Fabulous Florida Springs
You won’t find any of these watery treasures down at the beach. They hide away in forests and secret places. The world’s largest and most plentiful springs―more than 700 in all―gush in Florida. Senior Photographer Gary Clark and I spent weeks searching for the best. Here are some we think you’ll love.
The water beneath us looks so clear you could read the headline of a magazine article if I set it on the bottom. An osprey sails overhead with a mullet in its talons. Not far away a 6-foot-long alligator lounges on an island not much larger than he is. “We’re right in the middle of real Florida,” park ranger Bob Thompson says as he guides a boat tour down the Wakulla River.
You don’t have to be a diver to see it. Just take a boat ride. Glass-bottom boats were invented at Silver Springs in the 1870s, and the tours are still the most popular activity at the park. For years these crystalline waters flowing from seven major springs have starred in movies. You’ve probably seen them on the big screen pretending to be some faraway exotic paradise. A first-magnitude spring―one of the largest in the United States―gushes 550 million gallons a day. It’s a wonder to behold. www.silversprings.com or (352) 236-2121.
Once privately owned, the 1,400-acre park features gardens and tumbling waterfalls. A 500-million-gallon spring feeds the Rainbow River, a popular place for tubing, kayaking in clear-bottom boats, snorkeling, and guided nature trips. “For the locals, this is our beach,” says park ranger Nicky Aiken.
Tip: Try to visit on a weekday. This park―like most of the springs―gets its biggest crowds on weekends. www.floridastateparks.org/rainbowsprings or (352) 465-8555.
Take a swim, and then line up for breakfast at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill (pictured) to cook your own pancakes on a tabletop griddle. “My father had a bakery on Broadway in New York before he ran the Sugar Mill. He thought the griddles were a great way to stir up interest over food,” says Patty Schwarze, who runs the restaurant now. It worked. Families love it. www.floridastateparks.org/deleonsprings or (386) 985-4212.
Weeki Wachee begins operation as a state park later this year after a mighty effort to save it. That means children such as the six small girls intently watching the show from front-row seats can still believe in mermaids. They might even grow up to be mermaids too. One tip from Stayce: “Be sure to wear waterproof makeup.” www.weekiwachee.com or (352) 596-2062.