Scattered north, northeast and northwest of Orlando, Florida’s natural springs are something of a well-kept secret. Unless you live in the Sunshine State, you may not know about these scenic swimming holes or why they’re best visited in the summertime.
Averaging 70 degrees, the springs certainly provide a necessary counterpoint to Orlando summer temperatures. Here, you can accomplish more than just getting your feet wet; many of these stunning, meditative sites allow canoeing, kayaking, paddling, snorkeling and tubing — the deepest even feature scuba and cavern diving.
The warmest and shallowest springs provide the heartwarming sight of endangered manatees, and the surrounding environs — a range of diverse ecosystems — feature trails filled with wildlife. In fact, these refuges generally crisscross the Great Florida Birding Trail, and are designated with all kinds of state and national statuses for heritage and history.
The following springs and spring runs are among those closest to Orlando-area resorts like Grand Beach, Cypress Pointe Resort and Mystic Dunes Resorts and Golf Club — any of which make an excellent base for your Orlando family vacation.
Near the Rivers
Wekiwa Springs State Park is the closest spring to downtown Orlando. As a result, it has become immensely popular with locals since it was first discovered in 1860. Here, the crystalline blue-green waters of the spring, which average four feet deep, are always 72 degrees.
At about half an acre in size, the swimming and snorkeling areas of Wekiwa can become crowded, so it’s best to arrive early in the day. Surrounding the springs are 25 miles of hiking, biking and horseback trails that allow you to get your blood pumping and spot wildlife, ranging from multitudes of birds to bobcats to the Florida black bear. If you want to paddle or fish, head to the impossibly gorgeous Rock Springs Run State Reserve or the Wekiwa (also spelled Wekiva) River, which is the larger body of water that Wekiwa Springs feeds.
Also a refreshing 72 degrees, Blue Spring in Blue Spring State Park is known for the nearly 500 manatees that reside there in the winter. Along with 29 other groundwater springs, Blue Spring helps support the St. Johns River, a federally designated National Wild and Scenic River.
The spring provides a launchpad for a variety of activities, from swimming to scuba diving to tubing. As with Wekiwa Springs, fishing is only allowed in the river. Paddlers can rent kayaks and canoes at St. Johns River Cruises concession. Or, for another relaxing riverside excursion, consider booking a narrated boat tour to learn about the area’s history.
While hiking along the Pine Island hammock trail, birding and wildlife spotting are also popular pastimes. Note: Because of its manatee refuge status, the spring section of the park closes to human water-related activity from November through March; it’s also worth keeping in mind that the park fills up fast during the summer, particularly on weekends. Be prepared to potentially wait in line to enter via vehicle if you’re visiting on a busy weekend.
Into the Woods
Alexander Springs is a first magnitude spring, meaning that it is among the largest in the region. The pool it forms sits in the Ocala National Forest, and the spring run meanders for a lengthy eight miles until it joins the St. Johns River.
The distinct and unique setting — it’s the only first magnitude spring in the Orlando area — makes Alexander Springs seem like a lake, rimmed by trees on one side and a sandy beach on the other. Formally called the Alexander Springs Recreation Area, the site allows both swimming and scuba diving. A concession rents kayaks and canoes, and hiking on the one-mile Timucuan Trail takes you through an intriguing floodplain.
About 75 minutes from the heart of Orlando, De Leon Springs, like Alexander Springs, is circular in nature and varies in depth. The waters are as shallow as 18 inches and as deep as 30 feet in the middle of the basin. Formerly called “Acuera,” or “Healing Waters,” by the region’s Timucua Indians, the springs have both natural and industrial history: John James Audubon visited and wrote about them in the 1830s, and the spring run became the site of the area’s first sugar mill. You can view some of the original construction from this now-defunct building as artifacts, which are kept in the De Leon Springs State Park‘s Sugar Mill Restaurant.
Swim, snorkel and scuba dive in the spring, but not in Spring Garden Run (think: alligators and boat motors). However, you can paddle or fish in the run, which connects to St. Johns River and to nearby Lake Woodruff, a national wildlife refuge. You can also book an eco-tour on the pontoon Acuera and watch raptors and wading birds fish for meals while listening to Fountain of Youth myths.
To round out a day of family fun on the water, return to Grand Beach in time for sunset on Lake Bryan or a final waterslide ride at Cypress Pointe. Whatever Diamond Resorts property you choose for your Orlando Florida vacation, amenities galore will inspire and recharge you for discovering another Instagram-worthy spring the very next day.