There are no rivers to kayak in Florida with more history, beauty and unusual wildlife than Silver Springs and the Silver River.
It was Florida’s first tourist attraction and one of the largest artesian springs in the world. Silver Spring is full of wildlife, mostly native, but also including accidently introduced rhesus monkeys.
For many reasons, I consider Silver Springs kayaking among the best in Florida.
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 the fabulous 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.
You can bring your own kayak and canoe or rent one. 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.”
Nor could I. On a March visit, 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.
Silver Springs kayaking past monkeys and manatees
Within the first half hour, we came upon the most unusual 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, and in recent years, the monkeys have exhibited aggressive behavior toward people. Visitors should not get too close to the monkeys and kayakers should not paddle underneath branches where there are monkeys.
The most prized native species are also often spotted by visitors. In winter, visitors can get lucky and see manatees not far from tthe spring headspring. Otters are occasionally seen.
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.
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 State Park
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. Canoe, kayak and paddleboard rentals start at $25 an hour. The 5-mile trip downstream by kayak with a shuttle back is $45. 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 arrange 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.)
Here’s another good alternative, that does not require the shuttle service: Paddle downstream on the Fort King Waterway and then continued on for a total of about 3 miles. 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 paddle back upstream against the current. This takes a half day, but if you spend time photographing wildlife and taking a hike during lunch break, you can spend six or so hours.
Launching downstream: An alternative is to put kayaks in at Ray Wayside Park boat ramp outside the park, five miles down the Silver River. If your destination is the springhead, this requires a 10-mile round-trip paddle, with a 5 mile paddle against the current. (This is a challenge.)
If you launch at Ray Park, there are other options for routes. On one visit, we launched from Ray Park and paddled upstream on the Silver River for two miles, then downstream into the Ocklawaha, into which the Silver River flows.
Ray Wayside Park is 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.
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 $12 for adults. I have kayaked on Silver Springs many times, but the best look into the water and its fish and other features was on the glass bottom boat.
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.
For more on all the park’s wonders, see Florida Rambler’s detailed guide to Silver Spring State Park.
- Admission to the park is $2 per person.
- Silver Springs State Park website
- Reserve a cabin or campsite by calling 1-800-326-3521
Things to do near Silver Springs State Park
- Four great rivers to kayak or canoe from a base in Ocala
- Five things to do in Ocala National Forest
- Florida Rambler contributor writes about hike-in primitive camping in Ocala National Forest
- Five things to do in Ocala National Forest
- Ocala National Forest Home Page
- 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 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 and stay at the Herlong Mansion Historic Inn and Gardens.
- 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.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.