In April, we went on a 17 day camping adventure. We have been anticipating this trip for a while so we begun the journey with a feeling of exuberance. We stayed at five different campgrounds in three states. Over the next few weeks, I will share where we went and what we did. Our first stop was Silver Springs State Park located on the east side of Ocala, Florida.
Silver Springs was Florida’s first tourist attractions. As far back as the 1820‘s, after Florida was acquired from Spain, hardy adventure seekers poled flat-bottom boats from the St. Johns River up the Ocklawaha River and into the 4½ mile long Silver River to admire the natural oasis that was to become Silver Springs.
After the Civil War, the popularity of Silver Springs exploded. Steamboats replaced the pole boats and by the end of 1879 the first railroad came to Ocala. Around that time, two ingenious entrepreneurs had the brilliant idea to put glass on the bottom of a rowboat. With the amazing clarity of the spring water, the glass-bottom boat provided a vivid window into an intriguing underwater world.
Silver Springs is not just one spring, but rather 30 springs discharging approximately 500 million gallons of water every day. It is one of the largest first-magnitude springs in the United States. The biggest opening in the springs, called Mammoth Spring, is located just out from the boat docks and visitor center. This one vent is estimated to discharge nearly half of all the spring water that form the Silver River.
I live in Florida, but I am originally from Ohio. My first visit to Florida was in December of 1962. My paternal grandparents had moved to Ocala after they retired. Soon after, my mom and dad decided to visit them, so they loaded up my brother and I in the backseat of the family car. It was a miserable experience. My brother and I often traded punches as we tried to protect our space. “You boys better straighten up and quit fighting before your father has to stop this car” our mother would say. I am not sure how my dad managed the twenty-four hours of nonstop driving over bumpy highways with two restless young boys in the backseat.
A couple of days after we arrived, my grandparents took us to Silver Springs. In those days, no trip to Florida was complete without visiting Silver Springs. I don’t remember too much of that visit except for the ride on the glass-bottom boat and learning that the Tarzan movies and Sea Hunt, a popular television show, were made there. Those were two of my favorite shows to watch on television at the time.
The row boats were replaced long ago with bigger glass-bottom boats that held twenty people or more. I remember looking through the glass to see schools of fish swimming pass. It was the first time I saw a prehistoric looking gar fish with its long slender body and mouth full of teeth. Largemouth bass swam in and out of the tall eelgrass that moved in the current like hula dancers. A Native American dugout canoe rest on the bottom and a little further away we saw remnants of a sunken row boat that our tour guide said was left by Spanish explorers two centuries ago.
Along the river bank, alligators lay motionless, turtles sunned themselves on a log, and high above in the Spanish moss draped trees, monkeys swung from limb to limb. That’s right, rhesus macaque monkeys have flourished at Silver Springs since a small troop was released by a boat captain in the 1930’s. For a kid, it was the coolest experience ever. I was amazed. It was a real life jungle and it left a lasting impression. Eighteen months later we would move to Florida.
In the 1970’s, with the emergence of places like Disney World, Sea World and later, Universal Studios, Silver Springs saw less and less tourist and the park struggled to attract out-of-state visitors. In 1993 the 242 acre park was purchased by the State of Florida to preserve its history and prevent future development. In 2013 Silver Springs was merged with the adjacent Silver River State Park and the entire park was renamed Silver Springs State Park.
The campground, located in what was Silver River State Park, has spacious sites with water and electric hookups. We were there for four nights with a group of friends and found plenty of activities to do as a group as well as on our own. There are trails for hiking and biking. One morning we accompanied another couple for a walk on the River Trail, a 2.1 mile loop through the river hammocks with views of the Silver River.
On another day we took an afternoon bike ride on the sinkhole trail, a 2.5 mile dirt trail through the trees that circles a large sinkhole.
There is a museum, The Silver River Museum and Environmental Education Center, that serves the local school system. School bus loads of children come to learn about nature and the environment. It is open to the public on weekends and when school is not in session. We enjoyed our visit to the museum. For a two dollar admission we learned all about the area’s history from prehistoric to present day and saw lots of old artifacts such as arrowheads and pottery. Archeologists excavated mammoth bones from the bottom of the Silver River in the 1970’s. A mammoth skeleton is the prominent feature at the museum.
Near the museum is Cracker Village, a 19thcentury replica of a settlement representing what life was like in Florida back in the old days. Tours are given on the 2nd and 4th Saturday of the each month. We walked around the village and admired the buildings from the outside, but we were there on the 3rd Saturday, so we didn’t get to see the inside of any of them.
The famous glass-bottom boats are a 2½ to 3 mile hike on the Spring Trail from the campground. Most campers who want to visit that section of the park usually drive around to the main parking lot. That is also where the park’s second most popular activity starts from — the canoe and kayak rentals and boat launch.
We rented a kayak and spent a good part of a day paddling the Silver River with our group of friends. We passed glass-bottom boats filled with tourists. The water was so crystal clear. We saw several manatees swim under our kayaks. We paddled pass alligators just feet from our boat and we saw the monkeys. Yep, a park ranger told me they estimate about four hundred monkeys occupy the park. We found a place along the river with a picnic table where we stopped to have lunch. The paddle back upstream was strenuous and gave us quite the workout. It’s possible to arrange for a shuttle to take you back to the launch site, but we opted to paddle it down and back.
On another day, we drove out of the park to the World Equestrian Center. Located on nearly 400 acres west of Ocala, it is a world class complex with an expo center, indoor and outdoor arenas, state of the art stables and superb accommodations for both competition participants and spectators. While we were there, we saw a car show at the expo center and we saw Texas A&M, Ohio State, Auburn, and Georgia compete in the National Collegiate Equestrian Championship.
We certainly enjoyed our time at Silver Springs State Park and have already booked another visit for next year. It is always a difficult park to get into without making reservations well in advance.
From here we leave our friends and head north — away from our home state — for more adventure. We are excited and happy to be out traveling again.
So until next time…Happy days and safe travels.