Rhesus monkey at Silver Springs State Park in Ocala. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Rhesus monkey at Silver Springs State Park in Ocala. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

There are no rivers to kayak in Florida with more history, beauty and  unusual wildlife than Silver Springs and the Silver River.

Consider this: It was Florida’s first tourist attraction and one of the largest artesian springs in the world. And where else do you kayak past troops of wild monkeys?

Silver Springs headwaters area
Silver Springs headwaters area

For many years, Silver Springs was a commercial attraction located alongside Silver River State Park, which offered outstanding camping, cabins and hiking trails. But in 2013, the state bought the attraction and put all those good things together to form Silver Springs State Park.

The new park offers some of the best of the old: The famous glass-bottom boat tours, which starting in 1878, were the first in world, and look exactly like those pictured on vintage post cards.

But the real breakthrough is for folks who see Silver Springs by kayak and canoe.

For the first time since the 1800s, kayaks and canoes were able to launch near 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 River State Park cypress roots. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

 

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

You can bring your own kayak and canoe or rent one.  In the past, the closest public launch was several miles downstream.

Launching from the spring makes possible a short and scenic kayak trail that wows visitors.

“We had a couple from California here,” 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.”

A highlight of the Fort King Waterway at Silver Spring is the re-creation of Fort King, a stockade style wooden fort built from the Seminole wars in the 1800s. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
A highlight of the Fort King Waterway at Silver Spring is the re-creation of Fort King, a stockade style wooden fort built during the Seminole wars in the 1800s. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Nor could I. On a visit in March 2017, we launched near the spring and proceeded down the Fort King Waterway, which was filled with wildlife – alligators, turtles, anhingas, heron plus colorful wood ducks and a bright red pileated woodpecker. The only sounds were birdsongs and the splash of turtles diving to flee as we approached.


Within the first half hour, we came upon the most prized Silver Springs experience — spotting the wild rhesus monkeys.

Monkeys have been part of the colorful history of Silver Springs since 1930, when a fellow called Colonel Toohey operated the “jungle” tour and placed rhesus macaques monkeys, indigenous to Central and East Asia, on an island. 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!

On our two days paddling sections of the Silver River, we came upon monkeys on several occasions each day, and we were always thrilled and entertained.

Also along with the Fort King Trail are the remnants of buildings that were part of the tourist attraction. Some are in great disrepair, which actually makes them more picturesque.

My favorite was the re-creation of Fort King, a stockade style wooden fort built during the Seminole wars in the 1800s. The remnants of that fake fort lends the Fort King Trail a real Old Florida feel.

As you paddle along the Silver River, however, what is most striking is the beauty of the clear water and the frequent turquoise pools formed by dozens of springs in the river.

Glass bottom boats at Silver Springs State Park are identical to the originals (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Glass bottom boats at Silver Springs State Park today. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Silver Springs 1947 postcard
Glass bottom boats at Silver Springs from a 1947 postcard

The water in the Silver River is wonderfully clear, but if you examine the eel grass near the springhead you see it is covered by algae – a sign that this is not a truly healthy spring. Like so many Florida springs, it is plagued by excess nutrients leached into the water from fertilizer and septic systems and its flow has been dramatically reduced as man has tapped into the aquifer.

How to kayak Silver Springs and the Silver River

Renting canoe or kayak: You can rent a canoe or two-person kayak at the busy concession stand and kayak launch next to the parking lot at the main park entrance. (Formerly the entrance to the attraction.) The outfitter also rents clear kayaks for viewing through the beautiful clear water. Details here.

With your own canoe or kayak: Launching your own kayak is $4. If you launch from here, you can paddle over the springhead, down the Silver River and back up the Fort King Waterway against the current. This is about a 90-minute to two-hour paddle trip. (Note: With a 3.5 mile per hour current, you have to put some muscle into paddling upstream.) You also can arrage with the outfitter for livery service back to the park and paddle the whole five miles to Ray Wayside Park. (There is a separate $5 admission at this county park.)

We also recommend the approach we took: We paddled downstream on the Fort King Waterway and then continued on for a total of about three miles. We made a stop at the only other dock in the park, where you can get out, use a portable restroom, have a picnic and stretch your legs on a trail. Then we paddled back upstream against the current. This took us most of the day, but we spent a long time photographing monkeys and we took a hike during our break.


Wood ducks were plentiful along the Silver River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Wood ducks were plentiful along the Silver River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Green heron along the Silver, one of many varieties of birds there. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Green heron along the Silver, one of many varieties of birds we enjoyed seeing. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

Launching downstream: 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. Keep in mind: 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 Dells Bluff Bridge over the Ocklawaha River. Admission is $5 and there are picnic tables and restrooms here.

If you launch at Ray Park, there are a variety of options for routes. On our second day of paddling, we launched from Ray Park and paddled upstream on the Silver River for two miles, then downstream to the Ocklawaha, into which the Silver River flows. (There are miles of great kayaking nearby on the Ocklawaha too.)

When to paddle the Silver River: This beautiful river is popular, so on weekend afternoons in winter, you will not be alone. There will be motorboats (though it is a no wake zone) and groups of kayakers. Early mornings and weekdays are less busy. (We paddled on both a Saturday and Sunday during beautiful weather in March and while we saw plenty of people, we also had a great experience, filled with wildlife and moments of solitude.)

Glass bottom 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.

Planning your trip to Silver Springs State Park

Kayaking is just the start of exploring Silver Springs State Park. The park has a great campground and some of 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.

Clear turquoise water along Silver River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Clear turquoise water along Silver River. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

For more on all the park’s wonders, see Florida Rambler’s detailed guide to Silver River State Park.

 Learn more about endangered Silver Springs and Silver River

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