Explore a side of Orlando that’s both wilder and milder at pristine natural springs with crystal-clear water, incredible flora and fauna, and ample amenities (Get Up and Go Kayaking at Rock Springs Run State Reserve at Kelly Park pictured).
Orlando’s famous theme parks are guaranteed to create magical memories that will last a lifetime, but some of our most alluring attractions extend beyond manmade marvels to unexpected surprises — including the refreshing waterways and lush greens of Central Florida’s great outdoors. Here’s your guide to freshwater springs at four local parks where you can dive into the natural wonders of crystal-blue waters. What’s more, several local operators will be happy to give you an insider’s tour.
Learn more: Orlando Ecotourism
Oh … and did we mention that these parks are all within an hour’s drive north from downtown Orlando, and that entry won’t cost you more than $6 per vehicle? Dive in and have a blast!
Scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming and fishing — not to mention manatee encounters — can all be enjoyed at crystal-clear springs close to Orlando. (Insider Tip: These parks limit entry once they’ve reach capacity during the busy spring and summer months, so try to arrive at or before 8 a.m. when they open.)
Blue Spring State Park
With crystal-clear waters that allow you to see past the scurrying fish to the sandy bottom, Blue Spring State Park is named for just that. About 45 minutes north of downtown Orlando, this park is mainly known for being the winter home of the Florida manatee. Entry is just $6 per vehicle and, with multiple ways to enjoy the 72-degree waters, even your hardest-to-please family members will have a blast.
Explore deep down with scuba diving or test your paddling skills and kayak down Blue Spring Run. Catch a boat tour of the historic St. Johns River, or rent an inflatable tube and lazily float down the spring. If you have a bit of a wild side, take on the 3.6-mile hiking trail where you can get up close and personal with wildlife, including the Florida scrub-jay, the state’s only endemic bird.
It’s almost impossible to do and see everything that Blue Spring State Park has to offer in just one afternoon, but do not fret. With over 51 campsites within walking distance to the spring, each equipped with water and electricity for just $24 per night, there’s no real reason to ever leave.
De Leon Springs State Park
If you’re looking to experience the beauty of Orlando’s natural springs but can only spare one day out of your busy vacation schedule, De Leon Springs State Park is just for you. You are invited to bring your own floats and hang out in the 500-foot-wide swimming area, fish from the pier at Spring Garden Run, or even free-dive deep into the massive, 30-foot underwater cave.
Take a hike on the Wild Persimmon Hiking Trail, a 4-mile loop where can you encounter deer, turkeys and wild hogs. For an easier route, go on the half-mile paved trail and pass through a flood plain forest where many native plant species live, including the park’s 600-year-old cypress tree. Or, learn about thousands of years of natural history on the 50-minute Fountain of Youth Eco/Heritage boat tour for only $14.
After you’ve built up an appetite making a splash, visit the on-site Old Spanish Sugar Mill restaurant, where you can cook your own delicious pancakes at the table. (History buffs will also appreciate the fact that the restaurant is inside a 120-year-old reconstruction of a mill originally built in the 1830s.) Located an hour north of downtown Orlando with a $6-per-vehicle entree fee, De Leon Springs State Park will be a highlight of your eco-tourist adventure.
Kelly Park and Rock Springs Run State Reserve
Located 35 minutes northwest of downtown Orlando, Rock Springs Run State Preserve at Kelly Park will make its mark as a memorable outdoor adventure for the entire family. With a free-flowing natural spring at a consistently cool 68 degrees, you’ll want to bring inflatable tubes for a relaxing 25-minute float down this natural lazy river. Didn’t pack one? Stop by the Rock Springs Bar & Grill right outside the park entrance for $7 tube rentals and maybe enjoy a burger — or two.
Spread out a beach towel near the spring and catch some Florida sun, or beat the heat and set up a picnic in one of the many areas shaded by hundreds of pine and oak trees. Visit the kayak/canoe launch for some paddling fun at Kelly Park’s Camp Joy, located just two minutes from the park.
Entry to the park is $3 for vehicles with up to two people, $5 for three to eight people, and $1 for each additional person thereafter. A full-service concession is also available offering hotdogs, snow cones, funnel cakes, and other necessities like bug spray and sunscreen. With all this outdoor fun, you just might want to stay a while, so plan ahead and reserve a spot at Kelly Park Campgrounds for a night under the stars.
Wekiwa Springs State Park
As the oldest tourist attraction in Central Florida, Wekiwa Springs State Park has been a top hidden gem for more than a century. With a handful of outdoor experiences for the whole family, you can engage in a wild adventure or sit back and relax in the emerald-green waters of this local natural wonder. (Heads up that “Wekiwa” is pronounced “Wekiva” and that the spellings are frequently used interchangeably by locals.)
Snorkel with marine life, paddle up Rock Springs Run, or simply float and soak up some sun. With several trails ranging in difficulty and length from 1 to 14 miles, you can view the vast plant species and even encounter a white-tailed deer, bobcat or Florida black bear. Go on an interactive treasure hunt called geo-seeking, using GPS devices paired with location coordinates to find caches, or little treasures, hidden all over park grounds.
Get comfy at Camp Cozy, one of the many campsites located off the main trail for a more secluded, peaceful overnight visit, or stay at any of the 60 campsites this park has to offer complete with running water, electrical hook-ups and grills. At $24 for overnight camping and park entry just $6 per vehicle, this spring is ready to make a splash in your Orlando vacation.
Want to check out Orlando’s natural springs but don’t want to go it alone? Several local operators are ready to give you the grand tour.
For starters, Adventures in Florida offers a Wekiva River Tour via kayak. Other packages include The Orlando Manatee Encounter, Bioluminescence Kayaking, and The Full Moon Paddle on the Winter Park Chain of Lakes.
Or, visit Blue Spring with Epic Paddle Adventures, which specializes in paddleboard and kayak tours. They also have an exciting Night Glow Tour, as well as paddleboarding on Lake Ivanhoe in the downtown Orlando area.
Last but not least, Get Up and Go Kayaking will guide you through Rock Springs Run at Kelly Park. They also have 100% clear kayaks, so you can really see everything around you.
But whether you go solo or with a tour operator, you’re sure to have an adventure that’s wild, mild or both — the choice is yours.
Use this interactive map to track down the natural springs featured in this blog. (Click here if you found us via Google and don’t see a map or images.)
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