Natural Springs Near Orlando
Moving to Florida just over a year ago, I was sure that I’d spend all my spare time at the beach or enjoying the theme parks. I soon discovered that there are plenty of ways to have fun without rubbing shoulders in the crowded touristy areas. Florida boasts plenty of state parks, outdoor adventures, and natural springs many of which are within a couple of hours drive of the Orlando area. Here’s a list of my favorite natural springs near Orlando
1. Wekiwa Springs State Park
Location: Approximately a 45-minute drive north of Orlando. The entrance to Wekiwa Springs State Park is located between I-4 and 429 making this natural spring near Orlando easily accessible if you are visiting any of the major attractions. Use this address to navigate to the parking lot.
When to visit: Any time of the year will offer a pleasant paddle at Wekiwa Springs State Park. A visit during the winter months (November-March) has the potential to be a bit cooler with less of a crowd. During the summer, this natural spring is the perfect spot to cool off which means it could potentially reach capacity. Also, be aware that during the spring months you are more likely to see alligators. Keep your distance and do not disturb them.
Arrival: The park is open every day of the year starting at 8 am. Since this park tends to be busy during the summer months, arrive early for a parking spot! Also, Wekiwa Springs is a state park, so you’ll be required to pay an entrance fee of $6 per vehicle. Consider purchasing a Florida State Parks pass if you plan to visit multiple state parks throughout the year.
Activities: Wekiwa Springs is known for its large swimming hole that is fed from the natural spring below. Like any other spring, the water temperature hovers around 72 degrees year round. Camping, fishing, hiking and a beautiful picnic area are other great amenities this state park offers.
Paddling: It is possible to launch your own vessel from the kayak rental area. When I recently paddled, there was no extra fee. Be aware that the walk from the parking lot to the boat launch is a fair distance (still doable, but not close). Renting a kayak can be done at the concession stand. Prices start at $25 for a single kayak or canoe while a double kayak or standup paddleboard will be $30. Check out the rental website for more information.
Route: Paddling from the natural spring towards Wekiva Island is probably the most popular route. It will take approximately 30 minutes to reach Wekiva Island. Once there you’ll be able to get out of your kayak and enjoy some drinks and food. Your return trip will require a bit more work since you’ll be paddling against the current. Allow yourself about an hour to return to the launch point.
Points of interest: Wekiva Island is a must visit during this trip. On the weekends, especially during the summer, the island turns into a huge beach party. Plan some extra time to enjoy a drink or two with some Florida locals. To exit your kayak, paddle just past the island and take the first right. Just past Wekiva Island’s
Another option: As mentioned above, it is also possible to rent a vessel at Wekiva Island. I have not had the opportunity to launch from this location, but more information can be found at the Wekiva Island website.
2. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Location: This natural spring near Orlando is approximately 2 hours west of the attractions as well as just north of Tampa. You can put this address into your GPS.
When to visit: My favorite time to visit this natural spring is during the winter months (November-March) due to the potential to see manatees along the run. The summer is still a wonderful time to paddle, but you will end up fighting crowds of people especially on weekends and holidays.
Arrival: It’s important to plan this trip ahead of time. The Weeki Wachee river is well protected, therefore they only allow a limited number of kayaks to launch per day. Visit the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park website to book
Activities: Aside from the paddling, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park also offers many other activities including a waterpark complete with multiple slides, a lazy river, wildlife demonstrations, and even a mermaid show! Weeki Wachee is well known for its underwater viewing theatre mermaid show that dates back to the 40s. Also, if you still want to get out onto the water, but paddling isn’t for you then check out the river boat tours that head out every 45 minutes throughout the day. You might even see a manatee!
Paddling: You are able to launch your own vessel here, but take note that they will NOT transport a personal kayak or paddleboard back to the starting point. This is why I must also do this paddle with another person. If you are a group of two or more, you can send one person in the shuttle back to retrieve the car. If you rent a kayak from them then your shuttle is included and the bus runs continuously throughout the day. It is a short drive back to the rental shop so having to wait is not a huge hassle. Prices per kayak are $40 for a single or $60 for a double. More information can be found here.
Route: Kayaking down the Weeki Wachee river is literally breathtaking, especially if you haven’t witnessed the crystal clear water that empties from a natural spring. This is a point to point paddle meaning that you will start just downstream from the Weeki Wachee spring and float with the current. The run is approximately 5.5 miles and will take about 3-4 hours. Plan to stop at the multiple sand beaches along the way for a snack. There are also a couple of rope swings and deeper spots to take a dip in. As you approach the end of your paddle, there will be a few forks in the road. Continue to stay left to make your way to Roger’s Park (the pick-up point). You’ll exit to the left of the park where the shuttle crew will take care of your kayak.
