Time to cool off at the 20 best Florida springs

Ponce de Leon had the right idea. Florida’s original hidden gems are its crystal-clear springs. Whether or not he was looking for the Fountain of Youth, Florida had plenty for him to find with more than 1,000 headsprings bubbling up from the depths.

Long before mouse ears and wizard wands, Florida’s original tourist attraction has been refreshing and invigorating those who dip into the cool water shooting up from the Floridan aquifer.

So which springs are the best? That depends if you like more of a natural vibe, mermaid sightings, tube runs or possibly making your own pancakes before diving into the water that stays in the 68- to 74-degree range all year long. On the off chance one of these springs is in fact the Fountain of Youth, best you put each of these springs on your Florida Bucket List.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Another formerly private spring turned state park is home to mermaids. Opened in 1947, the attraction features performers who learned to breathe compressed air through a tube, putting on shows while battling the 5 mph current that flows out to the Gulf of Mexico. ABC bought the park in the 1950s, building the current 500-seat theater and giving the park and its famous inhabitants national attention. The park became part of the Florida State Parks system in 2008 and still attracts more than 300,000 visitors a year.

The park's mermaids still put on multiple shows a day and are available for photo ops as well. In addition, the park has an animal show featuring native Florida species and river cruises that head down the spring run, all included in admission, as is access to Buccaneer Bay, a small water park with multiple slides that send riders into the spring swimming area. Admission for adults is $13, kids 6-12 are $8 and children 5 and younger are free.

6131 Commercial Way, Weeki Wachee

352-592-5656

weekiwachee.com

Silver Springs State Park

This is the most famous spring in the state, having first drawn tourists in the late 1870s with the attraction’s signature glass-bottom boats and their amazing views. The spring then became a movie star of sorts, acting as scenery in films such as “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Tarzan.” The park would see more than 1 million visitors a year in the 1960s, although it’s less than 500,000 in recent years. It became a state park in 2013.

You can’t swim in Silver Springs, but the glass-bottom boat tours persist, and canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards are welcome. Cost is $2 per person to enter the park, which also serves up food at Paradise Treats and Spring Side Cafe, a viewing deck of the headspring and paved walkways that run along the Silver River and through ornamental gardens. Glass-bottom boat tours are an extra $11 per person.

1425 N.E. 58th Ave., Ocala

352-236-7148

silversprings.com

Ichetucknee Springs State Park

Taking a tube down Ichetucknee ’s spring run takes longer than most movies. It’s a mecca for lazy people, or at least lazy people who can wake up early enough to access the park at its north entrance, the one that allows for a three-hour run.

But visitors need to get there early, especially on weekends, as park officials will close off this entrance to the 6-mile spring run when it reaches its daily capacity of 750 people. The park’s south entrance gives access via boardwalk paths to a midpoint entry to the springs that lasts two hours as well as a shorter 45-minute run. That entrance, too, has a limit of only 2,250 tubers, swimmers of snorkelers a day. Admission is $6 for vehicles with 2 to 8 people, $4 for single-driver vehicles.

12087 S.W. U.S. Highway 27, Fort White

386-497-4690

floridastateparks.org/park/Ichetucknee-Springs

DeLeon Springs State Park

Springs first, then pancakes, then maybe springs again. That’s a good schedule for a day this park that is home to The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill and Griddle House, where you can make your own pancakes from two types of homemade batters on a large, tabletop griddle. It’s a popular draw that can mean two-hour waits to sit and make your own breakfast, although the springs that shoot out 19 million gallons of water a day have their own appeal.

In between springs and pancakes, you can hop aboard a 50-minute boat tour that heads down the spring run and into Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge or take a stroll on the half-mile nature trail and see Old Methuselah, the 600-year-old bald cypress. There’s also the 4.2-mile Wild Persimmon Trail, but that’s best experienced in Florida’s cooler months. Admission is $6 for vehicles with 2 to 8 people, $4 for single-driver vehicles.

601 Ponce DeLeon Blvd., DeLeon Springs

386-985-4212

floridastateparks.org/park/De-Leon-Springs

Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

This is the swimming hole for many a Seminole, the college kind as the park is only 14 miles from FSU in Tallahassee. Many a co-ed has made the jump from the platform 21 feet above the spring surface. What’s better is once you break the surface, you plunge into only a smidgen of the springs 180-foot depth.

It’s one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world. It’s an exit point for the Floridan Aquifer with a massive cave system that attracts divers year-round. The 6,000-acre park also features a vast trail system, a popular 45-minute boat tour daily and its own glass-bottom boats that will venture out when the water is clear. Also on site, and open since 1937, is the Wakulla Springs Lodge with a full-service dining room overlooking the springs. Admission is $6 for vehicles with 2 to 8 people, $4 for single-driver vehicles.

