Explore a wilder side of Orlando by diving into natural springs with crystal-clear water, incredible flora and fauna, and plenty of amenities (picture courtesy Miriam Porter).
Updated June 16, 2021
Orlando’s numerous theme parks are surefire ways to create magical memories that will last a lifetime. Yet, believe it or not, many of our most alluring attractions extend past manmade wonders to the unexpected lush greens of Central Florida’s outdoors. Here’s your guide to four local freshwater springs that have recently reopened and where you can dive into the natural world of Florida’s crystal blue waters.
Learn more: Orlando Ecotourism
Oh … and did we mention that these parks are all within an hour’s drive north from downtown Orlando? Dive in and have a blast!
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 a multitude of ways for visitors to enjoy the 72-degree waters, even your hardest-to-please family members will have a blast.
Adventure-seekers can explore deep down with scuba diving or test their 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. For those with 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. Visitors are invited to bring their 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.
Learn about thousands of years of natural history on the 50-minute Fountain of Youth boat tour for only $14. After you’ve built up an appetite making a splash, visit the Old Spanish Sugar Mill restaurant located on-site 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.
Rock Springs at Kelly Park is located 35 minutes northwest of downtown Orlando and is sure to make its mark as a memorable outdoor adventure for the entire family. With a free-flowing natural spring at a consistently cool 68 degrees, be sure 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 this spring is $5 per vehicle and 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 of the area for more than a century. With a handful of outdoor experiences for the whole family to choose from, you can engage in a wild adventure or sit back and relax in the emerald green waters of this local natural wonder.
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, where participants use 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-up and grills. At $24 for overnight camping and park entry just $6 per vehicle, this spring is sure to make a splash in your Orlando vacation.
Insider Tip: These parks limit entry once they’ve reach capacity during the busy spring and summer months, so be sure to arrive at or before 8 a.m. when they open!
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