Kayaking In Spring State Park – Ocala, FL


THE SILVER RIVER HAS A TALE TO TELL

This 5.4-mile exquisite river, lying entirely within the boundaries of Silver Spring State Park, is located in Marion County, Ocala, FL.  It may be considered a short run as paddles go, but it’s long on history, stunning scenery and wildlife.  

Silver Springs, with an outflow of 500 million gallons per day of pristine, clear water, allows Silver River its beauty and appeal for many canoeist and kayakers who place this river at the top of their bucket list.  

A Bit of History

Indians, the Timucuan, inhabited this area 10,000 years ago and hunted Columbian Mammoths.  Europeans began settling here in the 1760s.  After the Seminole Wars and Civil War ended, things settled down a bit in Florida.  In 1878, the first glass bottom boat was constructed for visitors to view this first magnitude spring we call, Silver Springs.  A small zoo and the Ross Allen Reptile Institute was built in 1929, bringing national notoriety to Florida and attracting thousands of visitors annually.

By 1938, a concessionaire, Captain Tooey, operated a Jungle Cruise around the small island in Silver River.  He released a troop of Rhesus monkeys on the island, making it a true “jungle” experience for tourist.  Unbeknownst to Captain Tooey, Rhesus monkeys are superb swimmers.  They quickly escaped their island boundary and have been living the good life along the Silver River and parts of the Ocklawaha River ever since.

Hollywood caught wind of Silver Springs’ popularity and striking beauty.  The park served as the set for Tarzan movies, Creature of the Black Lagoon, The Yearling and others.  Sea Hunt, as well as other TV shows, were also filmed here.

Fortunately, for Silver Springs, the State of Florida understood this national landmark’s importance to our ecosystem and the value of preservation.  Surprisingly, it was not until 1985 when this land was acquired by the State and was officially named a Florida State Park in 1987.

Need to Know Launch Info 

Silver Springs State Park is the ideal place to launch your vessel for this ultimate adventure.  To reach the canoe outpost, stay to the right when parking in the lot.  It’s then a short walk on the trail to your right.  Note, the campground and the actual headsprings are, driving-wise, one mile apart.  You’ll want to drive to the main state park entrance, not the campground.  

For information and pricing on renting a kayak, canoe, paddleboard or booking the park shuttle, check online at https://silversprings.com/paddling/.  You’ll note the link mentions a small fee for launching your own vessel.  If paddling the entire Silver River, the typical take-out point is Ray Wayside Park, located off East Hwy. 40.  There’s a $5 parking fee should you do your own shuttle and leave a car here for the end of your paddle.  

Exploring the River

If you choose to take a brief sweep of the river and don’t have time for the entire run, the Fort King Paddling Trail allows for a laid-back 1.1-mile round-trip loop just beyond the launch area of the state park.  This loop enables visitors to drift around the Ross Allen Island, once the brief home for the Rhesus monkeys.  You may even spot one or two here.  Once around, continue to your right to head back to the state park or turn to your left to continue paddling the Silver River.  

To view the headsprings, however, the 1-mile paddle upstream is well worth the small effort.  The current of the river averages 3 – 5 mph.  Once you launch, instead of doing the Fort King Loop first, continue paddling straight and under the bridge which will give you that upstream paddle to the headsprings.  You won’t want to miss this!  

Crystal-blue waters as far as the eye can see will keep you inspired as you make your way through several spring basins.  Thirty springs with 61 vents gush out 500-million gallons of water/day making up the Silver River as it flows downstream emptying into the Ocklawaha River, a principal Florida river and one of the few in North America that runs south to north.

Paddling over the main spring is an incredible find.  It measures 5’ X 135’ with a depth of 30’.  Forty-five percent of the water flow is discharged from this mammoth spring.  You’ll find it just in front of and beyond the dock that houses a few glass-bottom boats, still in operation, at the state park.

Float around here for a while and enjoy this magnificent underground icy-blue cavern while watching water bubble up from the vents below.  There are several other small springs in this immediate area.  The astounding part of making this trip is the history you’ll discover lying right beneath you!  Take a look around the main spring, you’ll find sunken sculptures, named the Greek Statutes.  These were props used when filming I Spy starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby.  

There are also 6 shipwrecks, a term used loosely here, located along the Silver River.  All but one you’ll find located within the first river-mile from the headspring.  There’s an old Indian dugout canoe, a few old steamboats, as well as a glass bottom rowboat, one of the originals from 1877.  It’s like a scavenger hunt on water, and it’s entertaining to observe who in your party can find these hidden treasures.  This link provides a good map for locating the smaller springs as well as some of these artifacts

As you make your way downstream from the headspring, you can choose to paddle the 1.1-mile Fort King Loop or continue down Silver River.  If taking the time to delve into this gorgeous river, why not explore the Loop.  Remember, this was the original home of the Rhesus monkeys and, believe me, they still like hanging around the island.  From there, continue with your voyage down the river.