465 Wakulla Park Drive, Wakulla Springs

850-561-7276

floridastateparks.org/park/Wakulla-Springs

Rainbow Springs State Park

Rainbow Springs is one of the largest spring flows in the state, and was a privately owned tourist attraction from the 1930s to the 1970s that features among other things three man-made waterfalls.

The waterfalls still flow, but the rodeo, zoo and tree-level monorail are long gone. There is still a 2.5-mile walking path for a better view of those waterfalls as well as a butterfly garden, native plant garden and visitor center.

The spring does welcome swimmers, although tube fans can access the Rainbow River at a second park entrance with on-site rentals available. Main entrance is $2 per person, while tubers pay $8 parking at the second entrance as well as a $15 fee that includes tube rental and tram service.

19158 S.W. 81st Place Road, Dunnellon

352-465-8555

floridastateparks.org/park/Rainbow-Springs

Blue Spring State Park

One of the most easily accessible springs in the state, located just a few minutes drive from Interstate 4, Blue Spring State Park, not to be confused with several Blue Springs (as in plural) state parks in the north of Florida, flows into the St. Johns River and is a favorite for manatees seeking warmth in the winter months. Those manatee months from November to March in which hundreds of the gentle mammals huddle together mean the springs are closed to water activity, but the park still attracts many who want to see them up close. Every January, the park hosts its annual Manatee Festival drawing thousands of visitors. When not looking at manatees in the winter, or diving into the first magnitude spring in the summer, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the historic Louis Thursby house built in 1872. The site was a steamboat landing site along the river in the 19th century. Admission is $6 for vehicles with 2 to 8 people, $4 for single-driver vehicles.

2100 W. French Ave., Orange City

386-775-3663

floridastateparks.org/park/Blue-Spring

Three Sisters Springs

These three springs flow into Crystal River and are best known for the congregation of manatees that make their way here in cold-weather months as they enjoy the constant, warmer temperatures of the spring outflow. The springs can be viewed by city-owned land, but that way doesn’t offer access for swimming, canoeing or kayaks. To do that, you can make your way up the river on your own or hook up with one of several outfits in the city of Crystal River that will bring you into the springs.

These private vendors will get you swimming alongside the manatees, which is a popular endeavor, although not cheap. One such outfit, River Ventures, which is top-ranked on TripAdvisor, will give you a three-hour tour into the springs for $64 per person. That includes everything from a wetsuit to bottled water, and the guide will join you in the water to make sure you don’t do anything illegal, like ride a manatee. Remember, they can touch you. You can’t touch them.

The city-owned facility that allows for land-based viewing has a boardwalk around as part of a 57-acre park that has access to five springs as well as Lake Crystal and wetlands. A trolley tour is offered on weekends in the summer, and then daily during manatee season from November-March. Daily admission is $7.50 for anyone 6 and older.

Three Sisters Springs Center

123 N.W. U.S. Highway 19, Crystal River

352-586-1170

threesistersspringsvisitor.org

River Ventures

498 S.E. Kings Bay Drive, Crystal River

352-564-8687

riverventures.com

Manatee Springs State Park

For those who like a good workout before jumping into the springs, Manatee Springs offers 8.5 miles of criss-crossing trails that can be hiked or biked running through upland pine and oak, cypress swamps and sinkhole ponds. The spring flows for 1/4 mile into the tea-colored Suwannee River, which can be explored by canoe and kayak available for rental on site. As the name of the park suggests, it attracts manatees in the cold-weather months. Naturalist William Bartram even noted the manatees presence when he explored the area in 1774. The park may be home to the best barbecue at a state park with its on-site concessionaire Anderson's Outdoor Adventures, which serves up ribs, barbecue pork sandwiches and “The Manatee Springs Dog,” an all-Angus beef premium grilled hot dog with barbecue pulled pork, baked beans and coleslaw. Admission to the park is $6 for vehicles with 2 to 8 people, $4 for single-driver cars.

