I don’t think there’s any more beautiful place to kayak and swim than the spring-fed rivers of Florida. Crystal clear waters—often an astonishing hue of aquamarine—wind through stands of palms and cypress festooned with Spanish moss. Herons and egrets pick their way across watery fields of lily pads; turtles sun themselves on ancient logs; osprey and hawks sail overhead.
“These springs have healing powers,” said a young man standing on the edge of jewel-like Rainbow Springs, just before diving into the cool, crystalline pool. One thing I know for certain—there’s nothing that soothes my soul like paddling or floating in these magnificent waters.
Florida possesses the largest concentration of freshwater springs on Earth—geologists estimate that close to 1,000 springs burble to the surface, most in the north and central parts of the state. Fed by the Floridan Aquifer—Florida’s underground river—the springs rise through porous limestone labyrinths, thousands of gallons per minute emerging at a refreshing temperature of 72 degrees. The constant year-round temperature provides refuge for the docile manatee, which gravitate to the relatively warm waters of the springs in the cooler winter months.
During hot, sultry Florida summers, the springs are a refuge for people. I’ve spent some of the most splendid days of my life swimming in Wakulla Springs and tubing down the Ichetucknee River. But it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that Eric and I discovered the delights of kayaking Florida’s spring-fed rivers. After our first experience on the Ichetucknee River in 2013, we were hooked—we returned three times that winter and spring to paddle the river. This year we expanded our horizons, and embarked on a kayaking extravaganza in Central Florida, the mother lode of Florida springs.
We booked two weeks at three different parks in early February (all only 50-60 miles apart), and kayaked five different spring-fed rivers—the Wekiva River, Rock Creek, Salt Springs, Alexander Springs, and Rainbow River. Kayaking in Florida is especially wonderful in late winter/early spring, when there are few other people on the rivers. It was a near perfect two weeks—with so many other springs and rivers to paddle in Florida, we’re already planning next year’s adventures.
• Wekiwa Springs State Park, Apopka
Wekiwa Springs State Park is located at Wekiwa Springs, the headwaters for the Wekiva River. (Wekiwa-Wekiva—the spelling difference confuses everyone, even locals.) No matter, it’s a terrific state park, a lovely spring, and a beautiful river for paddling.
We enjoyed the campground for the spacious sites and the miles of excellent hiking and biking trails. The kayak launch, however, is a total pain because you have to carry your kayak down a ridiculously long, steep trail to the river. We opted instead to drive a few miles to Wekiva Island, a very cool “resort” that offers an easy kayak launch site for $5 (they also have kayak rentals), a relaxing place to sit and enjoy the river, and an excellent selection of local brews. We launched twice here, once to paddle the Wekiva River, and another time to paddle the narrow, very shallow jungle-like Rock Creek, which has tea-colored water because of natural tannins.
About the campground:
We really liked Wekiwa Springs campground. The sites are spacious and shady, with partial or full-hookups ($24 for water/electric) and decent Verizon. There’s lots of hiking and biking available in addition to kayaking (the park also offers kayak rentals).
• Salt Springs Recreation Area, Ocala National Forest
Honestly, kayaking Salt Springs isn’t too exciting—it’s a wide river framed by grasses and there’s not a lot of wildlife along the banks. But this is a wonderful place to see manatee, especially right off of the kayak launch area. The gentle giants lolled and rolled all around our kayaks—and we didn’t get one decent photo.
About 25 miles away is Alexander Springs, which turned out to be one of our favorite spring river runs. The springs are a long way from the parking lot, but they graciously provide kayak carts, which made hauling our 70-pound kayak a breeze. Alexander Springs also offers kayak rentals.
About the campground:
There are several campgrounds located near springs in the Ocala National Forest, but Salt Springs is the only one with hookups—full hookups, no less. The sites are spacious and level, many with beautiful oak trees for shade. Verizon worked fine for us. In addition to kayaking, there’s a huge wonderful swimming area walking distance from the campground. The campground is a deal at $19 per night with the Senior Pass, $29 otherwise.
• Rainbow Springs State Park, Dunnellon
Rainbow Springs is considered by many to be one of the best springs in Florida. It’s certainly the most colorful we’ve seen, with waters that are a kaleidoscope of blues and greens. The spring itself is a delight for swimming. We kayaked one mile upstream to the swimming area, and then six miles downstream to the Withlacoochee River, where we conveniently took out at Blue Run of Dunnellon Park (we arranged our own bike/truck shuttle, but there are several kayak outfitters that provide rentals and shuttles).
The Withlacoochee Trail is nearby, and we spent a hot, sweaty day grinding out 24 miles of biking—against the wind both directions, which made it seem more like 200 miles. Still, it was beautiful, and swimming in Rainbow Springs was a rejuvenating reward that afternoon.
About the campground:
Rainbow Springs has spacious, level, sandy sites (most every campground in Florida is sandy) with full-hookups. Good Verizon. The kayak launch is about ¼ mile from the campground. Although the spring is only about a mile from the campground via the river, the only access point by land is a long winding 7-mile drive. But the beautiful springs are well worth a visit, and access is free if you’re staying at the campground.
Next Up: Lovely Historic St. Augustine