Florida's Springs are Real Life Water Parks

By: Terry Tomalin

Summer means taking the family to the water. In these Florida springs, the water flows pure and clear, and it's always cool.

Florida is full of places to beat the summer heat. When it comes to keeping cool, all you have to do is head to one of Florida’s most unique treasures – a freshwater spring.

These places are the ultimate in summer fun, with many being under the protection of Florida’s award-winning state park system.

For your next adventure, make sure to stop at one of these spots:

Rainbow River

Rainbow River and Springs, a pristine system about two hours north of Tampa, has six miles of gin-clear water just waiting for swimmers, snorkelers and inner-tube riders eager to cool off.

The headwaters are a semicircular spring with four main boils. Just 14 feet at its deepest, the river features public swimming access at Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon, one of Florida’s original attractions.

For those interested in tubing, you have options. Rainbow Springs State Park has a separate entrance about a mile and a half away from the headsprings, where visitors can rent tubes and shuttle two miles upriver. The float takes about two hours to complete.

Downstream from Rainbow Springs State Park, K.P. Hole County Park is another popular starting point for tube trips. From here, it’s a 4-hour float downriver to the take-out point at Blue Run Park located at the CR 484 bridge in Dunnellon. Shuttle service is available daily during the summer season, typically from around April through Sept. 30. Before you go, make sure to check out www.kphole.com for updated information on shuttles and conditions.

The water remains a constant 74 degrees, so it’s a place perfectly suited to summer. Snorkelers and scuba divers who drift with the gentle current may see fossils and stone tools left by the area’s first inhabitants. These items are part of the preserve and protected by law.

North Florida

The headsprings at Ichetucknee Springs State Park. Julie Fletcher for VISIT FLORIDA

Another great place to tube, paddle and swim is Ichetucknee Springs State Park, which is one of the state’s most popular summertime escapes. This short, spring-fed river is located 35 miles northwest of Gainesville. Despite its popularity, this river remains crystal clear because park operators allow only a limited number of people on the river each day. On a summer weekend, the park can fill up quickly. Go early, and if possible, go on a weekday. No food or drink is allowed on the river, and there are no camping facilities.

The Ocala area has plenty of swimming holes. About 25 miles northeast of Ocala, Salt Springs Recreation Area is one of four springs in Ocala National Forest. Day-use activities include picnicking, canoeing, hiking and swimming.

Diving into Alexander Springs in the Ocala National Forest. Julie Fletcher for VISIT FLORIDA

Alexander Springs Recreation Area is about 30 miles southeast of Ocala and offers swimming, canoeing and good scuba diving.

Juniper Springs Recreation Area is the very definition of refreshing. Julie Fletcher for VISIT FLORIDA

Juniper Springs Recreation Area is one of the oldest and better-known recreation areas in the forest. It’s about 25 miles east of Ocala and great for swimming and snorkeling. Activities at Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area include swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and canoeing, fishing, wildlife viewing and hiking. Picnic areas are also available.

Manatee Springs State Park, about six miles west of Chiefland, is a first-magnitude spring (the term refers to water volume) that pumps more than 100 million gallons of water daily. It gets its name from the endangered sea cows that swim up the river in cooler weather to spend the night in the warm waters of the headspring.

This state park welcomes scuba divers and paddlers. An isolated patch of paradise, it is a perfect place to get away from civilization, even if just for a day.

Troy Spring State Park, a 70-foot-deep, first-magnitude spring, is another great place to swim, snorkel and scuba dive. This state park, located near Branford, northwest of Gainesville, contains the wreckage of the Civil War-era steamboat Madison, which was scuttled in the spring run in 1863 to keep it from being captured by Union troops.

Near Orlando

Blue Spring in Orange City spews 104 million gallons of pure, fresh water every day. Swimming is allowed April through October in a designated area separated by buoys from the manatee refuge zone. For more adventurous souls, scuba diving is allowed in the spring. 

Wekiwa Springs, located near Apopka, is another favorite for locals hoping to beat the heat. The spring, with 72-degree water, is surrounded by a natural park area that is ideal for spreading out a blanket and enjoying a picnic lunch. 

This state park is located at the headwaters of the Wekiva River, which hasn’t changed much since Timucuan Indians fished it and hunted in the surrounding forests. The river, one of the most pristine in Florida, is popular with canoeists and kayakers, who can also paddle nearby Rock Springs Run.

Ponce de Leon Springs State Park

A dip in Ponce de Leon Springs, named for the Spanish explorer who came to Florida in search of the legendary “Fountain of Youth,” might just add a few years to your life. The main spring, a constant 68 degrees year round, pumps out 14 million gallons of water each day. After a swim, take a leisurely hike along two nature trails that meander through a lush, hardwood forest. Picnic tables, grills and restrooms are also available. In the northwest part of the state, Ponce de Leon State Park is about halfway between Pensacola and Tallahassee.

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I would really love to plan a vacation to see the Manatees and to go to Rainbow River, but aren't there Alligators and Pythons in the waters in Florida?
Love visiting FL and plan on doing more of it.
Do manatees hurt people ? I am scared of snakes also ,so do I really want to try this ?
Hi Hanne,
Thanks for reaching out.
Manatees are the cutest, most gentle creatures ever: I’ve been snorkeling with them three times. They can be intimidating just because they’re so big, but they absolutely won’t hurt you. You really do want to do this. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
Now snakes, on the other hand…
Sunny regards,
Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA
lol.. YES there are alligators, and snakes in ALL bodies of freshwater in Florida.... You just don't always see them..
I am planning to relocate to Northern or Central Florida and I am very interested in your fresh water springs. They are indeed beautiful and quite tempting, specially on a hot day. I can see people including children enjoying the water and doing all kind of water activities but I wonder. Were are the alligators?? Excuse my ignorance but I thought they were all over Florida and the misfortunate accident that happened in Disney with the child has only make me more aware of these creatures. What is the story??
Hi Clifford,
Thanks for reaching out.
You are right; the springs are lovely. You are also correct that Florida’s natural waterways are home to wildlife, which often includes alligators.
Some common sense precautions can help you stay safe. For instance, never feed alligators, because they lose their fear of humans and can become dangerous.
Check out 'Living with Alligators and Crocodiles,' from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, for more info: http://myfwc.com/conservation/you-conserve/wildlife/gators/
Also check out this article, ‘Florida alligators: Rarely killers, central to state's identity’: http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/18/us/florida-alligators/
Sunny regards,
Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA