Ditch the Sunshine State’s crowded shores and cities to check out these stunning hidden gems.
Millions of vacationers flock to Florida annually to lounge on its incredible beaches and visit its world-renowned theme parks. However, this popular vacation destination also offers quieter natural wonders waiting to be explored, including serene springs with unique wildlife, histories and attractions. But with more than 1,000 freshwater springs to choose from, figuring out which to prioritize may seem daunting. To decide which of the Sunshine State’s springs you should visit, U.S. News selected several options worthy of a trip. Whether you’re a local looking for a change of scenery or an out-of-state visitor eager to see a lesser-known side of Florida, these tranquil bodies of water can’t be missed. (Note: Some of the destinations mentioned may be affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Check with the CDC, the U.S. Department of State and local tourism boards before traveling.)
Juniper Springs Recreation Area: Silver Springs
Immerse yourself in nature (without worrying about rubbing elbows with hordes of tourists) by spending a day at Juniper Springs. Located less than 50 miles west of Daytona Beach, the Juniper Springs Recreation Area provides countless opportunities for fun outdoors. In this historic section of Ocala National Forest, you can swim in, canoe on or snorkel in the region’s namesake springs. Wildlife you may see here include otters and alligators. When you need a break from the water, take advantage of on-site facilities like picnic tables and hiking trails, which were added by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. For daytrippers, visiting hours are generally from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., though hours may fluctuate depending on the season. Day use parking costs $5.50 per person. Keep in mind, fees apply for canoeing, even if you bring your own equipment.
Rainbow Springs State Park: Dunnellon
Originally created by businesspeople who envisioned turning the area’s former phosphate mines into a jungle-inspired oasis with waterfalls and exotic animals, Rainbow Springs State Park continues to draw travelers in search of crystal-clear waters and lush vegetation. Though the springs have shed their kitschy past, visitors will still find features from the 1960s like abandoned animal cages and man-made waterfalls. But the main reason why daytrippers visit these one-of-a-kind springs — which sit about 100 miles north of Tampa — is to cool off in their refreshing waters. Rainbow Springs’ water is always 72 degrees, making it perfect for swimming, kayaking and tubing on a hot summer day. The park’s main headsprings entrance is open every day between 8 a.m. and sunset, while the tubing entrance’s hours vary by month. Admission to the park costs $2 per person, and charges for equipment rentals range from $20 for tubes to $60 for canoes.
Silver Springs State Park: Silver Springs
If you want to see into the depths of a natural spring without getting wet, head 40 miles southeast of Gainesville to Silver Springs State Park. Unlike other highly regarded springs in Florida, swimming here is not permitted, so the best way to take in all Silver Springs has to offer is to sign up for a glass-bottom boat tour. Each excursion provides an up-close look at underwater critters, vegetation, Native American and Spanish artifacts, and even submerged movie props. Standard tours last 30 to 45 minutes and cost $11 or $12 for every participant older than 5. Extended tours and canoe, kayak and paddleboard rentals are available as well. Silver Springs is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. Entry costs $5 or $8 per vehicle, depending on the number of passengers.
Ginnie Springs: High Springs
Situated about halfway between Tallahassee and St. Augustine, Ginnie Springs appeals to all kinds of vacationers. Visitors who crave a laid-back day on the water can go tubing on the Santa Fe River, while active travelers can explore by paddleboard, kayak or canoe. What’s more, adventurous types can check out the same freshwater dive sites (think: underwater caverns and a fossil-covered river bed) Jacques Cousteau visited in the 1970s. Ginnie Springs is considered one of the state’s clearest springs, so visitors will likely spot turtles and various fish species. The park welcomes visitors every day from 8 a.m. until at least 4 p.m. (exact hours vary by day and season). One-day entrance fees range from $3.73 to $19.40 and vary by age and day of the week. Separate charges apply for scuba diving and water sports equipment rentals.
Blue Spring State Park: Orange City
Escape the hustle and bustle of tourist-packed Orlando by traveling 34 miles north to Blue Spring State Park. At this peaceful spring, you’ll discover 72-degree water ideal for swimming, plus a variety of wild animals, including manatees and eagles. When you’re not swimming or enjoying other activities like snorkeling, tubing, canoeing and kayaking, visit the park’s Thursby House, where you can learn more about the spring’s role as a steamboat port in the 1800s. Like other state parks in Florida, Blue Spring is open year-round from 8 a.m. to sunset. However, water-related activities are not permitted between mid-November and late March due to the spring’s designation as a manatee refuge. Swimming with manatees is never allowed. To visit the spring, expect to pay $4 or $6, depending on how many people are in your vehicle.