Points of interest: The first hour or so of the paddle should be taken slowly because of its beauty. As you paddle back towards civilization, the water will become slightly less clear. There is, however, a highlight towards the end of the paddle called Hospital Hole. This is a deep sinkhole towards the left side of the river that is known to be a manatee hotspot. If you find this location, pull off and just float. If there are manatees, they will come up for air every so often and it’s a much more enjoyable experience (for you and them) if you just float. Remember that you are in their habitat and NEVER harass or touch a manatee.
Local Restaurants: After you are finished kayaking the Weeki Wachee river, grab a bite to eat at one of the many local restaurants. Just as you exit the river at Roger’s Park, there is a tall building to your right along the water called Upper Deck. They have amazing food and great prices! Also, check out Becky Jack’s for their unique ambiance and delicious food. You’ll see this small joint on your way back in the shuttle.
Be sure to check out my more in-depth post: Kayaking Weeki Wachee
3. Blue Spring State Park
Location: Another relatively close natural spring near Orlando, Blue Spring State Park is about 45 minutes north of downtown. Just off of I-4, this spring is very easy to get to and is one of the more popular springs to visit. Use this address to find your way.
When to visit: Blue Spring is one of the best places to view manatees during the winter months (November-March) when these large herbivores take refuge in the warmer spring water. There is a viewing path parallel to the spring so that guests can see upwards of 100s of manatees huddle for warmth. During the winter, the spring is closed to swimmers and paddlers in order to provide a safe sanctuary to the manatees. In the summer, however, this spring is a popular spot to grab an inner tube and float.
Arrival: As with the other springs, arrive early for a parking spot because of Blue Spring’s popularity both in the winter and summer. This is another Florida State Park so you’ll need to pay an entrance fee of $6 per vehicle. The park is open at 8 am until sundown, 365 days a year.
Paddling: Paddling in the spring itself can be tough because the run is usually filled to the brim with tubers. The good news is that Blue Spring feeds into the beautiful St. John’s River. Paddling just outside the spring means that the water won’t be as clear, but there are other perks. There is an abundance of wildlife so keep your eyes peeled for alligators, sandhill cranes and other birds of prey. You can bring your own kayak or rent one at St. John’s River Cruises.
Tubing: As mentioned before, this spring is a perfect place to float with the current in a tube. Bring your own or rent from the concession stand for a few dollars. Put your tube in at the start of the run and float leisurely for about 1/8 of a mile. Then simply get out at one of the docks and make the 10-minute walk back to the beginning. Loads of people bring along their goggles and flippers to explore the spring’s mouth.
Route: There isn’t a set route for this paddle. Launch your kayak from the park and take your time paddling around the river. As mentioned before, you won’t be able to paddle all the way into the spring because of the people tubing.
Points of interest: The mouth of the spring is an amazing opportunity to understand just how much water these natural springs feed into the Florida waterways. The force of the spring is so strong that it requires a bit of effort to dive down. Aside from swimming, check out other great ways to spend the day at Blue Spring here!
4. Rainbow Springs State Park and Rainbow River
Location: Rainbow Springs State Park is approximately 1.5 hours northwest of Orlando via the Florida Turnpike. Located in Dunnellon, you can use this address to navigate to the headspring in the state park.
When to visit: This natural spring near Orlando is a perfect place to cool off during the summer. The park will get busy during weekends and holidays, so arrive early to secure a spot. The winter can still be an ideal time to visit due to less of a crowd.
Arrival: Rainbow Springs State Park is where the headspring is located. This is essentially a huge swimming area that is surrounded by plenty of space to picnic, walk the trails and it even boasts a concession stand. There is no fee for parking, but when you arrive at the entrance it’ll be a $2 fee per person to get into the swimming and garden area.
Paddling: You can launch your vessel from inside the park, but be aware that you can not drive down to the water to unload. Plan to walk your boat a fair distance to the boat ramp. Kayak rentals are available inside the park as well as multiple other places along the Rainbow River including Rainbow River Canoe and Kayak and Rainbow River Kayak. Check their websites for more information. I have not paddled this river
Tubing: Tubing down the Rainbow River is a very popular activity during the summer months. Check out KP Hole County Park for a great place to rent tubes and start your float. It is $10 to rent one of their tubes that include a return shuttle or $7 to put in your personal float and utilize their shuttle service. Tubing and shuttle service is available from May 1st until September 30th starting at 8 am.
