Central Florida / Florida Roundups / Springs

Cool escapes: A guide to Florida’s refreshing springs

Florida’s springs draw big crowds in summer

Floridians weather the heat and humidity of brutal summers by turning to the state’s wealth of cool, clear, refreshing springs, spilling water out of crevices in the ground at the rate of thousands of gallons a minute.

The names are familiar to those who live near the Central Florida epicenter of these underground rivers — Ichetucknee, Rock Spring, Blue Spring, Fanning, Wakulla, Wekiwa…

These springs fill up fast on summer weekends, so get there early. When the parking lots are full, the gates are shut.  Your best bet is on weekdays, when you can avoid the hordes and maybe even snag a picnic table in the trees.

Geologists estimate there are more than 700 freshwater springs in Florida — the largest concentration on Earth — but only a relative few are accessible for public recreation.

Here are a few of the best:

 

Ichetucknee Springs State Park (High Springs)

 Ichetucknee may be the best spring in the state for tubing. Picnic areas with tables and grills are available throughout the park, but they fill up fast, and the concession offers food and refreshments.

Canoeing and kayaking is a year-round activity, and during summer there is an in-park shuttle service, but if you want to paddle, stick to weekdays when you don’t have to dodge as many tubers. Snorkeling is allowed only in designated areas.

There are three hiking trails at the north entrance of the park, one of which leads to Blue Hole Spring, the largest spring in the park. Blue Hole is popular with scuba divers, who are allowed to dive only from October through March.

Ichetucknee Spring

Ichetucknee Spring

Swimming is allowed year-round at both Ichetucknee Spring and Blue Hole, but there are no lifeguards and only experienced swimmers should consider Blue Hole because of the depth and strong current.

As the state’s most popular tubing destination, the Ichetucknee River is under heavy pressure, and you will not be allowed to transport anything that can be discarded, including food and drinks, fishing, alcohol, tobacco products, etc.

The park charges $5 per person to launch your tube, and you can rent your tube from private vendors outside the park for $5 to $15, depending on the size. Ichetucknee Springs is about 40 miles northwest of Gainesville on State Highway 20.

Resources

 

DeLeon Springs (Deland/Daytona Beach)

Although Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon never really found his “Fountain of Youth” in Florida, this cool little enclave has as much right as any to lay claim to the title. You certainly feel younger after you jump in and out of this spring!

The spring head is very impressive, a very large wading pool, encircled by a low concrete wall, and a spillway that tumbles down into a broad, scenic spring-garden run through a chain of three lakes to the St. John’s River.

A beautiful, shady picnic ground is adjacent to the swimming area, and canoe and kayak rentals are available at the park concession for paddling the run, which flows into the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. Lifeguards are on duty at this popular swimming hole seven days a week until school begins, then weekends only through the winter.

One of the more notable attractions, however, has nothing to do with the spring and a lot to do with — pancakes.

At the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant, alongside the spring, guests make their own pancakes at their table!

This place is kid-friendly at every level, and that’s not just a lot of syrup.

Admission is $6 per vehicle (up to 8 people), $4 for a single-occupancy vehicle and $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists. DeLeon Springs State Park is 30 miles west of Daytona Beach, just off International Speedway Drive on U.S. 17 North.

Alert: On weekends and holidays the park reaches maximum capacity as early as 10:30 a.m., extending until about 3:00 p.m.  Vehicles are allowed to enter only as parking spaces are available, and walk-ins are not permitted.

Resources:

Rock Spring at Kelly Park (Apopka)

 This beautiful, shaded park hidden in a corner of Orange County is one of my favorites. When I pitched my tent there one winter, I was only planning to stay one night, but I was compelled to stay an extra day.

At the head spring, the cool water spills into a series of pools at the rate of 26,000 gallons a minute. From the spring, you can wade or tube for about a quarter-mile through crystal clear water down picturesque Rock Spring Run.

Rent tubes outside the park at the Rock Springs Bar & Grill for $5 to $10 and bring them into the park (admission is $3).

Although there is plenty of parking, you will get locked out of the park on weekends if you are not early. The park opens at 8 a.m. Camping fees range from $18 to $23 per night, and reservations are accepted up to 45 days in advance.

Rock Spring Run

Rock Spring Run

Perhaps the biggest attraction is actually outside the park, where Rock Springs Run rambles for more than 8 miles through pristine Rock Spring Run State Preserve and Wekiwa Springs State Park. The only access for paddlers near the source is outside Kelly Park at Kings Landing, a private outfitter. Here, you can rent canoes and kayaks and arrange shuttle service, if you decide to paddle the length of the creek to the Wekiva River.