Alexander Springs Recreation Area: Altoona
Combine a trip to Canaveral National Seashore — one of the East Coast’s top beaches — with an outing to the Alexander Springs Recreation Area. This Ocala National Forest spring is one of only 27 first-magnitude springs in the state, meaning it’s an impressive size. Plus, Alexander Springs’ ties to the Timucua Indian Tribe, one of Florida’s oldest tribes, makes it a culturally significant destination. Hike the area’s mile-long Timucuan Trail to see vegetation commonly used by the tribe. Then, go for a refreshing dip in Alexander Springs. The clear water is always 72 degrees, so you can comfortably swim year-round. Other popular activities here include kayaking and canoeing. The spring is generally open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., though hours are occasionally reduced. Parking costs $6 per person and is valid for one day. Additional charges apply for kayaking and canoeing, regardless of if you rent equipment on-site.
Troy Spring State Park: Branford
Venture about 90 miles southwest of Jacksonville to cool off and see a piece of history. At Troy Spring State Park, you can go swimming in shallow areas and the 70-foot-deep main vent, where you’ll discover exposed limestone rock. Troy Spring is also home to a Civil War-era steamship, which was scuttled in 1863 to safeguard it from Union troops. The best way to see the former Confederate steamship is to snorkel or scuba dive to it, but you’ll need to bring equipment since rentals are not available on-site. If you need a break from the water, have a picnic at one of several tables or go for a stroll along the nature trail. The park is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset; however, swimming and diving are prohibited when water clarity is poor. Admission is $4 or $5 per vehicle, depending on the number of passengers.
Manatee Springs State Park: Chiefland
For a leisurely day outdoors, travel 48 miles southwest of Gainesville to Manatee Springs State Park. As its name suggests, the park is a haven for wild manatees: Up to 20 manatees may be spotted here in winter. Although swimming is not allowed when the manatees are present, you can admire Manatee Springs’ wildlife and impressive collection of cypress trees from its 800-foot-long boardwalk during the cooler months. Meanwhile, the warmer months are ideal for swimming, canoeing and paddleboarding, among other activities. Scuba diving — which is permitted on a first-come, first-served basis — is especially popular thanks to the spring’s extensive network of underwater caves. You can visit the park between 8 a.m. and sunset year-round. Expect to pay $4 or $6 per vehicle (the exact amount depends on how many people are with you). Water sports equipment rentals cost up to $50 per item.
Three Sisters Springs: Crystal River
Part of the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, the only place in Florida where it’s legal to swim with manatees in winter, Three Sisters Springs beckons to animal lovers. In this area approximately 90 miles north of St. Petersburg, visitors can swim with manatees through reputable third-party tour operators like River Ventures and Plantation Adventure Center. Additionally, travelers can go kayaking and paddleboarding, though equipment rentals are not available on-site. The property also features a boardwalk and hiking trails. Three Sisters Springs welcomes visitors every day from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Entrance fees range from $7.50 to $20 per person, depending on the season and the age of the individual. Remember, access to the water — which is permitted from sunrise to sunset — requires paddling to the area from nearby Kings Bay; the main entrance is only for visitors staying on land.
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park: Wakulla Springs
A convenient option for travelers visiting the state’s capital, Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park is the place to go to see what Florida looked like before it was developed. Here, you’ll find ancient cypress trees, wild alligators and manatees, and the world’s largest and deepest freshwater springs, which you may recognize from classic films like “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure” and “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Take a tour of the springs via a river boat or glass-bottom boat (available on select days), or go swimming in the refreshing 70-degree water. Then, check out the park’s Spanish-style hotel. Built in the 1930s, the lodge features everything from a painted lobby ceiling to an original art deco elevator. Wakulla Springs sits less than 14 miles south of Tallahassee and is open daily from 8 a.m. to sunset. You’ll pay $4 or $6 per vehicle to enter, depending on the number of occupants.
