Ask a dozen different people what Old Florida means to them and you’ll get a dozen different answers. For some, it’s the slow pace. For others, it’s strolling among hundred-year-old oak groves, gazing at majestic native birds or taking a boat ride past grand landscapes.
Whatever it means to you, it’s easy to come by when you visit any of the state’s natural springs. These areas embody the true, authentic Florida that so many tourists often miss. The only tough part is deciding which ones to visit; there are more than 700 freshwater springs scattered across the Sunshine State, after all, and the water temp stays around 70 degrees all year. Here are some of our favorites.
Editor's note: Please check the latest travel restrictions before planning any trip and always follow government advice.
Rock Springs Run State Reserve
A tour with Get Up And Go Kayaking makes an excursion at Rock Springs Run State Reserve extra special. For starters, guests get to paddle through the stunning water in clear kayaks, which makes it super easy to spot fish and otters darting below.
Along with a knowledgeable guide, you’ll begin by kayaking down a narrow canal and making your way to fantastic spots like Emerald Cut, Bonsai Bend (where a majestic oak curves just above the water) and a place that one of the guides lovingly calls Jurassic Park. It’s all upstream on the first half of the trip, so you’ll get a great workout.
Be sure to wear your swimsuit: there’s a platform at Jacob’s Island where you can cannon ball into the water below. This spot is only about 40 minutes from the world-famous theme parks, yet it feels like a world apart. Here it’s all about unwinding under the tree canopy, listening to the gentle hum of the cicadas and taking in the wild scenery surrounding you.
In fact, the surrounding forest is home to deer, herons and egrets and the occasional black bear. Of course, there are gators, too. But typically they tend to head in the opposite direction when humans come along, or they remain in their sunbathing spot without moving a muscle.
Wekiwa Springs State Park
Wekiwa Springs State Park, about 16 miles from downtown Orlando, is a grand escape. Take a dip in the emerald springs any time of the year, hike the trails or head about one mile down river to Wekiva Island. Make it your home base, rent a paddle board and be on the lookout for turtles and birds galore. When your arms are exhausted, kick back in a private cabana, complete with a cozy couch, adirondack chairs and a grill. Order up charcuterie boards and craft beer from the restaurant on site.
If you’ve got enough energy left after that, hit the volleyball courts or enjoy a game of corn hole. If you visit during the winter, bring s’mores supplies: there’s a fire pit for roasting marshmallows.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, about an hour north of Tampa, has long been known for its famous “live mermaid” shows. But the springs are the real star of the show. The turquoise-marine waters are home to the deepest, naturally formed underwater caverns in the US. If fact, the spring is so deep, the bottom has never been found. And the park, one of Florida’s oldest attractions, has been welcoming guests since 1947.
Silver Springs State Park
Silver Springs State Park, one of nation’s largest springs, is steeped in history. Back in the 1820s, way before Disney came along, it was one of the most visited places in the state. By the late 1870s, the glass-bottom boat came along and became a very convenient way for travelers to see the springs. Thanks to its exotic, jungle-like looks and its crystal-clear waters, Hollywood producers loved it as a filming destination for classics like Tarzan and Creature From the Black Lagoon.
The spring-fed river that winds through the park will have you in awe. The bright blue water, beautiful strings of green algae and a network of underwater caves is hard to beat. Of course, you’ll see fish galore, alligators on the banks and turtles resting on logs.
But what might come as a surprise is the rhesus macaques. Years ago, a boat captain released six of the non-native monkeys in the area and now hundreds of them roam the 5,000 acres of impressive forests and wetlands. Also be on the lookout for the endangered Florida manatee.
If you visit Crystal River’s Three Sisters Springs in the winter you are nearly guaranteed a manatee sighting. You can spot them all year long in the clear, 72℉ (22℃) water (West Indian manatees can weigh up to 1,500 pounds, they're hard to miss), but mark your calendar for November through March when tons of them flock there to escape the chilly sea temperatures. You’ll soon see why it’s known as the manatee capital of the world.
Nearby Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, a 210-acre preserve, is an excellent place to spot manatees year-round. See them on a leisurely boat ride through the rain forest while keeping your eyes peeled for flamingos, blue herons and Key deer. Or simply view them from the elevated boardwalks and bridges among the many lagoons. Or check out the underwater observatory and listen in on an educational talk.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
One way to experience Ichetucknee Springs State Park is to leisurely float along in a tube. Bring your snorkel gear and make your way to the Blue Hole Spring by taking the half-mile trail dotted with cypress trees. You’ll end up at the spring, which is the largest one in the park. While roaming the park, look for beaver, otters, gar and softshell turtles. You may also find wild turkeys, wood ducks and limpkin (a large wading bird).
De Leon Springs State Park
Before you go canoeing at historic De Leon Springs State Park (an hour drive from Orlando), fill up on breakfast. The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House, inside a replica of an 1830s sugar mill, serves it up all day long. Here, you can cook pancakes right at your table and add your own toppings.
When you’re ready to explore, make your way down about 9 ½-miles via kayak, canoe or paddle boat from the springs into Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, which has been attracting visitors since the 1880s. Plan some extra time to trek the trails after. Gopher tortoise, turkeys, deer and gators roam these parts. With 18,000 acres of lakes and marshes, it’s impossible to be bored.
Note: Check the park’s website ahead of time. If water levels are too high, canoes and kayak rentals are not available.
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