In 1938, a young man by the name of Johnny Weissmuller traveled to one of the most beautiful locations he had ever seen. The deep crystal-clear water revealed an abundance of aquatic creatures living in this virtual paradise. The water was banked by lush tropical fauna, Spanish moss gently swaying from ancient oak trees, and all manner of birds and wildlife.
Weissmuller wasn’t an explorer who hacked his way through the dense undergrowth to discover this magnificent setting. He was a Hollywood actor sent with cast and crew to film a movie entitled “Tarzan Finds a Son!,” making him the first to portray the legendary Tarzan. Interestingly, the character of Jane, played by actress Margaret O’Sullivan, never traveled to the location.
The scenes depicting such a deep, dark jungle-looking place were not filmed in Africa or even in a South American rainforest. They were filmed on location in Silver Springs, Florida, which sits just on the edge of the 400,000 acres Ocala National Forest in the north central part of the state. The park became a featured player in the 1960’s television show, Sea Hunt, and the classic Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Silver Springs History
Silver Springs State Park is a natural Florida landmark dating back to the 1870’s. Once a major destination for northern visitors arriving by steamship, the park features one of the largest artesian wells in the world and the water is as clear as a well-chlorinated swimming pool.
As Florida’s first theme park, Silver Springs became widely known for offering glass-bottomed boat tours where visitors would be guided through the waterways with a clear picture of all that swam and grew below. All the while they could see alligators, egrets, and whatever else made an appearance to further add to the awe-inducing experience. Amusement rides, shows and a reptile farm entertained a million visitors each year.
The area was home to the Native-American Seminole tribe, who resided in the area during the 1500’s. A dugout canoe as a reminder of the presence still rests on one the of the shores. Many years later, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto stumbled across the springs and is thought to be the first European to witness the spectacle. In 1971 the park became an official national landmark.
Silver Springs Today
The park lost some of its luster with the advent of Disney and other big Central Florida theme parks. Agricultural runoff and a drop in the Florida aquifer level threatened the springs, prompting the state to impose protections and eventually take over the property. New restrictions and restoration projects have allowed the area to recover and it now offers visitors a chance to experience the natural Florida in its latest incarnation as a state park.
The park still offers guests a peek at a landscape which hasn’t changed throughout the centuries, but with modern updates where needed. It is truly an attraction worthy of being on everyone’s bucket list. The park is open 365 days a year and the entry cost is only $2 a head, although additional activities such as a glass bottom boat ride will cost extra.
These days the glass-bottomed boats are not the only way to explore the waterways. For visitors preferring to go it alone, kayaks, canoes, and standup paddleboards are available to rent for an outing on the Silver River. Life vests are provided for everyone and they are a requirement. For a real treat, try one of the cleared-bottomed kayaks which have recently been added to the parks inventory.
Paddle excursions are available and it generally takes three to four hours to paddle the five-mile route along the shaded Fort King Waterway. It’s a one-way journey and transportation back to the park is provided. Guests can bring their own floating vessel but they will need to pay a $4 launch fee.
Silver Springs Attractions
The Silver Springs Museum, located within the park, is an Environmental Education Center maintained by the county. It’s $2 per person to visit but children under six are admitted for free. During the week it is closed for school activities but it’s open to the general public on weekends and is staffed by park employees and volunteers.
Cracker Settlement is a treat for everyone who enjoys history. The original settlement consisted of a one-room schoolhouse which was used by African-American students during the unfortunate days of segregation. The settlement has grown to include an active blacksmith shop and the park will soon be adding a kiln and two reconstructed log cabins.
Silver Springs is part of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail so birdwatchers will be delighted with what they find. Wild turkeys, bobwhite quails, hairy woodpeckers, American kestrel, wood ducks, black-bellied whistling ducks, limpkins, and all manner of wading birds make regular appearances, along with warblers, vireos, thrushes, and other songbirds.
Trails are available for bicyclists but they are limited and a rough and tumble mountain bike is highly suggested. There is a paved road between the ranger station and the picnic area which is well shaded and runs a distance of 1.1 miles. For anyone seeking up close and personal views of wildlife, this is the way to go.
Several good hiking trails are available and they run anywhere from 3/4 mile to 2.3 miles, one-way. Some trails lead into the jungle looking forest while others are paved and tamer for those just wanting to take a nice leisurely nature walk.
Plenty of picnic spots are there for the waiting and most of them come complete with charcoal grills. There is a large playground for letting the kids blow off some steam. Of course, if you picnic you are asked to remove all food items when you leave so as not to tamper with the ecological eating habits of the local wildlife, or to not attract any unwanted predators.
Of course, if you’re on vacation and in no way will cook for yourself (whether it’s a picnic or not), not to worry. At the Springside Cafe, you grab a full meal, some ice-cream, or a host of other snacks to keep you going. If you’re going to be visiting with a large group, why not let Paradise Treats cater the event? They’ll take care of you and your guests in style.
There are plenty of hotels, RV campgrounds, and regular campgrounds in the Ocala area so, whatever your preference might be, you’ll find it. If you prefer to do your camping in the springs itself, be prepared to camp primitively without running water.
A great time awaits you and your family at Silver Springs State Park. Get out on the crystal clear Silver River and catch a glimpse of old Florida at its finest. It makes for a relaxing time surrounded by nature, and sometimes, we all need this type of escape.