State Parks, Animals and Nature, Orlando
Northwest of Orlando, at the edge of the sprawl, the unfortunately named Kelly Park is just an unassuming dot of a county park. But it's actually fantastic.
This is the sort of thing that you would love to see at a theme park but never do, because theme parks can't recreate it properly. Think of swimming in a huge, clear, cool pool with a lazy river, surrounded by lush vegetation, flowers, and populated by little fish that swim just in front of you. This is Kelly Park/Rock Springs.
You can spend your time swimming in the hollowed-out, concrete-sided pool section, laze on the artificial beach under the tall, Spanish Moss-laden oak trees, or take a float down the "lazy river". The water is crystal clear and the park is very well maintained and relatively unpopulated.
There are additionally plenty of picnic tables, a reservable ramada for group events, benches around the water, and hiking trails that explore the park.
$3 for 1-3 people in a car and $5 for 3-8 people in a car. More for groups. Innertube rentals are not available in the park, but can be rented just outside the park at some businesses on Rock Springs Road. Or you can bring your own. No alcohol is permitted in the park. This makes it much more family friendly than most tubing experiences and keeps the water cleaner.
Up the road a piece on highway 17, just a little north of Deland in the little town of DeLeon Springs, is a lovely state park with a natural spring swimming hole (called a boil) with lots of picnic tables, playground, canoes, and paddle boats. But the best thing about it is the Grist Mill restaurant. This place is aways packed and it's because of the unique dining experience you can have there. They serve pancakes, well sort of. When you're seated you will notice right away the fact that a griddle is smack dab in the middle of your table. If you chose to have pancakes, you have to cook them yourself. In fact, if you want eggs with those pancakes you've got to cook those too. I guarentee they're the best pancakes you ever tasted with fresh ground flour (for the buttermilk batter) and buckwheat. You can chose either batters or both and you can eat all you want for a set price. Sides like eggs, bacon, sausage, and blueberries for those cakes are extra. It's well worth every penny it cost. They serve sandwiches too but what fun is that? You have to pay for the park admission. It's around 4.00 for a car load. Go early so you can eat and then go for a swim. Waters about 72 degrees on a warm day if you're lucky and a good deal colder than that if it's not.
While walking along the short pathway from the hotel to the Downtown Disney complex, I noticed an object in the grass alongside the waterway in the area. At first I thought that it must be some sort of automatic contraption to keep the grass green. However, as I observed more closely I could see that it appeared to be a fairly large turtle (at least a foot long) that was sitting there on the grass very close to the water's edge. I took this telephoto shot out of curiosity but, as I drew closer, the turtle very quickly turned (this was no slow-moving beast!) and slipped back into the water.
About 30 or 40 miles north of Orlando up Highway I-4 near Orange City.. This is a lovely place in the summer to tube down a slow refreshing spring.Lots of walking area and natural beauty.. In the winter the Manatees will assemble in the crystal clear water when the temperatures in florida start to drop..
wekiwa springs state park is located near the town of longwood about 25 miles north of the theme park area on I-4. wekiwa springs is an oasis of natural beauty surrounded by the urban sprawl of metropolitian orlando. the park offers swimming, snorkeling, hiking, and canoeing. see my longwood florida pages for more information.
blue springs state park is located just west of orange city florida. in the months of november through march manatees winter in the spring's 72 degree water. manatees, also known as sea cows, are large marine mamals that congregate in the springs in the winter from the st. johns river. they are easy to see in the spring's crystal clear water. an interesting site to visit when in the central florida area.
from downtown orlando take I-4 east or hwy 17-92 north to orange city go west on french ave to the spring.
About 25 miles south of the Disney area you'll find this "hidden gem" of an activity. The Bok sanctuary features gardens with all sorts of trees, plants, and ferns that you can see up front. You can also take an easy 10 minute walk up to the 205 foot tall "singing tower" to listen to the carillon and enjoy the view from one of the highest points on the Florida peninsula. Or, stop in the "window by the pond" where you can watch the wildlife in a pond through a large window, and hike the 3/4 mile pine ridge trail, which has several labeled points of interest to help identify the plants and landscapes. They have picnic tables, and you can carry in your own food. They also have a cafe that is reasonably priced and has good food, so you can purchase your meal there as well. The cost at the time of this writing is $10 per adult and $3 per child, which you pay at the gate as you enter. Check out their website for directions.
