A swimmer dives into Sweetwater Springs (Credit: David Moynahan)
“I’ve always lived in Florida, and I didn’t realize that we even had springs before I started working here,” says Tonee Davis, a natural resource specialist with Ocala National Forest. “The first time that I saw them I thought, ‘Wow! These are gorgeous.’ The fact that the federal government owns these springs and is protecting them for future generations so that they’re not loved to death is amazing.”
While the springs are an integral part of the state’s ecosystems, they can also serve as great spots for recreation — when treated with respect. The springs were formed when limestone layers in the earth started to break down after millions of years of acidic rain. When the limestone finally dissolved, sinkholes formed and created caves, underground channels and springs from which groundwater flows out to the Earth’s surface. Springs are rated on the amount of water that flows out of them each day — from Eighth Magnitude springs, which release small amounts of water, to First Magnitude springs, which discharge more than 64.6 million gallons a day. Ocala National Forest has two First Magnitude springs.
The springs are popular watering holes for all ages, whether for just floating around on a tube or the more active pursuits of snorkeling and scuba diving. Some people even believe that soaking in the cool springs can fix what ails you. Bob Esposito, who moved from Connecticut to Silver Springs, Florida, just a few miles outside of Ocala National Forest, comes regularly throughout the year to bathe in the springs. “In all honesty, I always feel better when I come out of the water, at least aches and pains wise,” he says.
Each of the springs is a little different and offers distinct opportunities for enjoying the waters. Juniper Springs has a terraced, circular wall surrounding the smaller pool, which is located adjacent to an old mill house and water wheel built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide electricity to the campground. A short walk from Juniper Springs to Fern Hammock
Springs, which is located within the same recreation area though is not open for swimming, offers ideal viewing spots of the boils — areas in the Earth’s crust where the water is gushing out to the surface. These white sandy areas that stand out in the otherwise crystal-blue waters are constantly bubbling and look like sandy magma rising to the surface. Frequent visitors know about the resident alligator, which can usually be safely seen from a raised bridge in Fern Hammock Springs every day, offering a great opportunity to say that you have actually seen an alligator in Florida.
Silver Glen Springs and Alexander Springs, which are both First Magnitude springs, offer much larger swimming areas. Salt Springs, though not considered a First Magnitude spring, is a larger recreation area, too, and is especially popular due to the adjacent campground, which offers full hookups. These springs have a more wide-open, beach-type feel to them. Alexander Springs are the only springs within Ocala National Forest in which scuba diving is allowed.
Canoeing and kayaking are another popular way to explore the more than 600 lakes, rivers and springs in Ocala National Forest. The major springs have runs flowing out of them, including a run out of Silver Glen Springs to Lake George, Florida’s second largest lake. Ocklawaha River and St. Johns River, which both flow north, border the boundaries of the forest and also offer plenty of water activities.