardener for ideas and growing tips too.
Become water-conscious. All that water you waste is coming from the Florida aquifer, so make it a family-point to turn off those taps while brushing your teeth and reduce shower-times.
You and your family can learn more about Florida’s most precious resource, our natural springs at Floridasprings.org.
Other posts that may interest you:
- Florida Spring Hunting
- Spring Hunting on the Silver River
- Florida Spring Break Escapes for Families
- More Florida Spring Break Escapes for Families
Have a question, suggestion, or just want to say ‘hi’? Drop me a line at: SWhite@adventuresofmom.com