Central Florida / Kayak & Canoe / Springs

Silver Springs State Park offers kayak trail not open to paddlers since 1870s

Silver Springs 1947 postcard

Silver Springs 1947 postcard

Silver Springs headwaters area

Silver Springs headwaters area

~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.

Silver River State Park cypress roots


Silver Springs 1940 postcard

Silver Springs 1940 postcard: The horseshoe palm is still there!

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 runs kayak tours on the Silver River and 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 operate from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The 30-45 minute tours are $11 for adults; the 90-minute extended tours are $25 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.

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

 Learn more about endangered Silver Springs and Silver River


Things to do near Ocala and Ocala National Forest

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  1. I don’t know the regulations for motor boat traffic; I agree it’s a real shame. I have read that the best times to kayak the Silver River are early mornings and weekdays to avoid that motorized boat traffic.

  2. I just paddled Silver Springs new kayak trail from the head springs to the county park 5 miles down river. I thought the park and the river were beautiful. The wildlife was abundant and diverse. I was with a large group (17) of paddlers. We were so disappointed to see motorized boats and jet skis on the river. The boats were creating quite a wake and it made our paddle less enjoyable.
    I know that this is a new State Park and I don’t know how far the boats are permitted to go. I hope that there will be some thought given to the preservation of the river and springs.

  3. Pingback: Farm Tours takes guests behind the gates – The Examiner |

  4. It is actually called the Fort King Waterway. : )

    • Oh my gosh, Lisa, thank you. I kept asking Ryan about the name and I guess we just weren’t hearing each other correctly. And I could never see a name on a map. I am changing the name now!

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    Do you have a newsletter? I would like to subscribe!

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  6. Tom Young says:


  7. I am pleased that the state is keeping the glass bottom boats going. It may seem antithetic to the natural beauty of a remarkable presence in the midst of the urban world a vast majority of people dwell. But by allowing the “masses” to glimpse this extraordinary cycle of Florida’s hydrology, then they too might embrace the value, become concerned if it’s system is altered. It think most people will take away this value and when it comes time for protection, some will stand up for it actively and more will be inclined to vote on issues concerning the same. Maybe even some will simply become a tad more conscious when they go to turn on their irrigation system or lay down that fertilizer, become more reserved. All without the though of even having the slightest desire to paddle its rushing waters.

    • Clark:
      I’m happy about the glass-bottom boat rides too! I have always loved the quote from the African conservationist: “In the end, we will save only what we love. We will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” So the more people who see Florida’s springs, learn to love them and understand them, the better our chances of saving them. Not everyone can get into a kayak; but the glass-bottom boats are handicapped accessible.

  8. Wendy Kissinger says:

    My secret is out! I have been sneaking into that little trail on Mondays when the park is closed for many years. I put in at the country park, do the ten mile round trip and sneak in the rear corner to the left to do the narrow creek loop. Spooky and exciting to do alone with no one around anywhere. So I have mixed feelings… glad to know it’s now open and others can enjoy what I’ve enjoyed for years, but a little sad that my trips will now include fellow paddlers that will inevitably result in a bit of decreased wildlife that I’d more prevalent with no others humans in sight. But it really is a spectacular experience to paddle that primitive little loop. I wonder if the park’s jungle cruise attractions are still there out if they’re removing the little buildings that served s part of that attraction, like the Indian trading post , etc. There are also little creeks with repair slips for the attractions boats, etc… sort of a mini marina. And the rear of the croc enclosure was always scariest to paddle by on a tight turn with done of the largest reptiles I’ve ever seen anywhere leaving against a chain link fence. I saw the largest gator if my life on that bank, and the following week a park employee was mauled, likely by that same gator. that was just a few years ago. I hope everyone who experiences my secret enjoys it as much as I have.

    • Wendy:
      Thanks so much for the report. I haven’t paddled that little trail, so I’m excited about going. When we paddled the Silver River on a day that attraction as closed, we went beyond the “no trespassing” signs too, but didn’t know about the Fourteen Waterway so we turned around. (I have no idea where that name comes from; that’s what Ryan from Discovery Kayaks called it.)

  9. Have not been to Silver spring since a kid and they made bread dough balls to feed the fish . Telling my grandson about I was shock to see not one fish on the glass bottom boatload…to me it was a waste of time.

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