Early visitors were enchanted with Florida’s natural beauty and their very first love affair was with Silver Springs in Ocala.
Now, with the creation of Silver Springs State Park, it’s time to fall in love with the famous Silver Springs all over again.
Silver Springs State Park was created on Oct. 1, 2013, when land that once held a commercial attraction at the spring headwaters was merged with the existing Silver River State Park.
The new park – renamed Silver Springs State Park – will still offer its famous glass-bottom boat tours. (They were Florida’s first, starting in 1878.) But the real breakthrough is for folks who see it by kayak and canoe.
For the first time since the 1800s, kayaks and canoes can now launch at the spring headwater and paddle down a remarkably scenic narrow, twisting canal called the Fort King Waterway, once restricted for use only by the attraction’s jungle cruises.
You can bring your own kayak and canoe, and for the first time launch it at the headwaters. (There’s a $4 charge. In the past, the closest public launch was five miles upstream or involved carrying your boat down a half-mile trail.)
This just may be the most scenic kayak trail in Florida.
“We had a couple from California here yesterday,” said Ryan Toler, owner of Discovery Kayak Tours, which operates the concession and runs kayak tours at 12 Central Florida sites. “They came back and said: ‘Oh my gosh, we didn’t realize places like this still exist. We saw more wildlife in an hour and a half than we have in the last three days.’ They could not believe how beautiful it is.”
Nor could I. On a visit last winter, we paddled to Silver Spring, one of the largest artesian springs in the world, from a launch (now closed) at the old Silver River State Park.
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 kayak this river, you’ll come away thankful that Silver Springs State Park has been created.
Kayaking, however, is just the start of exploring Silver Springs State Park. It also features what I found to be among the best cabins in the Florida park system. There are also 15 miles of lovely forest trails that can be walked or ridden on mountain bikes. You can even take a horseback trail ride from a concessionaire.
For more on all the park’s wonders, see Florida Rambler’s detailed guide to Silver River State Park.
Kayaking Silver Springs State Park and other boat tours:
- Glass bottom boat trips run on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and cost $12.99 for adults. They’re free for 6 and under and are handicapped accessible.
- You can rent single kayaks for $20 for two hours and doubles or canoes for $25 for two hours. Canoes can hold up to three people. For more information, call Discovery Kayak Tours at 352-789-4959.
- 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.
For now, kayaks are rented by the hour and paddlers take a marked loop trail that takes between 60 and 90 minutes, says outfitter Toler. You can paddle longer if you like, but the concession is not ready to offer half-day or full-day kayak trips.
Eventually, Toler will add a shuttle so that kayakers can take a longer one-way trip down the river. The Silver flows into the Oklawaha River, another beauty, so this is an exciting possibility.
Here’s a report from Florida’s famous photographer Clyde Butcher, who spent a week photographing Silver Springs State Park as it prepared to open.
Planning your trip to Silver River State Park
- Silver Springs State Park website
- ReserveAmerica: Reserve a cabin at Silver Springs State Park.
- ReserveAmerica: Camping at Silver Springs 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.