Wekiwa Springs State Park: Apopka
Floridians and out-of-state visitors who are planning a Walt Disney World Resort vacation should set aside some time for a daytrip to Wekiwa Springs State Park. Situated 36 miles north of Walt Disney World’s theme parks and hotels, beautiful Wekiwa Springs — central Florida’s oldest tourist attraction — is one of the Orlando area’s closest and most popular springs. Travelers can spend hours swimming in, snorkeling through or canoeing on the spring’s crystal-clear water. Those with mobility issues or kids in tow will also appreciate the park’s abundant amenities, including a hydraulic lift for getting in and out of the water, and a concession stand that sells snacks, drinks, sunscreen, tubes and even underwater cameras. Wekiwa Springs is open from 8 a.m. to sunset year-round. Entry fees vary depending on how many people are in a group, but anticipate paying $4 or $6 per vehicle.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park: Fort White
Travel approximately 100 miles west of St. Augustine to add a dose of nature to your Florida getaway. At Ichetucknee Springs State Park, you’ll find three nature trails and eight connected crystalline springs. Tubing is the best way to experience Ichetucknee Springs. As you float through the park, keep your eyes peeled for turtles and manatees. For a closer look at some of these marine creatures, plus underwater caves, go swimming, snorkeling or diving at the park’s Blue Hole Spring. Ichetucknee Springs permits visitors from 8 a.m. to sunset year-round. A vehicle fee of $4 or $6 applies whether you use the north or south entrance, though tube rentals are only available at the south entrance. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, vehicles cannot go beyond the south entrance, so you must hike or ride the tram (which costs $5.50 per person) to get to the springs.
Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park: Homosassa
This spring roughly 70 miles north of Tampa is one of Florida’s most unique natural springs. In the early 1900s, Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park served as a popular stop along a train route. By the 1960s, it housed trained exotic animals appearing in TV shows and movies. Though the park is no longer used for this purpose, you may see a bit of Homosassa Springs’ past when you visit. Former animal actor Lu (a hippo) still lives on-site. Native species like alligators, flamingos and black bears also reside here. To see some of these animals, go on a pontoon boat tour or participate in a wildlife encounter program. Your entrance fee, which costs $13 for adults and $5 for children older than 5, covers both activities. Swimming and water sports are not allowed. The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area: Salt Springs
Located about 50 miles west of Daytona Beach along Ocala National Forest’s eastern edge, the Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area is named after a series of springs that boast clear turquoise water and pristine white sand. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Silver Glen Springs is popular with water lovers. Visitors can jump into the water to swim or snorkel, or stay above the surface and explore by canoe. When travelers need a break from the water, they can check out the remains of a Timucuan settlement or trek the mile-long forest trail, which takes hikers to nearby Lake George (Florida’s second-largest lake). Similar to other sections of the forest, Silver Glen Springs generally welcomes daytrippers from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $6 per person. Canoe rentals start at $16 for two hours of use; however, visitors can avoid this extra fee by bringing their own equipment.
Ruth B. Kirby Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park: High Springs
Plan a trip 28 miles northwest of Gainesville to Florida’s newest state park for a fun-filled day in and on the water. Owned and operated by investor Ruth B. Kirby and her relatives from 1958 until 2017 — when the area was sold to the state — Ruth B. Kirby Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park now draws Floridians and out-of-state visitors who want to go swimming, kayaking, canoeing, tubing or paddleboarding. While exploring the park’s five springs, which stay a comfortable 72 degrees year-round, vacationers may spot osprey, turtles and water snakes, among other kinds of animals. Travelers can also admire beautiful fall foliage from Gilchrist Blue Springs’ nearly mile-long nature trail come autumn. On-site amenities include picnic tables, grills and a concession stand with food, drinks and water sports equipment rentals. Opening hours are from 8 a.m. to sunset daily, and vehicle fees range from $4 to $6.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park: Weeki Wachee
No Florida spring offers the same kind of memorable, family-friendly fun as what you’ll find at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Situated roughly 55 miles north of Tampa and approximately 90 miles west of Orlando alongside U.S. Route 19, this first-magnitude spring features an ambiance reminiscent of its early years as a top roadside attraction. Here, you can watch “mermaids” perform underwater, zip down waterslides and embark on a river boat cruise just like visitors — including celebrities like Elvis Presley and Esther Williams — have done since the 1940s. Plus, Weeki Wachee Springs provides countless opportunities for swimming, snorkeling, kayaking and canoeing, should you want to enjoy more traditional outdoor activities. Water sports equipment can be rented through an on-site provider. The park’s year-round visiting hours are from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The fee to enter is $13 for adults and $8 for kids between 6 and 12.
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