Photograph by Chris Bickford, National Geographic Travel
Florida has more springs than any other state. The mineral-rich waters originate deep within the Floridan aquifer and bubble to the surface, creating refreshingly cool (averaging 68º to 70ºF year-round) rivers and pools. In the past, many springs were developed as tourist attractions. Today they're protected as state parks and offer ecologically sustainable recreation options.
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, Wakulla Springs
Each day more than 250 million gallons of water bubble up out of Wakulla Springs, one of the largest spring cave systems in the world. Most days of the year, you can ride along the Wakulla River (and look for alligators and the occasional manatee) on a ranger-led boat tour, dive or jump off a diving platform into the 68-degree water, and snorkel or swim in the designated swimming area. But the ultimate Wakulla Springs State Park experience—the glass-bottom boat tour—takes more planning, plus a bit of luck. The glass-bottom boats only operate on those days (typically in late winter or early spring) when the green-hued water is unusually crystal clear. On those prime visibility days, it's possible to peer down about 120 feet to the bottom of the basin and see the fossilized remains of mastodons, one of several extinct Pleistocene species discovered in the spring.
Silver Springs State Park, Ocala
The centerpiece of this 4,666-acre park, which was privately run until the state took over in 2013, is the gigantic spring system—one of the largest in the state. Kayaking, canoeing, or riding the park's iconic, battery-operated glass-bottom boats along the crystal-clear 5.4-mile Silver River (fed solely by the springs) gives visitors the chance to "slip back in time" to prehistoric Florida, says Silver Springs State Park manager Sally Lieb. "I often imagine what it must have been like 10,000 years ago, when nomadic people wandering the dry plains of Florida looking for water came upon this enormous pool of water billowing up from the earth and appearing to boil on the surface," she adds. "This park is a place to get a taste of the real Florida."
Ponce de Leon Springs State Park, Ponce de Leon
Bring a snorkel and mask to get a front-row view of the spring at its spigot, which pumps out 14 million gallons of pristine water each day. "The deepest part of the spring is approximately 20 feet at the spring head, giving visitors the unique ability to snorkel down to the vent and feel the force of the water as it emerges from its source," says Robert Goodrich, a park ranger at Ponce de Leon Springs State Park. After snorkeling, walk the trails paralleling the stream to see the convergence of the crystal-clear spring waters and the tannic waters of Sandy Creek. "Where the two meet, there is a very visible ‘line' where clear meets tannic, as if there were a divider put in place to separate the waters," says Goodrich. "It is something that has to be viewed in person to be truly appreciated."
Best Bet: Before kayaking or canoeing (rentals available) at Silver Springs, take a guided glass-bottom boat tour to learn about the springs' history, geology, wildlife, and environmental challenges. Some Silver Springs boat captains have been leading tours here for 50 years or more. Each trip includes time spent hovering directly over and peering down into several of the largest springs, such as the Mammoth, the primary headspring.
Fun Fact: Several television shows and movies have been filmed on location at Florida springs since the late 1930s. The springs' list of credits includes the 1954 horror classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, shot at Wakulla Springs, and a few James Bond movies, such as Moonraker and Never Say Never Again, which feature scenes filmed at Silver Springs.
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