Paddling Silver River offers you a true appreciation for nature.  The waters are insanely clear, the scenery spectacular and the wildlife abundant.  

Speaking of Wildlife . . .

We all know alligators garner respect, but encountering monkeys along your way, oh my, may surprise you.  Yes, they are cute, but they’re wild, cantankerous and could literally leave you in a world of hurt.  They also carry diseases which you’d prefer not to happen upon.  

With monkeys along the Silver River, numbering 200 – 300, you’re bound to see them. Keep your eyes peeled for running, jumping or swinging monkeys up in the trees or down among the cypress knees.  Keep your distance.  Your new mantra is, respect the monkey.  I got too close to shore once, not knowing a monkey was sitting behind a tree.  It stepped out, hissed at me, and I’ve never paddled backwards so fast in my life! 

Wildlife officials, state environmentalist and animal activists have been discussing the plight of these monkeys for 40 years.  Their population grows yearly, and while they have caused no imminent danger to date, they’ve become a nuisance to nearby homeowners, and were known to scare the daylights out of some visitors within the state park in 2016.  Ten percent of folks kayaking Silver River have admittedly fed the monkeys which is a recipe for dangerous encounters.  Discussions continue as to what will be a remedy to reduce their population.

What other wildlife may you encounter?  This river has quite a diversity.  Naturally, the occasional gator will be spotted sunning itself along the bank, otters are seen playing hide -n- seek at the water’s edge, water birds, hawks, eagles and owls make their home in this subtropical forest, turtles make the effort to climb upon a floating log only to then dive off because they deemed that canoe got a bit too close, and with the water so clear, you’ll spot a multitude of fish darting about.   

But, if you’re lucky, really lucky, you may encounter a gentle giant.  Come on’, you know what that is – yes, the slow, lumbering, air-breathing, endangered manatee.  They are magnificent to come upon while kayaking.  Again, respect is the name of the game.  They are gentle, but endangered.  Florida law prohibits harassing or touching a manatee.  If you are fortunate to see one, by all means, stop to enjoy and observe this lovely creature.  You’ll experience the thrill of seeing it rise to the surface, take a breath of air, back down it goes, only to flip its tail up towards you as if to say, “hello, nice to meet you.”  Enjoy that National Geographic moment and continue on your way.

The End Lies Ahead

Your trip along this one of a kind, river is almost over.  It’s easy to spot Ray Wayside Park to your left as you wind around one last bend in the river.  Ray Wayside has a hand launch/take-out area for canoes and kayaks separate from the boat ramp.  Getting out of your kayak to stretch your legs, should be a breeze. 

From here you’ll meet the park’s shuttle or head to your own vehicle.  Perhaps you are camping at the state park’s campground or have just come for the day.  Take time to stop back into the state park and have a look around the main park and its campground.  You’ll discover there’s more tales to learn about this impressive area.

Silver Springs State Park and Campground

One of Florida’s first ever tourist destinations, the park now focuses on preservation of its 4,000 acres and vast spring.  The glass bottom boats are still a popular draw for tourist and Floridians alike.  Even if you’ve kayaked the springs, booking a ride on a glass-bottom boat, gives you another perspective, plus the benefit of listening to its captain provide you with all kinds of cool history and stories.  Plan to ride the boat on a sunny day, thus providing the best view through the boat’s glass bottom.   

After your ride, view the gardens and what’s left of the enclosures that once held many of the zoo animals that lived here. There are also a few shops, a casual restaurant and small museum.

Florida State Parks are known for their awesome campgrounds.  This one, located one mile south on SR 35, contains 60 campsites and 9 cabins.  Reservations can be made 11 months in advance at ReserveAmerica.   Hiking trails range from 1 to 5 miles, one of which will take you down to the Silver River.  

Also, on campground property lies, the Cracker Village, a replica of a 19th century pioneer settlement which is available to explore (provided school children are not there on a field trip).  Tours are given the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month at 10 am.  The Village’s buildings are open for those tours.  

The Silver River Museum, adjacent to Cracker Village, is quite remarkable.  It is run in connection with Marion County Public Schools as students are educated on Florida history during 4th grade.  The children make several visits to the Museum and Cracker Village throughout their school year.  

The Museum (open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays) has extensive exhibits dating back to pre-historic times, fossils discovered in the area, Indian artifacts, as well as its giant Columbian Mammoth that towers over all who enter.  Another section of the Museum concentrates on Marion County’s history as well as the days when Silver Springs was alive with movie and TV legends.  You’ll find plenty of old memorabilia showcased. 

Final Thoughts

So, you see Silver River is not just another river to kayak.  It’s a state park, a mammoth spring, a history lesson, an intriguing wildlife habitat and one of the prettiest runs you’ll ever witness.  Our love of nature reminds us to remain respectful of our surroundings, pack it in/pack it out and always keep a safe distance from wildlife.  Most of all, enjoy this incredible river and all it has to offer.

Nancy Ferri

Nancy loves traveling with her kayak and camping wherever life takes her.

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