Silver Springs has been famous since the 1870s; it is Florida’s best-known spring. And yet, its location in the center of the state in Ocala miles off the expressway means lots of Florida residents and visitors haven’t been here.
Some might hear Silver Springs and think “tacky tourist attraction.”
You couldn’t be more wrong.
The state of Florida has taken over the famous spring and added it to its award-winning state park system, and what you’ll find here now is one of the most exquisite slices of Florida natural beauty anywhere.
Major steps have been taken to preserve the natural qualities of the spring and create the new Silver Springs State Park. The new park, which encompasses the former Silver River State Park, started operating Oct. 1, 2013.
Thanks to the creation of the new entity, Silver Springs State Park offers visitors a wide variety of activities and features:
- The classic glass-bottom boat tour, which was Florida’s first, begun in 1878.
- Canoe and kayak rentals available for the first time at the Silver Springs headwater. These allow you to enjoy pristine scenery and wildlife on what could be Florida’s most beautiful kayak trail.
- Fifteen miles of lovely forest trails that can be walked or ridden on mountain bikes.
- 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 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 Springs 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.
Cabins and camping at Silver Springs 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 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.
Normally, 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.
You reach the cabins, as well as the hiking trails and the Cracker village, via the former entrance to Silver River State Park, on County Road 35.
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, the company that used to operate the attraction at the spring.
Silver Springs State Park by canoe, kayak or glass-bottom boat
Silver Springs State Park makes it easy to kayak Silver Springs. You can rent canoes and kayaks at the spring, which you reach by using the entrance off State Road 40. (This is the entrance to the old commercial attraction.) You also can take a glass-bottom boat ride.
- Glass-bottom boat trips operate from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The 30-45 minute tours are $11 for adults.
- Canoe or two-person kayak: $18 for the first hour, $9 for each additional hour, all day for $45. Single kayak: $14 for the first hour, $7 each additional hour, all day for $35. Details here.
- Launching your own kayak is $4.
- 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.
- Guided kayak trips are available from several outfitters. A two-mile guided trip from the park concessionaire is $30 per person. Details are here. A half-day guided trip with Discovery Tours is $65.
Trails for hiking, biking and horses at Silver Springs State Park
Hikers and mountain bikers enjoy Silver Springs State Park, which 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, which are sand, are for fat-tire bikes only.
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 Springs 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 Springs. 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 Springs State Park
- Silver Springs State Park website
- ReserveAmerica: Reserve a cabin at Silver Springs State Park.
- ReserveAmerica: Camping at Silver Springs State Park
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
- 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.