ICHETUCKNEE SPRINGS STATE PARK — In the summer of 1539, the conquistador Hernando de Soto and several hundred men lumbered up the Florida peninsula and stopped by this spring-fed river to rest.
They had to be hot and tired after months on the trail and probably welcomed a respite in the cool, clear water. Given the choice of continuing into the unknown wilderness, or staying put and chilling out by the creek, more than one Spaniard probably chose the latter.
Forget gold. Freshwater springs are this land's true treasures.
Florida has more than 600 freshwater springs. Some are small — barely noticeable — while others are big enough to feed a river. Back in the 1800s, the state's first towns popped up around the most popular watering spots, including Ocala near Silver Springs, Jacksonville near Green Cove Springs, and Daytona Beach, northeast of De Leon Springs. Today, while some springs are privately owned, there are dozens still held in the public trust, and most still serve as old-fashioned swimming holes on a hot summer's day.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
For decades, the Ichetucknee has been a favorite getaway for students at the nearby University of Florida. Just walk down the path from the parking lot to the first of several springs and the air suddenly feels 10 degrees cooler. All together, nine springs pump 233 million gallons of crystal-clear water into the Ichetucknee River, which then flows south into the Sante Fe and Suwannee rivers. Right off the main parking lot at the north entrance to the park you will find Head Spring, which has a bluish hue that makes it particularly appealing.
The average depth is 8 feet, but experienced snorkelers with strong legs and good lungs can drop down to 25 feet. The numerous shallow areas make this an ideal place for families with small children. From the headspring, a half-mile hiking trail leads to Blue Hole, a first-magnitude spring (one that discharges at least 100 cubic feet of water per second) that measures about 75 feet by 120 feet. The water is exceptionally clear and deep (about 35 feet) with a strong current, which can be intimidating for inexperienced swimmers.
But the big draw at this state park is tubing. If you start your trip early you stand a good chance of seeing one of the river's more entertaining residents, the North American river otter. These playful creatures can weigh up to 45 pounds and can measure 4 feet long.
After Labor Day, things quiet down a bit. Visit the river and springs on a weekday and you might have the water all to yourself.
Ocala National Forest
When the naturalist William Bartram passed through Florida in the late 1770s, he stopped by a spring in the middle of a forest and had, what might be called, a religious experience.
"...in front, just under my feet, was the enchanting and amazing crystal fountain, which incessantly threw up, from dark, rocky caverns below, tons of water every minute...," Bartram recounted in his book, Travels.
The spring, he noted, flowed for more than 6 miles into a nearby lake, which is why he named it Six Mile Springs.
"This amazing and delightful scene, though real, appears at first but as a piece of excellent painting," he noted. "... There seems no medium; you imagine the picture to be within a few inches of your eyes, and that you may without the least difficulty touch any one of the fish, or put your finger upon the crocodile's eye, when it really is twenty or thirty feet under water."
Swing by Salt Springs today and the water is just as clear as it was when Bartram travelled through Ocala National Forest nearly 250 years ago. Go for a dip and you too might be moved to the put together prose worthy of an 18th century romantic.
This spot has been called the "Oasis of the Ancients," because archeological evidence shows that the spring was once a gathering point for Indians from all over what is now the Southeast United States.
The forest, about two hours north of Tampa, has several great swimming holes as well. Juniper Springs, which feeds a run that has been called the best paddle in Florida, is perhaps the best of the bunch.
Back during the Great Depression, when poor, tired men came to the forest to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps, the springs hadn't changed much since Bartram's time. So the men built roads, campgrounds, picnic areas, and to help run it all, a water-powered millhouse.
The old structure is still there, although it no longer generates electricity. But after months of swimming in the bath-like waters of the Gulf of Mexico, you'll feel like you got a jolt when you dive off the mill steps into that 72-degree water.
Afterward, head out on a hike or rent a canoe for the 7-mile trip down Juniper Run, a waterway that starts in the swamp but ends up in the "Big Scrub" that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote about in The Yearling.
Be sure not to miss Alexander Springs, about 30 miles southeast of Ocala, another great swimming hole that offers canoeing as well as good scuba diving.
The forest is far too big to see in one day. In fact, you could spend a week in this part of the state and never run out of things to do.
That's what the old-timers call the Rainbow River, a pristine system about two hours north of Tampa that has 6 miles of gin-clear water just waiting for swimmers, snorkelers and tube riders eager to cool off.
For more than 100 years, this creek, named for the deep-blue hue of the water, has been a magnet for tourists and locals alike. The first inhabitants followed game to this watering hole 10,000 years ago. Archeologists have found numerous prehistoric animal bones in the river as well as tools made by these stone-age hunters.
At the time of De Soto's march, the land around what is now Rainbow Springs State Park was inhabited by Timucua Indians led by a chief named Ocale, whose name would lend itself to the modern city of Ocala. The first pioneers settled the area in the 1830s and developed a booming community, complete with a railroad station, sawmill and hotel. The local economy took off when they discovered "white gold," or phosphate.
By the 1920s, visitors from the northern states also discovered this pristine waterway which quickly developed into a tourist attraction, complete with glass-bottom boats, a gift shop and aviary. The attraction catered to visitors until the 1970s, when the snowbirds headed south to the larger, more modern amusement park — Disney World.
Rainbow Springs State Park now offers some of the most scenic nature trails in Florida.
The headwaters are a semicircular spring with four main boils. Just 14 feet at its deepest, the river features public swimming accessed for a modest fee.
Snorkelers and scuba divers who drift with the gentle current may find fossils and stone tools, but these items are part of the preserve and protected by law.
Tubers should bring a mask, lean over the side and watch turtles, gar and baby gators scatter as they fly above on the swift current. More adventurous souls should bring a dive flag, drop down, hug the grass and go with the flow.
Contact Terry Tomalin at [email protected]