Early tourists to Florida were awed by Silver Springs, the source of the Silver River, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this is such a spectacular spot.
And yet, its off-the-expressway location in the center of the state near Ocala means lots of Florida residents and visitors haven’t been here, even though this may be Florida’s most famous spring.
Some of Florida’s springs should have been preserved a hundred years ago as national parks – they’re that special. Perhaps they wouldn’t be so endangered today and they would have gained the appreciation they deserve. Silver Springs in particular is in danger right now.
You can still enjoy the Silver River, for the moment, in a large part because Florida’s state park system in the last decade has developed outstanding facilities at Silver River State Park. You should visit Silver River soon; its future may not be as bright as its past.
Silver River State Park, which occupies land along the river but not does not include the spring itself, offers visitors a variety of activities:
- 15 miles of lovely forest trails that can be walked or ridden on mountain bikes.
- Reasonably priced canoe and kayak rentals on the Silver River, which allow you to paddle to the spring head and enjoy pristine scenery and wildlife along the way. Land around the spring is part of a private commercial attraction, but those in canoes and kayaks are free to explore the waterway and the spring head.
- The best state-park cabins we’ve ever stayed in – for $110 a night, you get a fully equipped two-bedroom house with a huge screened in porch, a gas fireplace, surrounded by a mature forest.
- Beautiful tree-shaded sites for tents or RVs.
- A museum and environmental education center set in a village of historic Cracker buildings that were moved here to tell the story of Florida’s pioneers.
- Horseback riding on trails through a live-oak forest in the park.
In addition, Silver River State Park is a great base for exploring Ocala National Forest, particularly the opportunity to canoe on Juniper Spring, a half hour east, or the Ocklawaha, a half hour north. Staying here, you also could visit Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Cross Creek, a highlight of any trip to this region.
The history of Silver River and Silver Spring
The beauty of Silver Spring, one of the largest artesian springs in the world, has been appreciated for hundreds of years. The first glass-bottom boat tours started in 1878 – incredibly early by Florida standards.
In the 1930s, six of the original Tarzan movies, starring Johnny Weissmuller, were filmed on location at Silver Springs. In the late 50s and 60s, the clear water made this the perfect location to film more than a 100 episodes of “Sea Hunt,” starring Lloyd Bridges. “Creature from the Black Lagoon” was filmed here; so were scenes from movies ranging from “Rebel Without a Cause” to James Bond’s “Thunderball.”
From its earliest days, Silver Springs was a commercial attraction. In the 1950s, 800,000 people visited a year, according to the Silver Springs Nature and Theme Park, which currently operates the attraction at the spring.
Today, the theme park is still open, but crowds have dwindled and its managers have approached the state to take over management of the spring. Since 1993, the Florida park system has owned the land around the spring and leased it to a series of companies operating boat tours and a water park. A hearing was held on the topic in December 2012, where dozens of speakers supported adding the spring land to the adjoining Silver River State Park. A decision is expected by spring.
The largest threat to Silver Springs is pollution from agricultural runoff and the loss of water flow from the underground aquifer. Nitrate pollution has caused algae to grow, reducing water clarity, and the spring’s water flow has dropped by a third over the last 10 years.
This New York Times article describes the biggest current threat: The nearby Adena Springs cattle ranch and slaughterhouse development has applied for a permit to use 5.3 million gallons of water a day. (The original proposal was for 25 million gallons a day.) Environmentalists have rallied to oppose the development. A decision on the permit has not been made. Here’s a recent update.
With or without the slaughterhouse, this spring and river are not as healthy as they should be, according to a recent investigation by the Orlando Sentinel into the state of Florida’s rivers.
Still, it is stunning place, and well worth visiting — before it is too late.
Seeing the Silver River by canoe or kayak
The state park makes it easy to paddle the Silver River. You can rent canoes and a few kayaks at the ranger station at the entrance. Boats are kept at the river at the end of a half-mile trail. You carry a key to unlock your boat, paddles, life preservers and a map with you to the river.
Canoes rent for $7 an hour with a maximum of three aboard. Someone in each boat must be older than 18. One free hour covers your time walking the River Trail and back. Canoes are rented from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and keys must be returned by 4 p.m.
From the canoe launch, you paddle upstream to the head springs. There is a current, but it’s about three miles per hour, so this isn’t too difficult. The return trip is an easy float. We took three hours on a leisurely round trip, stopping to take photos and absorb the beauty.
If you bring your own kayak or canoe, you can haul it down the half-mile trail, but it won’t be easy. (The trail is soft sand/mulch so wheeled carriers won’t work well.)
An alternative is to put kayaks in at a boat ramp outside the park, five miles down the Silver River. This requires a 10-mile round-trip paddle. The five mile paddle against the current might be a challenge. For this trip, you launch at Ray Wayside Park on the south side of State Road 40, just west of the Delks Bluff Bridge over the Ocklawaha River. Admission is $5.
Our trip on the river was filled with wildlife – many alligators, turtles, anhingas, heron plus colorful wood ducks and a bright red pileated woodpecker. We spotted five deer. The only sounds were birdsongs and the splash of turtles diving to flee as we approached.
We looked in vain for the most famous wildlife at Silver River – a band of wild rhesus monkeys that most visitors are said to spot.