Kelly Park is 6 miles north of downtown Apopka on East Kelly Park Road, off Rock Springs Road.

Alert: Arrive before 10:30 on weekends or your risk getting locked out. The park often reaches capacity by mid-morning on Saturdays and Sundays during the summer.

Resources

Blue Springs State Park (Volusia County)

 Although I’m not a big fan of this campground, I really like this park for everything else it has to offer, not the least of which is its accessibility to the major population areas of Orlando and Daytona Beach.

The swimming hole is absolutely spectacular, sparkling in its clarity from the headspring more than a quarter-mile to the end of the run at the St. John’s River. Sun splatters the cool water surface through the heavily forested banks to give the spring and spring run an almost surreal, jungle-like feel.

You can rent tubes for a slow float, and snorkeling and scuba diving is permitted, although I wouldn’t consider this a serious dive destination. And frankly, it’s probably too crowded in summer to dive comfortably. But wow! What a great place to go for a swim!  The campground has 51 sites ($24/night), but I found them cramped and uncomfortable in a tent.

Blue Spring Run

Blue Springs Run

There are six two-bedroom cabins ($95/night) in a shady stand of oak, a much better choice. The spring and spring run are closed to swimmers during winter, from Nov. 15 through March 1, to accommodate herds of manatees that seek refuge in colder winter months.

Although there are no kayaks or canoes allowed in the spring run, you have access to some of the best paddling trails in the state on the St. John’s River, which passes through the park. There is a concession in the park, or you can launch just outside the park entrance. (Follow the unmarked gravel road about two miles to the river, where there’s a nice launch and plenty of parking.)

Like other springs where swimming is allowed, Blue Spring fills up early on weekends, so plan to get their early.

Park admission is $6 per vehicle (up to 8 people), $4 for single-occupant vehicles and $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists. Blue Spring State Park is 30 miles southwest of Daytona Beach and 33 miles north of Orlando, just off I-4 in Orange City.

Resources:

 

Wekiwa Springs State Park (Apopka)

 What I liked about this spring was the sweeping lawn area that slopes downhill from the parking area. When I visited, three small groups of students and a few families had spread blankets on the lawn area, where they could picnic and keep an eye on the broad, pond-like head spring and pool below them where children splashed and played. It was really peaceful when I was there, birds chirping and an occasional splash of water to break the silence, but this spring gets quite boisterous with the laughter of children on busy summer weekends!

In fact, the park warns visitors to get there before 10:30 a.m. on summer weekends or be shut out. The gates will close when it reaches capacity.

If there are too many people at the spring head, then follow the footpath downstream to the kayak and canoe concession in the headwaters of the Wekiva River. From here, you can paddle north and explore Rock Spring Run or paddle east towards the St. John’s River.  These paddle trails are nicely shaded, and the cool water from the springs adds to what is a cooling experience.

Wekiwa Springs

Wekiwa Springs

This park also has more than 20 miles of hiking and biking trails.

The campground is undergoing improvements, so reservations are only being accepted for sites 1-30 in the first loop.

Call ahead (407-884-2008) if you plan to camp. Day-use admission is $6 per vehicle (up to 8 people), $4 for single-occupancy vehicle and $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists. Wekiwa Springs State Park is about 20 minutes north of Orlando, off I-4 at Exit 94.

Alert: On weekends and holidays the park reaches maximum capacity as early as 10:30 a.m., extending until about 4:30 p.m. Vehicles are allowed to enter only as parking spaces are available.  Plan your visit for early morning or late in the afternoon.

Resources:

Rainbow Springs State Park (Dunnelon). 

Florida’s fourth-largest spring, Rainbow Spring and the Rainbow River has been a draw to humans for thousands of years. Today, it is a popular destination for swimming, snorkeling, canoeing, kayaking and tubing.

There is a newly renovated 105-site campground with full hookups about 1½ miles downstream from the main head spring and day-use area. Campers can launch their own canoes or kayaks on the river near their sites, and you can rent them at the concession at the head spring for the 5.6-mile paddle along the Rainbow River to the Withlacoochee River at Dunnellon.

Rainbow Springs

Rainbow Springs

Tubing is not allowed at the head spring, but there is a tube launch on the river 1.4 miles south of the campground and you can rent tubes at the park concession.

