When we were staying at Rainbow Springs in Dunellon, we had hoped to get a chance to drive over to Silver Springs State Park but we never had the time. After reading another blogger’s recent post (thanks, Margery & Paul), we decided on Friday (Valentine’s Day) to go there.
It was another glorious day – bright and sunny with temps expected to be in the mid-60’s. On a scale of 1 to 10, this day promised to be at least a 20!
Our route took us from Williston Crossings RV Resort towards Ocala on US-27, then to FL-40. Such pretty countryside around here! No oranges or strawberries but instead lots of sprawling horse farms. Ocala is in Marion County which is one of the major equestrian thoroughbred centers of the world. It has more than 1,200 horse farms, including about 900 thoroughbred farms, totaling some 77,000 acres. According to Wikipedia, Ocala is well known as a “horse capital of the world.” This title is based on the “annual revenue of $2.2 billion produced by the horse industry and the 44,000 jobs are created by the breeding, training and related support of the local equine industry.”
We got a late start but that was okay – it was a bit chilly that morning (in the high 30’s) so our delay allowed the temps to warm up a bit. The drive was only 38 minutes but we stopped at Bob Evans in Ocala for breakfast since we had a Buy One Get One Free (BOGO) Breakfast coupon. We both enjoyed their Sunshine Breakfast which is an open-faced omelet filled with crumbled Bob Evans® Sausage and home fries, topped with country gravy and shredded cheddar cheese. Another healthy choice! Good thing we don’t eat lunch! Once again we couldn’t finish our meals and had leftovers which we had the next morning.
From the restaurant it was only another minute or so to the park. Silver Springs is one of the world’s largest artesian springs, gushing up to 550 million gallons of clear water to form the Silver River, only 4 1/2 miles long, which feeds the Ocklawaha River and eventually the St. Johns. It was one of the first tourist attractions in Florida, becoming a popular tourist destination after the Civil War. It became even more popular after the invention of the glass bottom row boat by Hullam Jones and Phillip Morell which gave tourists a unique and spectacular view of the springs. The boats became equipped with electric motors in 1932.
Over the years, numerous films have been made there including several of the Tarzan movies between 1930 & 1940 with Johnnie Weismuller and The Creature of the Black Lagoon in 1954. Other movies filmed in part there are Rebel Without A Cause, the James Bond film Moonraker and Distant Drums starring Gary Cooper. Between 1954 and 1962, the television series, Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges was filmed there.
The land changed owners several times until in the 1970’s when it became Silver Springs Nature Theme Park with animal exhibits, rides, a jungle cruise and a water park.
In 1985, the state purchased approximately 5,000 acres of undeveloped land around Silver Springs to keep it from being developed, creating the Silver River State Park. Then in 1993, the state purchased Silver Springs Nature Park with the intention of taking it over but decided to let the previous owners continue to operate the attraction under lease. In 2013, the state took control of the park due to declining profits and environmental problems. By merging Silver Springs into Silver River, Silver Springs State Park was created which officially opened to the public on October 1, 2013.
After visiting a few of the “Old Florida” attractions like Rainbow Springs and Silver Springs we realized that while Disney and the Interstate roadways brought prosperity to some parts of Florida, it also took it away from many other areas and drove once thriving landmarks into ruin. Thank goodness the State Park system was able to reclaim some of these beautiful areas for our enjoyment. Another example is Alafia River State Park which is an abandoned phosphate mine that the state has re-purposed as a beautiful campground and recreation area. Here’s to the Florida state park system, please support them in any way you can.
Today’s Silver Springs State Park has two entrances – the Spring side entrance located off SR-40 and the River side entrance located off SR-35 about a mile away. The Spring side is where the head spring is located and features the glass bottom boats, a kayak and canoe launch, a few concession stands and the Twin Oaks Mansion where concerts are held. On the River side, there is a campground, a museum, an education center, a pioneer Cracker Village and numerous biking/hiking trails.
As we walked into the park, passing by the entrance fountain, ahead of us were lovely views of the springs. To the left was a building that hosted the few concessions that are currently back up and running – an ice cream parlor, a restaurant, canoe & kayak rental shop and a stand to buy tickets for the glass bottom boat. It appears that much construction is still in process and that this park will only improve with time.
As we walked around, one of the glass bottom boats left the dock. After a brief discussion, we decided that it might be fun to take the tour especially when we found out there were two boats running with a departure every 15 minutes for an approximately 30 minute tour. After all it was Valentine’s Day and what is more romantic on a beautiful day than a boat ride! Tickets were $10 per person but a 10% senior citizen discount is available.
The next tour was at 1:15 pm but it was only just after 1:00 so we continued to walk along the springs, stopping to watch the fish. Just before 1:15 pm we boarded the boat. We had been told that some of the tour guides had been giving the tours for over 50 years! With benches along each side, the boat probably holds about 20 – 25 people but everyone had a great view looking through the glass in the center. The boats use electric propulsion.
