When you think of Orlando, you might associate it with thrill rides – but this place, right in the center of the Sunshine State, has remarkable natural assets, too. As the temperatures rise, nothing springs to mind like, well, the springs. Read on to discover our favorites – all within a short distance of Orlando.
Wekiwa Springs State Park
Park, Natural Feature
One of the closest natural springs to downtown Orlando is Wekiwa Springs State Park, a really popular weekend destination for locals. Arrive early to slide into the small parking lot, and be prepared to plant your picnic blanket on whatever tiny patch of grass you can find. And if you roll up to a full parking lot? Don’t despair – head a mile (1.6km) east down to the “island”, a riverside hangout with a bar, food trucks, kayak rentals and plenty of extra parking.
Blue Spring State Park
Natural Feature, Park
Don’t freak out if you feel something bump the bottom of your kayak – it’s doubtless just one of the hundreds of manatees welcoming you to Blue Spring State Park. These protected sea cows aren’t the only beauties you’ll see on a guided cruise up the St Johns River. Florida scrub jays and ospreys are among the many bird species you can expect to fly by to say hi as you explore this lush green expanse, only an hour away from Orlando.
Natural Feature, Park
Bring your tubes to Kelly Park, and the Rock Springs Run will whisk you all the way to the Wekiva River. These waters run a little cooler – roughly 68F (20C) year-round – but that’s nothing that a little between-dips sunbathing won’t resolve. Don’t be afraid to dive right in – snakes and alligators are as good as nonexistent around these parts. And what Kelly Park lacks in wildlife viewing it more than makes up for with supreme serenity as you float around on its untroubled waters.
Silver Springs State Park
There’s no better way to enjoy the crystal-clear waters of Silver Springs State Park than aboard a glass-bottom boat. These are not ideal waters to swim in, but a voyage is very much the next best thing, with on-deck breezes to keep you cool. Alternatively, you can kayak your way down the river for a picnic under the trees at Ray Wayside Park. If you need more shade, step into – and back in time at – the historic Cracker Village pioneer settlement and Silver River Museum, within the park’s campground entrance. It’s a fascinating replica of the 19th-century real thing.
Juniper Springs Recreation Area
If you really need to get away from it all, here are 7mi (11km) of splendor and solitude. All you need is a canoe, and you can paddle down the Juniper Run at the Juniper Springs Recreation Area. Here in the Ocala National Forest, hundreds of bubbling springs gently sway the otters, alligators and turtles floating through the water. And if you don’t like water? Get a view of the Juniper Run from the ground by hiking an interpretive trail through the Juniper Prairie Wilderness.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Mind the manatees as you paddle your way through Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. These beautiful beasts – gently reminiscent of walruses, crossed with your favorite dog – are the main allure for visitors to the site of the deepest freshwater cave system in the USA. There are also performing mermaids, who cavort beautifully. Try to slot in a visit between your wilderness cruise and slipping down the slides at Buccaneer Bay.
This slice of pure Florida paradise is privately owned, but, given the cheap admission rates, you’re guaranteed an amazing weekend getaway with your mates. All the gear – snorkels, scuba kit, tubes, canoes and kayaks – is here, and it’s all for rent, so you need only bring a swimsuit. Rent out the three-bedroom Ginnie Cottage for the weekend – it’s got two bathrooms and three bedrooms and can sleep up to eight guests. Alternatively, camp like a champ on a primitive site on the shores of the springs or river.
Rainbow Springs State Park
The 100mi (160km) trek from downtown Orlando to Ginnie Springs is well worth the effort – you’re heading to a spring that’s drawn visitors for more than 10,000 years. Unclouded sapphire waters maintain a cool 72F (22C) temperature, so you can soak in comfort, whatever time of year you’re here. No need to hike for miles to see nature’s finest – hunker down in a kayak, and you can glide past jungle waterfalls and aquatic forests. Alternatively, go tubing or snorkeling – however you approach it, this is nature to be up close with.
This is an updated version of an article originally written by Elena Alston.
Looking for more recommendations? There’s plenty of things to keep you busy, from exploring the most beautiful gardens in Orlando to enjoying natural wonders such as the best beaches around. Make a weekend of it, and bring the whole family along; the kids will enjoy swimming with dolphins while these unusual things to do will keep everyone else entertained. If you’d rather keep the activities to a minimum, then you can enjoy a delicious meal at one of the best restaurants in Orlando.
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