Two years ago, the historic Silver Springs, one of Florida’s first roadside attractions, became part of Florida State Parks, opening Florida’s most famous spring to people to experience in new ways.
Today, you can kayak a trail that was open only to tour boats for more than a century. But many of the things people loved about the old attraction are still there — glass-bottom boat trips have been offered here for more than 100 years and today they are still only $11 per person. A popular water park, Wild Waters, is still in business, with tickets for $15 adults/$9 kids 4 to 10.
Haley Heathman, who blogs her experiences at boardandkayaklife.com, recently visited Silver Springs State Park and wrote this guest article about visiting or revisiting the park.
For a comprehensive story on kayaking Silver Springs and the Silver River, visit our Silver River kayaking guide. For information on camping, cabins or hiking, here’s our story on Silver Springs State Park.
By Haley Heathman
It’s easy to feel transported to another time and place when visiting Silver Springs State Park in Ocala, Florida. The large, majestic trees that populate the area adorned with long cascades of Spanish moss invoke an image of what Florida was once like centuries ago.
Upon entering, you are greeted with a large archway sign welcoming you to the park. Once inside, you follow a brick paved pathway past a circular water fountain that opens to reveal the breathtaking scenes you all came here to see.
Tall trees with dangling moss provide shade over the sidewalks which wind through a manicured lawn to finally lead you to the basin of the famous springs for which the park was named. You are greeted by the sight of all sorts of watercraft slowly circling through the cul-de-sac that marks the beginning of the springs. It is here where the glass-bottomed boat tours launch.
Apart from the green-hulled tour boats, there are myriad canoes and kayaks as well as jet skis, small pontoons, and other power boats that are slow cruising by to get a look at one of the most famous springs that feed the waterway.
Once upon a time they used to film movies and other TV shows in the area and at one point they planted some statues of Poseidon and other mythical gods and figures underwater for a scene. They have remained there ever since and are visible from the surface as you cruise or paddle overhead.
Overlooking the basin is a promenade with a covered walkway. Here you can grab a bite to eat at one of the casual eateries, purchase tickets for the glass bottom boat ride, or browse through some of the shops selling local wares and merchandise.
The cafes offer American classics like hot dogs and hamburgers and Philly cheesesteak sandwiches. You can enjoy a casual lunch and then head next door to the office where they sell boat ride tickets. There are no set times for the tours, you just have to wait in line with your ticket and they will let you on when it’s your turn.
On the tour, you can clearly see the majestic blue waters underneath you ranging from only a few feet in depth to depths unknown as you hover over some of the fissures from where the springs bubble up from the inner depths of the Earth’s crust.
Fish of all types glide past underneath the boat. Don’t spend too much time looking down, however, or else you might miss some of the other wild creatures that live within the park as well. You’ll pass trees full of roosting birds and their nests. Alligators are always a lurking around the water’s edge along with turtles sunning themselves on logs.
In what feels like far less than 30 minutes, the tour ends and you are free to explore the other areas of the park. A beautiful point overlooking the springs is set up with white chairs for a wedding ceremony that will be held later that day.
After you’re done meandering through the serene setting of the park, you can exit via the brick path you entered through and head over to the water park that features prominently at the entrance to the grounds for some modern fun and perhaps to cool off.
The park is home to numerous water rides for all ages in addition to a tadpool for the wee ones, a kid’s cove for the not-so-wee ones, picnic area, volleyball court, and a wave pool.
If you prefer to refresh yourself in a more natural setting, head over to the far end of the parking lot where they offer kayak and canoe rentals. Rent a kayak or canoe by the hour or for the day and paddle along the scenic and historic Fort King Paddle Trail.
The Fort King Paddle Trail was formerly only open to tour via a jungle cruise attraction operated by the former owners of the park. With the opening of the state Park, it opened to paddlers for the first time since 1870.
Along the trail, you can still see relics of the jungle cruise, including an Indian village and Fort King replica. You see the defunct launch point where the jungle cruise once docked. None of this detracts from the voyage and, in fact, adds interest to the waterway.
As you paddle along the trail, you’ll be close to a variety of wildlife — turtles, heron and other waterfowl, gators, and fish swimming under your kayak. The water is only a few inches deeper than the kayak in some spots and clear enough to see the bottom and what’s swimming underneath the whole way.
The Fort King Paddle Trail, is a very easy paddle trail — even for inexperienced kayakers — without a strong current. It’s a 1.1 mile round trip loop around Ross Allen Island. After launching at the main entrance, follow the signage for the Fort King waterway. When the waterway connects with the Silver River, turn left and head upstream as you paddle over dozens of springs. Once you get to the main waterway past the gate, paddlers face a modest current from water being discharged from the headspring.
Planning your visit to Silver Springs State Park:
Here’s a complete guide to Silver Springs State Park from Florida Rambler, including information on the park’s outstanding cabins, camping, hiking and horseback riding.
Admission to the park: $8 per vehicle; $5 single occupant vehicle or motorcycle or $2 per individual.
Canoe or tandem (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 for each additional hour, all day for $35
If you bring your own kayak: There is a $4 launch fee in addition to park admission