Moss-draped cypress trees line the river banks, offering a spectacular tour of Florida’s backcountry. The swimming area at the head spring, where the water maintains a constant 72-degree temperature, is busiest from late spring through fall, and lifeguards are on duty during the busy summer season.

Be aware that the average depth is 5 feet to 18 feet, which is not conducive for small children or wading.

Admission is $2 per person at the headspring entrance and $5 per vehicle (up to 8 people) at the tube entrance. Children under 6 are free. Camping is $30 per night. Rainbow Springs is 23 miles west of Ocala, just off U.S. 41 north of Dunnellon.

Resources

Peacock Springs State Park (Live Oak)

 With one of the longest underwater cave systems in the country, Peacock Springs is a dream for cave divers, who have explored and surveyed nearly 33,000 feet of underwater passages.

This park has two major springs, a spring run and six sinkholes, all in pristine condition.  All divers must provide proof of certification, and there are several restrictions on when, where and with whom you can dive.

Swimming and snorkeling are limited to Peacock and Orange Grove springs and is dependent on seasonal water levels. When we visited in May, Peacock was not an appealing as a place to swim. (There are lifeguards and the springs are not child-frieindly.)

Peacock Springs diver

Peacock Springs

Hikers can get an above-ground view of the winding underground passages with photographs and trail maps that show you what’s below your feet.

A new interpretative trail offers boardwalks and interpretive kiosks for hikers.

Admission is $4 per vehicle (up to 8 people per vehicle) and $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists. Peacock Springs State Park is about 20 miles south of Live Oak on State Road 51.

Resources:

 

Ginnie Springs (High Springs; Private)

This magnificent, privately owned 200-acre recreation area includes seven springs that feed the Santa Fe River just outside of High Springs, near Gainesville.

The river is a paddler’s dream as it lazily flows towards the Suwannee.

A major attraction is scuba diving into the 50-foot deep head spring and its underlying network of caves with about 1,000 feet of subterranean passages. Certified cave divers have access to another 30,000 feet of passages in the Devil’s Spring system.

Ginnie Springs

Ginnie Springs

One of the big attractions at Ginnie Springs Outdoors is the private campground. There are 90 sites water and electric hookups, and another 300 tent sites scattered about the park, many waterfront.

The camping fee can add up quickly at $20.40 per person per night ($6 for children 7-14), so a family of four would pay $52.80 per night for a campsite. (Children under 7 are free.)

Day-use admission for divers or paddlers is $12 ($3 for children). Ginnie Springs is about 9 miles west of High Springs on State Road 340/236.

 

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Honorable mention

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park (Spring Hill) –This venerable Florida tourist attraction, famous for its 400-seat underwater theater and performing mermaids, is now a state park with all the trimmings.

For your summer escape, enjoy the 72-degree crystal clear water as it feeds Buccaneer Bay. Kids will love the waterslides and water park on the Bay, elevating the swimming experience to theme-park fun.

There are also boat tours available, canoeing and kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving (no lone dives).

Mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida

Weeki Wachee Springs

Admission is $13 per adult, $5 for children 6-12.  Weeki Wachee Springs is 56 miles north of Tampa, near Brooksville, just off the Suncoast Parkway (SR 589).

Resources:

 

Lithia Springs (Near Tampa) – This is not a state park, so it’s off the radar for most Floridians, except those who live nearby.  It is very popular with residents of Hillsborough County.

I paid visited during winter to check out the campground, and was surprised by the size of the spring, its white-sand beach, and adjacent picnic areas that slope away from the main pool.

The water is not as clear here as other springs I’ve visited, although it is crystal clear around the spring head. As it flows into the run to the Alafia River, underwater vegetation introduces a faint green tint, while a definitive tannin color takes over near the Alafia.

Lithia Spring

Lithia Spring

By the way, I really loved the campground, read my article —  Lithia Springs: Secluded park near Tampa for camping, swimming and paddling. http://floridarambler.com/florida-best-camping/lithia-springs-park/

Lithia Springs Park, operated by the Hillsborough County Parks Department, is about 20 miles east of Tampa, off the Crosstown Expressway and County Road 640 on Lithia Springs Road

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Tell us about your favorite Florida spring! 

 

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5 Comments

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  3. Beth Marshall says:

    The picture of Deleon Springs on this page is of the wrong park. The one pictured here is Ponce DeLeon Springs State Park
    2860 Ponce DeLeon Springs Road
    Ponce DeLeon, FL 32455. It is on the panhandle.

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