Tour guide Patrick Vnuk and I hopped aboard a couple of mountain bikes to explore Silver Springs State Park, Florida’s first tourist attraction. Well-known for its glass bottom boats that glide the Silver River for 30-minute tours, or 90-minute excursions on the weekends, guests are welcome in the park from 9 a.m. to sunset, 365 days a year. Silver Springs’ claim to fame is the largest artesian spring in the world and has renowned natural beauty. It was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1971.
Originally opened in the 1870s, the park has ebbed and flowed with activities. Once the grounds offered a zoo of bears, giraffes and more, but these have been moved to other facilities to focus on the area’s natural wonders. The amusement park-type rides also are gone, and a state concessionaire operates the park, overseen by the Department of Environmental Protection.
The park is comprised of more than 230 acres and there are plenty of ways to enjoy central Florida’s bounty. In addition to glass bottom boats, kayak, canoe and bike rentals appeal to the do-it-yourself-ers and the athletically inclined. Hiking the upland trails also is encouraged. “Recent burns have promoted the success of wildflowers, cottontail rabbits, bobwhite quail, great horned owls and if you are lucky you may even spot some newly antlered white-tailed deer and does with fawns,” said the park ranger.
Wild blueberries, sawgrass palmettos, various pines and majestic live oaks are among the flora one might see. Signage or your tour guide can enhance the experience with more information. Guide Vnuk shared history of the park as well as ecosystem details. A sinkhole is among the special sights; it is a depression or hole in the ground caused by some form of collapse of the surface layer. (See my slide show for a sampling of the bike tour and the park’s beauty).
About 15 miles of color-coded upland trails are open to cyclists, from adults to youths. Sugar sand makes mountain bikes the preferred bike of choice. However, a couple of miles of paved trails within the Silver Springs park area also are open to cycling, provided cyclists use good judgment. Late afternoons or weekday mornings, when the park is not brimming with sightseers and children, are better for pedaling in this area — and enjoying the gardens and water views. Additionally, a snack bar with ice cream, baked goods and fudge is available. These treats might just be the thing to enjoy after a good workout. Or, if you built up a bigger appetite, visit the on-site restaurant for made-to-order sandwiches, chicken salad wraps, vegan and vegetarian options, hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken strips, fresh salads and daily specials.
The cost of admission to Silver Springs is $8 per car, up to eight people, $5 for single occupancy vehicle, $4 launch fee per paddle craft and $2 for those who enter by walking or bicycle. Centrally located between Orlando and Gainesville, the park’s main entrance is located on State Road 40, east of Ocala at 1425 NE 58th Avenue, Ocala, FL 34470. The camping entrance is located on State Road 35, or Baseline Road, south of State Road 40.
For more information or to book a bike, kayak or canoe tour, call 352-236-7148 or visit www.floridastateparks.org/park/Silver-Springs. For more things to do and see in the Ocala area, visit http://www.ocalamarion.com or the links below.