Jump in, the water's fine
When the weather outside cools down, and people's minds begin to turn to outdoor activities, most people head to the beach. But Central Florida is also home to lots of great freshwater springs with crystal-clear (and at 72 degrees year-round, very refreshing) waters, perfect for snorkeling, scuba diving, boating and swimming. The springs are gorgeous and tend to attract a crowd on weekends, so arrive early for a good spot. Below is a list of springs close enough for a day trip from the Orlando area. Most of them are located in state parks, so visit www.floridastateparks.org for more information.
1. Alexander Springs Recreation Area
49525 County Road 445, Altoona
Its main attraction is scuba diving, but the recreation area also offers the 1.1-mile Timucuan Trail and a 67-unit campground. It may not have any electrical, water or sewer hook-ups, but there are hot showers, which make the 'roughing it' part a bit more enjoyable.
2. Blue Spring State Park
2100 W. French Ave., Orange City
This is the largest spring on the St. Johns River, and the park is also a designated manatee refuge. Although Blue Spring is a haven for swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers alike, the waters are reserved only for manatees from mid-November through March.
3. De Leon Springs State Park
601 Ponce De Leon Blvd., De Leon Springs
Rent a canoe or kayak and explore 18,000 acres of lakes, creeks and marshes. The Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant, located just inside the park, offers make-your-own pancakes on Colonial-style griddles. Get there early on weekends to avoid waiting for a table.
4. Rock Springs Run State Reserve
State Road 46, Sorrento
You can't swim here, but the reserve contains more than 17 miles of trails for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding. Primitive campsites are accessible by canoe only, and guided trail rides and horse rentals are also available. This one's for the most adventuresome day-trippers.
5. Wekiwa Springs State Park
1800 Wekiwa Circle, Apopka
Located only 20 minutes north of Orlando, this is the most well-known and easily accessible spring for area residents — which also means it can get very busy; so much so that the park sometimes turns people away when it gets too full. The campground is currently closed while undergoing improvements, but the rest of the park is open and boasts picturesque vistas, a sandy beach entrance into the springs and a large, grassy picnic area.
If you're up for a longer trip, there are plenty more springs to check out (see below), and most offer overnight camping and cabin accommodations, so you can make an overnight — or even a long weekend — out of your visit.
6. Ellie Schiller Homosassa
Springs Wildlife State Park
4150 S. Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa
One hour and 45 minutes west of Orlando This park is home to various native-Floridian endangered species. Flamingos rest on the banks and ospreys nest in the treetops while resident manatees gather underwater. Take a pontoon boat ride and catch sightings of a Florida panther named Don Juan.
7. Ginnie Springs Outdoors
5000 N.E. 60th Ave., High Springs
Two hours north of Orlando
Something of a haven for the college crowd, Ginnie Springs is known for its tube floats and underwater cave-diving. You can bring a floating cooler along for your beer, play a game of beach volleyball and have a cookout at one of the riverside campsites.
8. Rainbow Springs State Park
19158 S.W. 81st Place Road, Dunnellon
One hour and 45 minutes northwest of Orlando
With private pavilions and barbecue grills, this spring is great for gatherings. Hop on a tube for a two-hour float down the Rainbow River. The campground is newly renovated and the Butterfly Garden makes for a scenic walk.
9. Salt Springs Recreation Area
14152 State Road 19 North, Salt Springs
One hour and 40 minutes north of Orlando
Located in the Ocala National Forest, the park is named after a natural mineral spring situated between the St. Johns and Ocklawaha Rivers. This makes for great boating and fishing. Year-round camping is available, but make sure to reserve your spot at least four days in advance.
10. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill
Two hours west of Orlando
As the only spring-fed waterpark in Florida, the attraction-packed Buccaneer Bay boasts riverboat cruises, animal shows and thrill-seeking rides. But what really sets this park apart are the real-life underwater mermaid shows.
The sweltering summer heat has finally taken a hiatus, which means it's the perfect time to head outdoors — and a great time to spend some time at the beach. Orlando may be landlocked, but luckily, we've got multiple beaches within a couple of hours drive from home.
Beaches on the Gulf coast are a bit of a haul, but a two-hour drive can take you to the pure-white sands of Clearwater Beach (A), where vendors sell nautical trinkets and jewelry from booths set up along a wooden fishing pier. A little farther south but still just about two hours away is the more densely populated St. Pete Beach (B), lined with oversized oceanfront resorts and restaurants.
To get to the closest beaches on the Atlantic coast, take I-4 east to the end and you'll land at Daytona Beach (C), one of the more lively (and tourist-driven) coastal offerings — think spring-break-minded crowds and biker-beach bars. For wider, more secluded sands and a taste of history, try the shores of St. Augustine Beach (D), just to the north. Surfers and sharks swim side-by-side in New Smyrna Beach (E) (read 'Deadliest Catch,' page 49), where, for a mere $5, you can drive and park your car on the beach. For the more adventuresome beachgoer, park at lot number five at Canaveral National Seashore (F) ($3 entry fee per person) and experience the awe (or eew) of a nude beach. The closest ocean shoreline from Orlando (about an hour east of the city) is Cocoa Beach (G), which boasts a large restaurant-and-retail-filled pier, the 'world-famous' Ron Jon Surf Shop and Coconuts on the Beach, a staple for frozen tropical drinks. Each of these beach destinations offers something a little different, but all promise what you're looking for: sun, sand and a view of the water. Little tiki umbrella included, we hope.
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