11650 N.W. 115 St., Chiefland

352-493-6072

floridastateparks.org/park/manatee-springs

Ginnie Springs

There’s a reason Ginnie Springs is a popular destination among the University of Florida crowd. It’s private property, and unlike the state park system, you can drink alcohol here. There are several private springs in and around the High Springs area northwest of Gainesville that flow into the Santa Fe River, but Ginnie Springs with its seven headsprings that push out more than 80 million gallons a day among them is popular with swimmers, snorkelers, tubers and divers. It’s not completely without rules, though. No beer bongs or funnels please, although you can bring a keg with prior approval. Still, the springs are the big draw. The park rents everything from scuba equipment to tubes to kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards. Divers will be treated to the Ginnie Cavern, which is the bottom of the Ginnie Springs basin, a 100-foot-wide, 15-foot-deep depression that allows novice divers without caving experience a safe look at its limestone walls. There is also a more challenging cave dive at the park’s Devil’s Springs system, a trio of headsprings, one of which goes down 50 feet. Park entrance is pricier than the state parks: $14.02 for anyone 13 and older, $3.73 for ages 6-12 and free for those 5 and younger.

7300 Ginnie Springs Road, High Springs

386-454-7188

ginniespringsoutdoors.com

Juniper Springs

There's an oasis in the middle the sand scrub pinewoods of Ocala National Forest. It's a springhead set under a lush canopy of palms of oaks that makes you feel like you’re in a fairy tale. The spring gushes forth as happy visitors jump from the limestone wall that surrounds the main swimming area. Constructed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the recreation area takes advantage of the spring vents that discharge millions of gallons of water into Juniper Creek that eventually makes its way to Lake George. The spring offers a welcome respite, especially for those who wish to explore the Florida Trail that is accessible from the park entrance. Visually, Juniper Springs offers one of the most beautiful landscapes in the state. Also on site is an old millhouse with a spillway, access to a 7-mile canoe run, concessions, camping and a 1-mile hiking trail  to neighboring Fern Hammock Spring. Daily entrance fee is $5.

26701 E. State Road 40, Silver Springs

352-625-3147

juniper-springs.com

Salt Springs

Not all salt is bad for you, especially the kind that mixes with the cool water at this spring in the middle of the Ocala National Forest. The springs here have a mild salty taste unlike other Florida springs because the water, which is still crystal-clear, is mixed up with potassium, magnesium and sodium it picked up on its way up from the aquifer. The 53 million gallons of daily flow heads into a 4-mile long spring run into Lake George.

The recreation area that also features canoe and boat rentals has the largest campground in the national forest, and the only one with full hookups for RVs. Daily admission to the springs is $5.50 per person.

13851 N. U.S. Highway 19, Salt Springs

352-685-2048

saltspringsfl.com

Warm Mineral Springs

The state’s southernmost spring is also its warmest and geologically different than the cold-water springs farther north. Warm Mineral Springs, which has changed hands from private to public ownership over the years, is a constant 85 degrees year-round. Tourists have come to the 1.4-acre round pond in droves over the years to bathe in the more than 50-mineral-rich water, one of the highest mineral content springs in the nation. Floating is easier at this spring, although it’s not crystal clear like its colder brothers up north. Below the surface, the spring reaches a depth of nearly 250 feet, a sinkhole that was the result of a 20,000-year-old earthquake. At near 150 feet, 30,000-year-old debris has been found amid the limestone bedrock. The 9 million gallons of water that flow into the springs each day may only be reaching the water after 60,000 years of filtering through the earth, according to the United States Geological Society.

Now owned by the city of North Port, the full on-site spa and restaurant have closed, although the city has brought some limited spa-like services including massages, facials and waxing. Nonresident admission to the springs is $20 for adults, $15 for children ages 6-17 and free for ages 5 and under.

12200 San Servando Ave., North Port

941-426-1692

cityofnorthport.com/visitors/visit-north-port/warm-mineral-springs

Wekiwa Springs State Park

The closest springs to downtown Orlando, Wekiwa Springs, spelled with a “w,” flows into the Wekiva River, spelled with a “v.” It makes complete sense if you spoke the language of the most recent Native American tribe to call this part of Florida home: the Creek, who later were known as the Seminoles. “Wekiwa” means “spring of water” while “wekiva” means “flowing water.” Mystery solved.

It’s one of the most popular state parks, attracting more than 250,000 visitors a year, so park officials will close it down when it reaches capacity as often happens on weekends and holidays. Its signature hillside overlooking the spring that shoots out 42 million gallons a day is a popular spot to lay out and let the sun dry you off between dips in the water. The park has a popular campground, trail system and even a little nature center filled with the trappings of a taxidemist, next to the snack bar of course. There are canoe and kayak rentals available as well. Carloads of up to eight people pay just $6 to get in while single drivers pay $4 and pedestrians just $2.