While we waited for our captain we watched some fish and a few turtles float by. How cool! I think we both were a little skeptical, wondering if it would be worth the $18 cost but we were pleasantly surprised.
As we pulled away from the dock, our captain started his spiel. Yep, he most definitely has narrated this ride before but he was quite informative. In between pointing out the different types of fish, birds, turtles and alligators we were seeing, he talked about the history of the springs. Everyone regardless of which side of the boat they were on had a chance to view what he was talking about and take pictures since he would circle the boat around whatever we were looking at.
As we cruised up the river, he would hover over the underwater vents (one of the vents was at least 81 feet deep) and told us that Florida did in fact have snow, not the fall from the sky kind but chips of limestone that would break off due to the force of the water and would spew up from the mouth of the vent.
As we got closer to the dock, he pointed out 7 foot high statues (photo right, the view is looking at the top of the heads of three figures) – these had been used as props during the filming of Sea Hunt and in several of the other movies made there.
We also passed by what he called “the lucky palm – a photo of you with it would give you good luck for 5 years”. Guess it’s considered lucky because it was able to grow all twisty and turny and survived. He told us to be sure to come back in 5 years and let him know if it was true or not.
Shortly after that, we passed by a statue of Osceola on the shore. Our captain explained that in 1836, during the Second Seminole War, Osceola led a small band of warriors in the Seminole resistance, when the United States tried to remove the tribe from their lands in Florida. Osceola led the war resistance until he was captured in September 1837 by deception, when he went to a US fort for peace talks. He died a few months later in prison at Fort Moultrie in Charleston, South Carolina, of causes reported as an internal infection or malaria.
It wasn’t a long cruise but it was well worth the money! Highly recommended! Especially on a sunny day. You will never see this kind of detail from a kayak or other normal surface vessel.
Although the remains of the exhibits are currently off limits to the public, we could view the giraffe house where the giraffes Kimba and Khama, once lived. Born at Silver Springs in 1982 and 1987 respectively, these two giraffes were mates. They died in November, 2011 and December 2012.
Continuing on we passed by Twin Oaks, built in 1997-98 it is a concert stage still in use today. Interesting that the script style used for the lettering on the Twin Oaks sign is virtually identical to the sign for one of our favorite restaurants of the same name back in RI- mmmmm, dreaming of warmer weather back north and that fresh lobster salad plate!
By now we had seen all there was to see at the springs side of the park so we headed over to the river side.
After a short drive to the river side entrance (our previously paid admission covers both entrances), we followed the signs to the campground. Nice big, well maintained sites with plenty of room and privacy in between, definitely a park that we would be interested in staying at some time in the future, particularly since our Florida resident status lets us stay for 1/2 price!
After driving around the campground we followed the map that we were given at the ranger station. It was such a nice day, taking a walk on one of the trails was a must. There are four different trails – Sandhill (1.7 miles), Sinkhole Trail (2.2 miles), River Trail (1.3 miles) and the Swamp Trail (1.9 miles).
We decided to take the Swamp Trail since that crossed over a boardwalk and ended at a lookout point on the Silver River. The walk was quite pleasant, passing through hardwood and palmetto groves. About halfway along the trail, I was questioning why it was called the swamp trail. My question was soon answered when we finally reached the boardwalk which meandered across a swampy area populated by many cypress trees. A short distance ahead the boardwalk ended at an overlook of the Silver River. Very pretty!
We stood there for a bit watching several kayakers paddle by then started the trek back. A short time after we left the boardwalk and were back on the trail, we could hear the rustling of leaves nearby.
Oh, oh, we had seen a sign about the Florida bears but luckily it was just an armadillo. He didn’t seem frightened of us – in fact I don’t think he even noticed us – as we stood and watched him forage under the leaves on the ground searching for beetles and other insects, making little chirping noises. Guess they have very poor eyesight (or just don’t pay attention) because he came within a few inches of my feet. Such a cute little guy!
We passed by the “Cracker Village” which was closed. There weren’t any signs explaining what a Cracker Village was so we weren’t sure if Cracker was a type of architecture or a group of people or what so it was on my list of something to research when we arrived back at the hacienda.
Once we got back to the coach, I googled the term “Florida Cracker” and found varying explanations of the term “cracker” with probably the best one from Crackercountry.org: “Crackers” derive their name from the rugged 19th century pioneers who developed the wild territory now known as Florida. Cattle roamed freely in the Florida woodlands and had to be rounded up before being sold and shipped up north or to Cuba. Lariats, or lassos, didn’t work in the thick underbrush—instead, cow hunters used whips to round them up. The whips were not used to strike the cattle, but were actually popped or “cracked,” resulting in a sound similar to a rifle shot. These cracking whips would get the cattle moving and could be heard over very long distances. When early settlers heard the sound they would say, “Here come the Crackers.” The name has stuck and the term “Florida Cracker” is still used today to describe native born Floridians.”
A very nice day indeed! If you are ever in the area, Silver Springs is definitely worth a visit. Be sure to take a ride on the glass bottom boat!