Florida’s springs draw big crowds in summer
Floridians weather the heat and humidity of brutal summers by turning to the state’s wealth of cool, clear, refreshing springs, spilling water out of crevices in the ground at the rate of thousands of gallons a minute.
The names are familiar to those who live near the Central Florida epicenter of these underground rivers — Ichetucknee, Rock Spring, Blue Spring, Fanning, Wakulla, Wekiwa…
These springs fill up fast on summer weekends, so get there early. When the parking lots are full, the gates are shut. Your best bet is on weekdays, when you can avoid the hordes and maybe even snag a picnic table in the trees.
Geologists estimate there are more than 700 freshwater springs in Florida — the largest concentration on Earth — but only a relative few are accessible for public recreation.
Here are a few of the best:
Canoeing and kayaking is a year-round activity, and during summer there is an in-park shuttle service, but if you want to paddle, stick to weekdays when you don’t have to dodge as many tubers. Snorkeling is allowed only in designated areas.
There are three hiking trails at the north entrance of the park, one of which leads to Blue Hole Spring, the largest spring in the park. Blue Hole is popular with scuba divers, who are allowed to dive only from October through March.
Swimming is allowed year-round at both Ichetucknee Spring and Blue Hole, but there are no lifeguards and only experienced swimmers should consider Blue Hole because of the depth and strong current.
As the state’s most popular tubing destination, the Ichetucknee River is under heavy pressure, and you will not be allowed to transport anything that can be discarded, including food and drinks, fishing, alcohol, tobacco products, etc.
The park charges $5 per person to launch your tube, and you can rent your tube from private vendors outside the park for $5 to $15, depending on the size. Ichetucknee Springs is about 40 miles northwest of Gainesville on State Highway 20.
August 2013 Alert: Due to flooding, the Ichetucknee River flow has slowed causing float times to be substantially longer than normal. The full river float (from north end to south end can take up to five hours.) Plan accordingly.
- Related Florida Rambler article: Cool idea — Florida’s best river for tubing
- Ichetucknee Springs State Park
DeLeon Springs (Deland/Daytona Beach)
The spring head is very impressive, a very large wading pool, encircled by a low concrete wall, and a spillway that tumbles down into a broad, scenic spring-garden run through a chain of three lakes to the St. John’s River.
A beautiful, shady picnic ground is adjacent to the swimming area, and canoe and kayak rentals are available at the park concession for paddling the run, which flows into the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. Lifeguards are on duty at this popular swimming hole seven days a week until school begins, then weekends only through the winter.
One of the more notable attractions, however, has nothing to do with the spring and a lot to do with — pancakes.
At the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant, alongside the spring, guests make their own pancakes at their table!
This place is kid-friendly at every level, and that’s not just a lot of syrup.
Admission is $6 per vehicle (up to 8 people), $4 for a single-occupancy vehicle and $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists. DeLeon Springs State Park is 30 miles west of Daytona Beach, just off International Speedway Drive on U.S. 17 North.
August 2013 Alert: On weekends and holidays the park reaches maximum capacity as early as 10:30 a.m., extending until about 3:00 p.m. Vehicles are allowed to enter only as parking spaces are available, and walk-ins are not permitted.
- De Leon Springs State Park, 601 Ponce de Leon Blvd., De Leon Springs, FL 32130. 386-985-4212. http://floridastateparks.org/deleonsprings/default.cfm
- The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House, 386-985-5644 http://www.planetdeland.com/sugarmill/sugarpage2.htm
Rock Spring at Kelly Park (Apopka)
At the head spring, the cool water spills into a series of pools at the rate of 26,000 gallons a minute. From the spring, you can wade or tube for about a quarter-mile through crystal clear water down picturesque Rock Spring Run.
Rent tubes outside the park at the Rock Springs Bar & Grill for $5 to $10 and bring them into the park (admission is $3).
Although there is plenty of parking, you will get locked out of the park on weekends if you are not early. The park opens at 8 a.m. Camping fees range from $18 to $23 per night, and reservations are accepted up to 45 days in advance.
Perhaps the biggest attraction is actually outside the park, where Rock Springs Run rambles for more than 8 miles through pristine Rock Spring Run State Preserve and Wekiwa Springs State Park. The only access for paddlers near the source is outside Kelly Park at Kings Landing, a private outfitter. Here, you can rent canoes and kayaks and arrange shuttle service, if you decide to paddle the length of the creek to the Wekiva River.
