Thousands of years ago, when Florida emerged from the sea, the porous limestone trapped vast quantities of water. Over the years, the rock dissolved as the rains and remnants of the ancient ocean collected in what would become giant subterranean reservoirs. In some places, where the Earth's crust is thin, the water bubbled to the surface in the form of more than 600 freshwater springs. Some are small — barely noticeable — while others are big enough to feed a major river. Some say its amazing springs brought the first explorers to Florida. Legend has it the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon came here in search of the Fountain of Youth. He might not have found it. But ask any native Floridian, and they will tell you that on a summer's day, taking a dip in any of our freshwater springs makes you feel young again.
Back in the 1800s, the state's first towns popped up around the most popular watering spots, including Silver Springs near Ocala, Green Cove Springs near Jacksonville and De Leon Springs, southeast of Daytona Beach.
Today, while some springs are privately owned, Florida has more than a dozen state parks that preserve and protect the public's access.
In northwest Florida, Ponce de Leon State Park has a main spring that produces 14 million gallons of invigorating 68-degree water every day.
Near Suwannee, Fanning Springs State Park, a hub of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, is often visited by manatees that swim all the way from the coast to take advantage of the year-round 72-degree water.
Peacock Springs State Park, about 16 miles from Live Oak, the cave diving capital of the world, has two main springs, a spring run and six sinkholes, all maintained in their natural condition. With more than 28,000 feet of underwater passes, one of the longest cave systems in the continental United States, this state park is a gathering place for underwater explorers.
One of Florida's most famous springs (thanks to a recent National Geographic expedition) is Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, southwest of Tallahassee. With swimming platforms and a dive tower, the park is a popular swimming spot.
Dunnellon's Rainbow Springs State Park, about two hours north of Tampa, has 6 miles of gin-clear water just waiting for swimmers, snorkelers and inner-tube riders eager to cool off.
Another great place to tube, paddle and swim is Ichetucknee Springs State Park, one of the state's most popular summertime escapes. This short, spring-fed river is located 35 miles northwest of Gainesville.
Despite its popularity, the river remains crystal clear because park operators allow only a limited number of people on it each day. On a summer weekend, the park can fill up quickly. Go early, and if possible, go on a weekday.
The Ocala area also has its share of swimming holes. About 25 miles northeast, Salt Springs Recreation Area is one of three springs in Ocala National Forest. Day-use activities include picnicking, canoeing, hiking and swimming.
Alexander Springs Recreation Area is about 30 miles southeast of Ocala and offers swimming, canoeing and scuba diving. Juniper Springs Recreation Area is one of the oldest and better-known recreation areas in the forest. It's about 25 miles east of Ocala and great for swimming and snorkeling.
If you head east, you'll come across Blue Spring near Orlando, which spews 104 million gallons of pure, fresh water every day. Swimming is allowed in a designated area separated by buoys from the manatee refuge zone.
Wekiwa Springs, located near Apopka, is another favorite for locals hoping to beat the heat. The spring, with 72-degree water, is surrounded by a natural park area ideal for spreading out a blanket and enjoying a picnic lunch.
Closer to home, you will find Citrus County's Chassahowitzka River and its freshwater springs. Bring swimming trunks, a mask and snorkel. The main springs are well-marked, but ask the locals about some lesser-known swimming holes.
You won't be sorry.