We’re in central Florida this week for Easter break and decided to visit one of our favorite spots: Silver Springs State Park. This place has so much to offer! They have camping, hiking, kayaking, paddle boarding and canoeing, and of course—the iconic glass bottom boats that are just wonderful.
If you’re not familiar with this particular location, Silver Springs State Park has been a natural landmark since the 1870s and is Florida’s first tourist attraction. The big attraction then, and now, is taking a trip on one of the largest artesian springs in the world in the famous glass bottom boats, and being treated to a crystal clear view of life underwater. You’ll see all kinds of fish, birds, turtles, alligators. If you go kayaking to canoeing, you may see even more: on this most recent trip we saw monkeys, and Kyle saw a Florida panther!
Originally, as an attraction, Silver Springs was privately owned by a local family. However, several years ago they sold it to the state of Florida and it has since become Silver Springs State Park.
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Glass Bottom Boats
You will pay an entrance fee to get into the park itself, but the glass bottom boats are an additional fee. The tour lasts about 30 minutes, and the boat captains are also tour guides who provide fascinating information on the history, the river, and the wildlife of the park. The glass bottoms paired with the stunning clarity of the river provide an excellent opportunity to observe this unique area and its aquatic life. These boats allow you to observe nature without disturbing nature.
It’s hard to describe the glass bottom boat experience. It’s definitely an “old school” Florida thing to do, so there is a level of coolness that goes along with that. However, I have done this tour several times now and for me, it just doesn’t get old. The springs are stunning every time, the wildlife is different, especially depending on the season, and it’s just good old fun! If you go in the summer months, make sure you take your water bottle. Even though the boats are covered and there is a breeze, it will be hot.
Once you leave the boat, there is an ice cream shop. If you’ve read any of my other posts, you know how I feel about frozen treats: go big or go home! Get yourself (and the kids!) a frozen treat to enjoy as you walk around the grounds.
If you want to forego the glass bottom boats (but why would you?), you can explore the area yourself in a canoe, paddle board, or kayak. You do not have to pay the park entrance fee to go kayaking or canoeing. Instead, you will park in the main Silver Springs parking lot and head over to the right. There you will find a little hut where you can rent kayaks and canoes by the hour, two hours, or all day. If you rent a clear bottom kayak, bring a towel. If the bottom gets wet, it’s difficult to see through.
There are several options where you can paddle around, including one that takes you 5 miles downstream, with a shuttle service that will bring you back to the rental hut and your car. That particular route takes 3 to 4 hours to complete, so keep that in mind when you are planning your day and your rental.
The nature here is surprisingly accessible. Because this area has been protected and preserved for so long, you are on the animals turf, not the other way around. Jack was able to touch a turtle, and I nearly ran into an alligator with the front end of our kayak! The Boss, who was sitting in the front, had quite an excitable moment as I tried to fight the current that was pushing us into the alligator, and get us untangled from some branches. Meanwhile, Kyle was a safe distance away shouting for me to not run into the gator. Um, trying not to! I promise!
We chose a 3-man canoe for Kyle and the boys, and a 2-man clear bottom kayak for The Boss and myself. Little Bit, still timid of boats, stayed behind with her grandparents. The weather was, in a word, perfect. The temperature was in the low 70’s with clear blue skies and a cooling breeze. You will be paddling through somewhat narrow water trails that feed into the springs. These water trails are shaded with trees and other vegetation creating a jungle-like canopy over the water. Florida is really like no other place. Locations like Silver Springs are more jungle than anything else, and it’s easy to forget that you’re in the United States and not in an actual jungle.
Once we got out into the springs, the current picked up and at times that coupled with the breeze made it a little difficult to paddle back, but it was still manageable. Even though we went on a busy Saturday during a holiday weekend, we still had a great time and at times felt like we had the place to ourselves.
If exploring on your own is your thing, but boats are not, there are plenty of trails to take advantage of. You can choose to pay the entrance fee at Silver Springs and use their trails or you can drive over to the state park entrance and choose from one of their several trails. The trails at Silver Springs all revolve, naturally, around the springs themselves, giving you a different perspective of the springs. While these trails are heavily shaded and you are enveloped in trees, the state park trails are also heavily wooden.
However, the state park trees are more spread out, and most of the trails are not necessarily near the water. There are a few that will take you to a wooden boardwalk that leads you to the river where you can stand at a lookout and look for fish, turtles, alligators, snakes, and birds. These trails also provide you with informational markers throughout the trails that tell you about the park, various animals, and information on the different trees you will see.
There is a museum here as well! Enter through the state park entrance (not the Silver Springs entrance), and follow the signs to the Silver River Museum and Environmental Educational Center. There is an entrance fee, which you can pay once you get inside.
You will find artifacts and learn about the history of the area. There are both indoor and outdoor parts to the museum, including examples of Native American pottery inside and a Florida “Cracker” house outside. They also have events year round showcasing the different eras of history and people who have lived in this area.
The museum is open on weekends and most holidays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., but is closed to the public on weekdays. Further, there is also a small gift shop with several items made by local artists.
There is so much to do at this one state park, it is hard to not spend a couple of days here! With camping on-site at the state park, and hotels nearby, it is easy to do so. Because the museum is only open to the public on weekends, I would encourage you to plan on spending at least on weekend day at the park. We have family in Ocala, and visit here often, so we have taken our time and explored each of these aspects of the park on their own.
Have you been to Silver Springs State Park? What were your favorite things about the park? What would you do again? I want to hear from you in the comments section!