Kelly Park is 6 miles north of downtown Apopka on East Kelly Park Road, off Rock Springs Road.
August 2013 Alert: Arrive before 10:30 on weekends or your risk getting locked out. The park often reaches capacity by mid-morning on Saturdays and Sundays during the summer.
- Kelly Park, 400 East Kelly Park Road, Apopka, 32712. For information and campground reservations, call 407-889-4179.
- Kings Landing, 5722 Baptist Camp Road, Apopka, 32712. Call 407-886-0859.
- Related Florida Rambler article: Best camping near Orlando – Kelly Park hideaway
- Rock Springs Run State Preserve
Blue Springs State Park (Volusia County)
The swimming hole is absolutely spectacular, sparkling in its clarity from the headspring more than a quarter-mile to the end of the run at the St. John’s River. Sun splatters the cool water surface through the heavily forested banks to give the spring and spring run an almost surreal, jungle-like feel.
You can rent tubes for a slow float, and snorkeling and scuba diving is permitted, although I wouldn’t consider this a serious dive destination. And frankly, it’s probably too crowded in summer to dive comfortably. But wow! What a great place to go for a swim! The campground has 51 sites ($24/night), but I found them cramped and uncomfortable in a tent.
There are six two-bedroom cabins ($95/night) in a shady stand of oak, a much better choice. The spring and spring run are closed to swimmers during winter, from Nov. 15 through March 1, to accommodate herds of manatees that seek refuge in colder winter months.
Although there are no kayaks or canoes allowed in the spring run, you have access to some of the best paddling trails in the state on the St. John’s River, which passes through the park. There is a concession in the park, or you can launch just outside the park entrance. (Follow the unmarked gravel road about two miles to the river, where there’s a nice launch and plenty of parking.)
Like other springs where swimming is allowed, Blue Spring fills up early on weekends, so plan to get their early.
Park admission is $6 per vehicle (up to 8 people), $4 for single-occupant vehicles and $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists. Blue Spring State Park is 30 miles southwest of Daytona Beach and 33 miles north of Orlando, just off I-4 in Orange City.
- Related Florida Rambler article: Blue Spring — Chill Out
- Blue Spring State Park
- Campground and cabin reservations: Call 1-800-326-3521 or book online through Reserve America
Wekiwa Springs State Park (Apopka)
In fact, the park warns visitors to get there before 10:30 a.m. on summer weekends or be shut out. The gates will close when it reaches capacity.
If there are too many people at the spring head, then follow the footpath downstream to the kayak and canoe concession in the headwaters of the Wekiva River. From here, you can paddle north and explore Rock Spring Run or paddle east towards the St. John’s River. These paddle trails are nicely shaded, and the cool water from the springs adds to what is a cooling experience.
This park also has more than 20 miles of hiking and biking trails.
The campground is undergoing improvements, so reservations are only being accepted for sites 1-30 in the first loop.
Call ahead (407-884-2008) if you plan to camp. Day-use admission is $6 per vehicle (up to 8 people), $4 for single-occupancy vehicle and $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists. Wekiwa Springs State Park is about 20 minutes north of Orlando, off I-4 at Exit 94.
August 2013 Alert: On weekends and holidays the park reaches maximum capacity as early as 10:30 a.m., extending until about 4:30 p.m. Vehicles are allowed to enter only as parking spaces are available. Plan your visit for early morning or late in the afternoon.
- Wekiwa Springs State Park, 1800 Wekiwa Circle, Apopka, FL 32712.
- Rock Springs Run State Preserve http://www.floridastateparks.org/rockspringsrun/default.cfm
- Read about Florida Rambler’s visit: Wekiva River Basin — A wild and scenic adventure
- Campground reservations: Call 1-800-326-3521 or book online through ReserveAmerica
Rainbow Springs State Park (Dunnelon).
There is a newly renovated 105-site campground with full hookups about 1½ miles downstream from the main head spring and day-use area. Campers can launch their own canoes or kayaks on the river near their sites, and you can rent them at the concession at the head spring for the 5.6-mile paddle along the Rainbow River to the Withlacoochee River at Dunnellon.
Tubing is not allowed at the head spring, but there is a tube launch on the river 1.4 miles south of the campground and you can rent tubes at the park concession.
Moss-draped cypress trees line the river banks, offering a spectacular tour of Florida’s backcountry. The swimming area at the head spring, where the water maintains a constant 72-degree temperature, is busiest from late spring through fall, and lifeguards are on duty during the busy summer season.