Monkeys? Yes, they are part of the colorful history of Silver Springs. In 1930, according to the Silver Springs Theme Park, a fellow called Colonol Toohey operated the “jungle” tour and placed rhesus macaques monkeys, indigenous to Central and East Asia, on an island to delight his visitors. He didn’t know that monkeys are good swimmers. The escaped monkeys have thrived ever since, with a population now estimated at 200, according to a recent Orlando Sentinel article. Because they’re an exotic species, state officials aren’t wild about them — but visitors are!
Despite reports of the reduced water quality, we found the water so clear we could see the bottom sometimes 20 or 30 feet down. Where the bottom is sandy, the color is a vivid blue. In the clear water, we saw many fish, some more than a foot long.
The waterway has no litter. The intense blues and greens give it a Disney-like quality – a scene almost too pretty to be real.
I’d put money on this: If you paddle this river, you’ll come away convinced it needs to be saved.
Cabins and camping at Silver River State Park
We love cabins in Florida State Parks and we’ve stayed in many, but these are the best we’ve experienced.
It starts with the setting. Each “cabin” – and these are really houses more than cabins – is situated in the woods surrounded only by big trees and vegetation, separated from neighboring cabins. Out back, there’s a fire ring for campfires and s’mores. The metal roofs and big porches make these structures look like Florida Cracker houses.
The screened porches are massive. You could hold a sit-down luncheon for 40 in the porch if there were tables and chairs. Instead, there is a big picnic table, a few rocking chairs and solitude.
Inside, there are two bedrooms, one with a double bed; one with twins. A sleeper sofa increases capacity to six. The bathroom is designed to work well with multiple guests. These accommodations would lend themselves to two families or three couples sharing.
There’s a full kitchen and dining room table for six, cozy wooden cabin-like décor and a gas fireplace that provides a warm glow in the cabin with the flick of a switch. At the ranger station, you can check out board and cards games, as there is no wifi, no phones and no TV.
The kitchen has a dishwasher and microwave. My only criticism: Don’t plan to do real cooking. There are no serving dishes, no cutting board and few pans. (And we dealt with a few insect pests in the kitchen, to be expected in Florida.)
The campgrounds are similarly well-planned with each site large enough to separate it from its neighbors. Here’s a picture of a typical site.
Cabins and campsites can be reserved up to 11 months in advance and you must reserve cabins for at least two nights on weekends and holidays. Reserve a cabin at Silver River State Park.
Trails for hiking, biking and horses at Silver River State Park
Hikers and mountain bikers enjoy this park. Silver River has almost 15 miles of biking and hiking trails meandering through wetlands, swamps, oak hammocks and pine forests. We hiked many of the trails: They are quiet, well-maintained and gorgeous.
Off-road biking is permitted on all 15 miles of trails. Trails are for fat-tire bikes only: They are sand, not a solid surface.
In a separate area of the park, shady, forest trails are reserved exclusively for riders on horseback. Guided trail rides are offered every day by Cactus Jack’s Trail Rides (352-266-9326). Rates are $40 for one hour; $60 for two. Riders must be 6 or older and there is no double riding.
Exhibits at Silver River State Park
Whether you tour the museum or not, it’s fun to walk around the old Florida Cracker houses, church and other structures that have been moved to Silver River. This area has a lot of history: Ocala was established in 1846.
The Ocala woods were home to Florida Crackers, immortalized in the Majorie Kinnan Rawlings books, including her Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Yearling.”(Some scenes in the movie starring Gregory Peck were filmed at Silver Springs.)
That Cracker culture is preserved at the Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center, which offers exhibits on Florida’s history and ecology. The museum is open to the public on weekends and holidays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $2; children under 6 are free. The museum is operated by the Marion County School District.
Planning your trip to Silver River State Park
- Silver River State Park website
- ReserveAmerica: Reserve a cabin at Silver River State Park.
- ReserveAmerica: Camping at Silver River State Park
- Silver Springs history, which is full of interesting facts and trivia.
Learn more about endangered Silver Springs and Silver River
- An important Tampa Bay Times investigation into the plight of Florida’s springs
- A comprehensive investigation into the endangered state of Florida’s rivers, including the Silver River
Things to do near Ocala and Ocala National Forest
- Florida Rambler story on paddling the Ocklawaha.
- Florida Rambler contributor writes about hike-in primitive camping in Ocala National Forest
- Ocala National Forest Home Page
- Ocala National Forest – Wikipedia
- The Florida Trail through Ocala National Forest
- Interactive recreation map for Ocala National Forest
- The Trails of Ocala National Forest by Sandra Friend, FloridaHikes!
- Florida Rambler story on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek
- Near Cross Creek, you can dine at the historic Yearling Restaurant, 14531 E. County Road 325, Cross Creek, just down the road from the state park. The 59-year-old restaurant celebrates the Florida Cracker culture. It serves Rawlings’ legendary sour orange pie, as well as frog legs, catfish, venison and the best cheese grits I’ve ever had. It’s decorated with antique outboard motors, old guns and enough memorabilia to be an antique store.
- Historic Micancopy, Florida’s oldest inland city, is a few miles away and is a great place to browse antique shops.
- Herlong Mansion Historic Inn and Gardens in Micancopy is a bed and breakfast known for its white pillars, wide verandas and Southern hospitality.
- Nearby Paynes Prairie State Park offers extensive hiking plus shaded sites for tents, trailers or RV camping. The park is known for its sinkholes, birdwatching and alligators.