800 Wekiwa Circle, Apopka

407-884-2009

floridastateparks.org/park/Wekiwa-Springs

Vortex Spring

This private spring in north Florida touts itself as one of the best and safest diving resorts in the U.S., offering a spring that puts out 28 million gallons of gin-clear, 68-degree water a day in a basin that goes to a depth of 50 feet at the mouth of a cavern. Since the park is private, you’ll find more than the regular fish friends along your dive including lots of koi fish and eels, although the normal gar, catfish, blue gill and bass are present as well. Cavern divers can explore down to a depth of 115 feet. The springs, though, offer some serious fun and adrenaline for nondivers with tall platforms for diving, diving boards, water slides and even a rope swing for people doing their best Mountain Dew commercial impression. Admission is $8 for 6 and older, 5 and under free.

1517 Vortex Spring Lane, Ponce de Leon

850-836-4979

vortexspring.com

Kelly Park

Often confused with Rock Springs Run State Reserve, Kelly Park is a county park that lets visitors tube down Rock Springs Run. The two are miles apart, so don’t get confused when trying to hunt down the entrance as the preserve doesn’t let you swim in the spring. Kelly Park, though, is a good old-fashioned, fun-filled springs day just waiting to happen, and only 30 minutes from downtown Orlando just north of Apopka. Rent tubes on the way in from the corner store or bring your own. The park has food, a beach, lifeguards and a boardwalk up to the spring run, which is short of 1 mile long and takes about 30 minutes per trip. Cost is $3 per vehicle with 1 to 2 people, $5 per vehicle for 3 to 8 people.

400 E. Kelly Park Road, Apopka

407-254-1902

ocfl.net/cultureparks/parks.aspx?d=22&m=dtlvw

Alexander Springs

Another of the springs hidden in the Ocala National Forest, this one is technically in Lake County between Astor and Altoona. It’s one of the state’s biggest. A first-magnitude spring, it sends out 65 million gallons of 72-degree water a day and is the largest of the national forest’s springs. Access into the spring is easy for visitors with a gently sloped spring pool. Canoes and kayaks can be rented for a 5-mile trip down the run and transport back to the entrance. Admission is $5.50.

49525 County Road 445, Altoona

352-669-3522

fs.usda.gov/recarea/ocala/recarea/?recid=32209

Wes Skiles Peacock Springs State Park

You won’t find as many swimmers at this park, which has two springs, a spring run and six sinkholes. It is popular with scuba divers, though, with 33,000 feet of surveyed underwater passages, making it one of the longest underwater cave systems in the U.S. Certified divers can explore the caverns. In 1875, Dr. John Calvin Peacock purchased the land on which the springs are located, and it was renamed recently to honor explorer Wes Skiles. Admission is $4 per vehicle, and on the honor system.

18081 185th Road, Live Oak

386-776-2194

floridastateparks.org/park/peacock-springs

Ponce de Leon Springs State Park

At a constant 68 degrees year-round, this park named after the Spanish explorer is one of the coldest constant temperature springs, this one located in Holmes County in North Florida near the Choctawhatchee River. The flow is the convergence of two underground water flows producing 14 million gallons of water a day. The spring has a concrete wall surrounding part of it that makes for great cannonballing. It’s not the biggest and has limited facilities, but it is named after Juan Ponce de Leon, so it gets to join the Florida Bucket List. Admission is $4 per vehicle, and on the honor system.

2860 State Park Road, Ponce De Leon

850-836-4281

floridastateparks.org/park/ponce-de-leon-springs

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

This is not a spring for swimming, but it does have an underwater observation area that lets you see manatees up close alongside fish and other swimming critters at the first-magnitude spring. The manatees are always on hand because the park is now a rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned manatees as well as other native Florida animals.

The park was a privately owned attraction for years, housing the Ivan Tors Animal Actors when they weren’t on TV and movie sets. A hippopotamus named Lu still resides at the park after local resident got then Gov. Lawton Chiles to make the 6,000-pound Lu an honorary citizen of Florida. The rest of the animals still at the park are Florida natives, and on hand to educate and because most could not survive in the wild. Species include Florida black bear, alligator, Florida panther, Key deer, gray fox, red wolves, cougars, bald eagles and more. A pontoon boat transports visitors from one end of the park to the other. There are daily educational programs and wildlife encounters, more than a mile of boardwalk and paved trails on the 50-acre site including the birdwatching favorite Pepper Creek Trail. Admission is $13 for ages 13 and older, $5 for ages 6 to 12 and children 5 and under are free.

4150 S. Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa

352-628-5343

floridastateparks.org/park/Homosassa-Springs

rtribou@orlandosentinel.com, 407-420-5134

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