Be aware that the average depth is 5 feet to 18 feet, which is not conducive for small children or wading.
Admission is $2 per person at the headspring entrance and $5 per vehicle (up to 8 people) at the tube entrance. Children under 6 are free. Camping is $30 per night. Rainbow Springs is 23 miles west of Ocala, just off U.S. 41 north of Dunnellon.
- Campground reservations: Book online through Reserve America
- Rainbow Springs State Park
Peacock Springs State Park (Live Oak)
This park has two major springs, a spring run and six sinkholes, all in pristine condition. All divers must provide proof of certification, and there are several restrictions on when, where and with whom you can dive.
Swimming and snorkeling are limited to Peacock and Orange Grove springs and is dependent on seasonal water levels.
There are no lifeguards, and these springs are not child-friendly. Hikers can get an above-ground view of the winding underground passages with photographs and trail maps that show you what’s below your feet.
A new interpretative trail offers boardwalks and interpretive kiosks for hikers.
Admission is $4 per vehicle (up to 8 people per vehicle) and $2 for pedestrians and bicyclists. Peacock Springs State Park is about 20 miles south of Live Oak on State Road 51.
August 2013 Alert: Due to the rising of the river brought on by rain and brown-out conditions, Wes Skiles Peacock Springs is closed to diving and swimming. All other facilities are open and available
- Peacock Springs State Park, Peacock Springs Road, Luraville, FL 386-776-2194 http://floridastateparks.org/peacocksprings/
Ginnie Springs (High Springs; Private)
The river is a paddler’s dream as it lazily flows towards the Suwannee.
A major attraction is scuba diving into the 50-foot deep head spring and its underlying network of caves with about 1,000 feet of subterranean passages. Certified cave divers have access to another 30,000 feet of passages in the Devil’s Spring system.
One of the big attractions at Ginnie Springs Outdoors is the private campground. There are 90 sites water and electric hookups, and another 300 tent sites scattered about the park, many waterfront.
The camping fee can add up quickly at $20.40 per person per night ($6 for children 7-14), so a family of four would pay $52.80 per night for a campsite. (Children under 7 are free.)
Day-use admission for divers or paddlers is $12 ($3 for children). Ginnie Springs is about 9 miles west of High Springs on State Road 340/236.
- Campground reseervations: Call 386-454-7188
- Ginnie Springs Outdoors. http://www.ginniespringsoutdoors.com/
- Reviews on TripAdvisor: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g34287-d123103-r47984666-Ginnie_Springs-High_Springs_Florida.html
For your summer escape, enjoy the 72-degree crystal clear water as it feeds Buccaneer Bay. Kids will love the waterslides and water park on the Bay, elevating the swimming experience to theme-park fun.
There are also boat tours available, canoeing and kayaking, snorkeling and scuba diving (no lone dives).
Admission is $13 per adult, $5 for children 6-12. Weeki Wachee Springs is 56 miles north of Tampa, near Brooksville, just off the Suncoast Parkway (SR 589).
- Florida Rambler article: Weeki Wachee – Kayaking, manatees and mermaids http://floridarambler.com/florida-getaways/weeki-wachee-kayak-with-manatees-see-the-mermaids/
- Weeki Wachee Springs Attractions http://www.weekiwachee.com/home.html
- Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, 6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill, FL 34606. http://floridastateparks.org/weekiwachee/default.cfm
I paid visited during winter to check out the campground, and was surprised by the size of the spring, its white-sand beach, and adjacent picnic areas that slope away from the main pool.
The water is not as clear here as other springs I’ve visited, although it is crystal clear around the spring head. As it flows into the run to the Alafia River, underwater vegetation introduces a faint green tint, while a definitive tannin color takes over near the Alafia.
By the way, I really loved the campground, read my article — Lithia Springs: Secluded park near Tampa for camping, swimming and paddling. http://floridarambler.com/florida-best-camping/lithia-springs-park/
Lithia Springs Park, operated by the Hillsborough County Parks Department, is about 20 miles east of Tampa, off the Crosstown Expressway and County Road 640 on Lithia Springs Road
August 2013 Alert: Campground improvements are underway so not all sites are available.
- Lithia Springs Park, 39332 Lithia Springs Road, Lithia, FL 33547.
- FloridaRambler article: Camp at this cool, secluded park near Tampa
- Campground Reservations: Call 813-744-5572
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