For a Great Summer Adventure, Visit Florida Cooling Freshwater Springs

With the heat of the summer upon them,  many Floridians turn their attention to their summer getaways, and chief among them are the state’s wealth of springs, where cool, clear, refreshing water spills out of the ground at the rate of thousands of gallons a minute to ease the pain of heat and humidity.

The names are familiar to those who live near the Central/North Florida epicenter of these underground rivers — Ichetucknee, Rock Spring, Blue Spring, Fanning, Wakulla, Wekiwa – and heat-weary Floridians flock there en masse, especially on weekends.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, these springs fill up fast on weekends, so get there early because once the parking lots are full, they shut the gates.  Your best bet is on weekdays, when you can avoid the hordes and maybe even snag a picnic table in the trees.

Many of the parks have camping facilities for both RVs and tents, or at least there is camping nearby, but summer is not the best time of year for tent camping in Florida. If you must, make sure your tent is airy with adequate ventilation. The rule of thumb is a tent with twice the capacity that you need.

Pets are permitted in some parks, but they are not allowed in the water and are generally restricted to either the campgrounds and picnic areas. And not all of these springs are kid-friendly for swimming because of the depths.

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 some of the best:

Tubing, Swimming, Snorkeling & Diving:

Ichetucknee Spring

Ichetucknee may be the best spring in the state for tubing. Picnic areas with tables and grills are available throughout the park, but they fill up fast, and the concession offers food and refreshments. 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.

Swimming, Kayaking & Tubing

Rock Springs at Kelly Park (Apopka). This beautiful, shaded park hidden in a corner of Orange County is of Floridians favorites.  At the headspring, the cool spring 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 Springs Run State Preserve and Wekiwa Springs State Park. The only upstream access for paddlers 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.

Swimming! Swimming! Swimming!

Blue Spring Run

Blue Springs State Park (Volusia County) I really like this park for everything  it has to offer, not the least of which is its accessibility to the major population areas of Orlando and Daytona Beach. 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. The campground has 51 sites ($24/night). 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.) 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.

Wekiwa Springs State Park (Apopka)  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 renovations through December 2012, so no reservations are being accepted.  However, you can get a site on a first-come, first-serve basis.  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.


DeLeon Springs (Deland/Daytona Beach) – Although Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon never really found his “Fountain of Youth” in Florida, this cool little enclave has as much right as any to lay claim to the title. You certainly feel younger after you jump in and out of this spring! But the effects are not long lasting.  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 during summer (until August 21), 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.

Kayaking & Canoeing

Rainbow Springs State Park (Dunnelon). Florida’s fourth-largest spring, Rainbow Spring and the Rainbow River has been a draw to humans for thousands of years. Today, it is a popular destination for swimming, snorkeling, canoeing, kayaking and tubing. There is also a newly renovated 105-site campground with full hookups about 1-½ miles downstream from the main headspring 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 headspring for the 5.6-mile paddle along the Rainbow River to the Withlacoochee River at Dunnellon.

Tubing is not allowed at the headspring, 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 headspring, 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.

Cave Diving!

Peacock SpringsPeacock Springs State Park (Live Oak). With one of the longest underwater cave systems in the country, Peacock Springs is a dream for cave divers, who have explored and surveyed nearly 33,000 feet of underwater passages. 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 trail is under construction that will add 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.

Ginnie Springs (High Springs; Private) – This magnificent, privately owned 200-acre recreation area includes seven springs that feed the Santa Fe River just outside of High Springs, near Gainesville. 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 headspring 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. Sites can get a bit pricey at $20 per person per night ($6 for children), so a family of four would pay $52. 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.

Honorable Mention

Mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in FloridaWeeki Wachee Springs State Park (Spring Hill) – This venerable Florida tourist attraction, famous for its 400-seat underwater theater and performing mermaids, is now a state park with all the trimmings. 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).
Lithia Spring

Lithia Springs (Near Tampa) – This is not a state park, so it’s off the radar for most Floridians, except those who live nearby. It is very popular with locals.  Be sure to check out the campground  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 , 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.  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.

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