The route: The Rainbow River is fed from the headsprings in the state park. This means that the water remains crystal clear for a few miles. The entire float will take approximately 4 hours from KP Hole till the exit point right next to Swampy’s Bar and Grill. Keep your eyes peeled during the entire float to see an abundance of wildlife including gators, birds, and even otters. The last time I floated, I brought my goggles and stuck my head under the water at the right moment. I was able to see two otters playing on the bank not far from me!
Points of interest: This whole entire route is absolutely beautiful, but it should be known that a majority of it is through residential areas. I recommend bringing along goggles and flippers so that you can drive down and enjoy the crystal clear water. Also, it should be noted that this river does not allow any alcohol and if you rent from KP Hole they may check your cooler.
Local Restaurants: Definitely check out Swampy’s if you’re hungry after your float. They have great prices and delicious food! Their patio is right next to the water so make sure to sit outside. You’ll probably get a view of more wildlife while enjoying some drinks.
5. Three Sisters Springs
Location: The small town of Crystal River is located about 1.5 hours west of Orlando and the same distance north of Tampa. Within Crystal River is the beautiful Three Sisters Springs. This spring is a bit more residential, but its tranquility is being protected. I’ll highlight both ways to see this spring; by land and by water.
Arrival: There are a few options when navigating to the Three Sisters Springs. If you are interested in seeing the spring from the boardwalk situated along the outer edge of the water then you’ll need to enter by way of the Three Sisters Springs Center. You can not park directly at the entrance so you’ll need to take the trolley from the center in town to the refuge. Check here for the most up to date information on the trolley and schedule. If you’d like to visit the spring by paddling, then you’ll need to either rent or launch your own kayak and paddle to the Three Sisters Springs.
When to visit: The summer months are warm meaning the manatees don’t enter the spring as often. Your chances of seeing a manatee are very low from May-October both by land or water. If you are visiting during this time, you are able to swim and kayak into the spring. During the winter months (November-March) the spring is closed to paddlers since the manatee’s take refuge in its warm waters. Prices to visit the refuge by land along the boardwalk are cheaper during the summer at $7.50 per person and go up to $15 per person during the winter months.
***You can still paddle and swim just outside of the spring in the winter months when the spring is technically closed. Most of the time, manatees are swimming and resting just outside of the spring. This is a great time to visit and Crystal River is the only place in Florida that you are legally allowed to swim with manatees***
Paddling: I highly recommend paddling to this natural spring near Orlando because of its beauty and the chance to get up close to manatees. If you’d like to simply put in your own boat, Hunter Springs Park is a great option. Parking costs $5 for the day and payment is by credit card only. The parking lot is tiny so arrive early for a spot. Another option to launch or rent from is Crystal River Kayak Company. They offer hourly kayak rentals from $25 for 2 hours/single up to $45 for 4hours/single. Check their site for the most up to date information. It is also important to call ahead and reserve a rental during busy weekends and holidays. If you decide to launch your own vessel, it is only a $8 fee.
The route: If you park at Hunter Springs Park, you’ll need to pass Pete’s Pier Marnia on your left and hug the shore on your left. You’ll end up going under an overpass and then continue to paddle straight. From there you’ll see other paddlers hanging around the mouth of the spring. If you decide to paddle from Crystal River Kayak Company, then you simply follow the water. From the launch, it is only a 10-minute paddle and very easy. Either way, once you arrive at the mouth of the spring, you’ll be able to tie up your kayak if you wish to get out and swim.
Things to know: If you rent from Crystal River Kayak Company, you will be required to watch a video on manatee manners. ***The Florida manatees in the United States are protected under federal law by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which make it illegal to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal.*** ALWAYS passively observe manatees and never reach out to touch or interact with them. Another important note is to wear a wetsuit if you plan to enter the water during the winter months. The water remains the same temperature year round (72 degrees), but when the outside temperature is lower it will prevent you from warming up. Crystal River Kayak Company has wetsuits available to rent if you so choose.
Local Restaurants: After your adventure, you will most likely be starving so I suggest grabbing a bite to eat at one of the many local restaurants including a couple of my favorites Cracker’s Bar and Grill or Margarita Breeze. Both are situated right on the water and have large portions for a great price. Enjoy your time exploring one of my favorite areas!