RAINBOW SPRINGS STATE PARK — The first day of fall was a few weeks ago, but if you step outside it still feels like summer. So if you're a native, or somebody like me who has endured more than 30 hot and humid Octobers, you know that you can slip away and enjoy an Old Florida swimming hole.
The water's perfect — 74 degrees, 365 days a year — and can soothe the soul. Florida's first water parks, like this one located about 90 miles from downtown Tampa, attracted the state's first tourists — war-weary Yankees and Rebels who put aside their differences to soak in the cool, clear springs and hope the medicinal waters would cure what ailed them.
The Sunshine State has more than 600 freshwater springs. Some are small, barely noticeable, while others are big enough to feed a major river. Old Juan Ponce de Leon may not have found his Fountain of Youth, but ask native Floridians and they will tell you that on a hot day a dip in a spring will make you feel young again.
Rainbow Springs and the accompanying Rainbow River have had different names over the years, but the water still has that deep-blue color seen over the coral reefs of the Florida Keys. It's 6 miles of gin-clear getaway for swimmers, snorkelers, scuba divers, kayakers, paddleboarders and inner-tube riders.
The headwaters are a semicircular spring with four main boils. Just 14 feet at its deepest, the river features public swimming access at Rainbow Springs State Park in Dunnellon, but many folks opt to drop their tubes and inflatable rafts in at K.P. Hole, a county park, about a mile or so downstream.
A favorite getaway for the fraternity brothers and sorority sisters at the University of Florida, this springs and shore river run should be at the top of everyone's bucket list.
Despite its popularity, this spring system 35 miles northwest of Gainesville hasn't changed much over the years because state park officials allow only a limited number of people on the river each day. On a summer weekend, the park can fill up quickly. Go early, and if possible, go on a weekday. Rent an inner tube from one of the roadside vendors, then kick back.
The Ocala area has several great swimming holes in the national forest, where it's always cooler under the shade of the oaks and slash pine. Alexander Springs, about 30 miles southeast of Ocala, offers swimming, canoeing and scuba diving.
Juniper Springs, one of the oldest and better-known recreation areas in the forest, is about 25 miles east of Ocala. Like all of the forest's springs, it's a popular swimming hole, but the shallow Juniper Creek, or Juniper Run, is one of the state's best paddles.
Head east, you'll come across Blue Spring, near Orlando, which spews 104 million gallons of water every day. Swimming is allowed April through October in a designated area separated by buoys from the manatee refuge zone. This swimming hole was a favorite of the naturalist William Bartram, and the state park offers a nice alternative to the other tourist attractions.
Weeki Wachee, Seminole for "Little Spring," opened in 1947 and quickly gained an international reputation for its mermaid show. Now operated by the Florida State Park Service, the spring is still a great place to swim and watch the fish-tailed maidens.
About 20 minutes north of there is Homosassa and its herd of resident manatees. The state operates the old tourist attraction, which also doubles as a rehabilitation center for a variety of threatened and endangered species.
Closer to Tampa, you'll find the Chassahowitzka River and its undeveloped springs. The best way to see this river and its secret swimming holes is by canoe. The main springs are well-marked, but ask the locals about the lesser-known springs.