Ocala, Florida is a paradise for horse lovers, as I wrote in a recent post. But Ocala has another side, one full of natural beauty and some fascinating history. So after spending some time in horse country, my colleague Maarten Heilbron and I decided to see it for ourselves, with a visit to Silver Springs, one of the showpieces of the Southern states.
Today, Silver Springs is a state park, but that wasn’t always the case. Like a number of parks in Florida, it started out as one of the famous “roadside attractions” — fun parks that offered rides, curios and everything else to please the passing motorist. In fact, Silver Springs is thought to be the place that ushered in the golden age of roadside attractions and theme parks.
More than 130 of these parks were established in Florida up to the 1960s. But most are gone now, killed off by the superhighways that zip people by at breakneck speed, oblivious of what might lie beyond the tarmac. However, they presented the state with ready-made bits of nature — often some of the prettiest sites around.
That describes Silver Springs to a T, only here, the story has another interesting twist. Because of the beautiful surroundings and crystal-clear water — perfect for filming — the park was used as a set for movies like Tarzan, and the 1950s TV show Sea Hunt. The brooding swamps also created a great backdrop for the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Our visit started with Silver Springs’ main claim to fame: a ride in a glass-bottomed boat ($11 U.S., $10 seniors 55+, $10 children ages 6-12). It was here, back in 1878, that a fellow named Hullam Jones invented the glass-bottomed boat, cementing a sheet of glass into the bottom of his canoe and charging tourists for a ride. The boats they use today are lot more sophisticated, and as we sailed across the pond, we had a perfect view of the vegetation below and the many species of fish.
The reason the view was so good is that Silver Springs has some of the purest water around — 99 percent pure, we were told. It flows into the pond year-round from one of the world’s largest artesian springs. During the cruise we saw several fissures in the pond bed where the water seeps up, and the captain pointed out a couple of wrecks, including the remains of a large native American canoe that archaeologists believe is hundreds of years old.
The crystal waters are home to a variety of bird and animal life as well, including turtles, herons and alligators. Our cruise passed by a mother gator resting near the bank, keeping guard on her newly hatched youngsters.
The boat cruise over, we took to the water under our own power, in a two-man kayak, for an up-close look at the swamps where the Creature from the Black Lagoon lurked. Gliding over the water, we could drift right up on creatures like this beautiful red-bellied turtle.
The park is also a great place to see the anhinga — the quirky water bird of the South that’s sometimes called the snake bird because of its long, snake-like neck. The anhinga dives to catch its food, spearing fish with its sharp beak and juggling them in the air in order to swallow them.
Then, mission completed, it hops up on a tree or a handy stump and spreads its wings: in a strange twist of evolution, its feathers aren’t waterproof, so it has to wait until they dry before taking off again. In any case, it provides a perfect opportunity to get some good nature shots.
The anhinga was good fun. But there were some even stranger creatures just down the way: a troupe of rhesus monkeys, climbing through the trees and raising a ruckus. Apparently, the owner of the private park brought them here long ago, letting them loose on an island as a tourist attraction. Only he didn’t realize they could swim — which they did immediately, spreading all over the park. They didn’t stop there, either: they’ve been spotted miles away, even showing up in town.
The monkeys can be a cranky group, prone to throwing poo at anyone who upsets them. However, they didn’t seem to mind our presence, and no dung was flung as we caught these pictures.
The waterways were also scattered here and there with relics of the film days: old docks and decrepit cabins, even a fake wooden fort right out of Davy Crockett, though that series wasn’t filmed here.
It was easy to fill a half-day at Silver Springs, but there was still more to see in Marion Country. The next day, we drove to nearby Rainbow Springs State Park, to see Florida’s fourth-largest spring. It’s a great place for those who love to kayak and swim, with a “swimming pool” cordoned off from an impossibly blue natural lagoon.
The park also has some scenic walks through the Florida forest, some of which pass by spots that used to be part of the original roadside attraction: one innocent-looking path bore a sign that said “Rodeo Arena”. There’s a butterfly garden, as well, but with the recent cold snap, the flowers were missing — and so were the butterflies. Still, it was a pleasure just to spend some time walking the woods, viewing the birds and enjoying the peace and quiet.
Visiting these parks was a welcome chance to see the other side of Ocala, and of Florida. The old-time roadside attractions may be long gone, but for me, these little patches of nature and history are still a great attraction.
Maarten and I were guests of VISIT FLORIDA and its partners, including the Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau. While in Ocala, we stayed at the Comfort Suites Dunnellon, located close to the local horse farms and state parks