When you go to Central Florida be sure to see the
Ocala National Forest...its awesome!!!
The big scrub of green expanses and sparkling waters
of the clear springs nestled amoungst the huge trees
are trully a natural wonder few people see.
Located near Orlando, Florida, the Ocala National Forest receives more visitors than any other national forest in the Sunshine State. Millions of visitors annually escape to this forest, which is one of central Florida's last remaining traces of forested land....unfortunately most of those visiters are locals.
Amoung the sights to see in the Ocala Forest are Alexander Springs...Salt Springs...Silver Glen Springs...Clearwater Lake...Lake Dorr...Juniper Springs and Blue Springs, where it is not unusual to see 3 or 4 manatee, also known as sea cows swimming in the warm springs during the winter months.
My favorite is Clearwater Lake,,its where I go to think/ponder...its far from the hustle/bustle of Orlando and all you can hear is the wind in the pines...I cant help but imagine how the local indian tribes must have appreciated this area hundreds of years ago.Part of the Florida trail passes through Clearwater lake area...on its way toword Fairless Prairie near Gainesville.
Another favorite is Alexander Springs...where the 'boil' of the spring bubbles out of a cave 40 feet below you..perfectly clear water,,,a constant 72 degrees all year around...Silver Glen Springs is quite similar and both have excellent facilities..bathrooms..changing areas ..snackbars..and a protected hiking trail..miles of marked paths with trees and vegitation noted on signs along the way with splendid views of the forest and swimming areas..
With all its natural beauty..the Ocala forest is a 'MUST SEE!'
The Sanford Zoo is north of Orlando in Sanford, about 20 minutes drive from downtown, if traffic is not bad. The zoo is not very large, but it is a nice walk through the woods and you get an idea what Florida really looks like without hiking out at a State Park.
These sensationally quick little squirrels are the cutest things I've ever seen! Trying to photograph them is nearly impossible. I'm determined to get a better shot than this... but for now this is the best I can show you.
They seem to be everywhere! We have some that come to eat in the birdfeeder in the garden they seem to be able to share it with the BlueJays that feed there everyday.
Boggie Creek air boat rides was a nice day. It is 19 milea away from universal and unless you have a car you will have to get a cab out there which will cost around $ 35.00
the boat ride cost $17.95. the trip is 30-45 minutes going into some pretty unique areas. We got to see some gators and other wild life.
You can also go para sailing if you dare, they will take you up to a height of 800 feet if you desire. they also have night tours which last a little longer. Our guide was very good and talked about the lake and gators...
If you have a chance taking this tour or gator land would be a welcome change.
The Orlando Wetlands Park was actually developed in 1987 as a natural way to treat reclaimed wastewater from a nearby treatment plant. The water takes 40 days to filter from one end of the park to the other where it exits, naturally filtered, into the St. Johns river. Today, this 'man-made' (2 million plants and 200,000 trees were planted ) wetlands is home to over 160 bird species, otters, alligators, foxes, deer, turtles and snakes. The upside is that the park is free and has nothing separating you from the wildlife, including alligators (there are well-marked trails), but the park is about a 40-minute drive east from Orlando which requires a car. There are trail maps, bathrooms and covered picnic tables at the entrance, but you will need to bring your own water and food to carry beyond that point (in the summer the mid-day heat is severe). Most of the trails can be hiked in 2 - 6 hours depending on the route you pick, and some of the trails allow bicycles. See my travelogue for park details and pictures of some of the local wildlife.
If you're visiting Orlando on a very cold day, hop in the car and drive up to Blue Spring State Park and enjoy the manatees. The springs are much warmer than the river in the winter so the manatees (an endangered species) congregate in the spring during this season. The best time is first thing in the morning. Manatees are beautiful to watch. They are gentle animals with no natural enemies. In the summer, swimming in the cold spring water is the most fun you can have while keeping cool at the same time.
About a 30 minute drive northeast of Orlando you'll find the lovely Blue Spring State Park, 2100 West French Avenue, Orange City, FL 32763, (386) 775-3663. Here's their website:
This spring is just one of many on to the St. Johns River. However, it is the largest single contributor spewing over 100 million gallons (379 million liters) of water per day. It's a short run from the spring to the river of only a few hundred meters and it flows crystal clear until it meets the dark, tanin-stained waters of the the St. Johns.
During our hot summer days of near 100ºF. temperatures, this is a great place to cool off with a nice swim in the spring. The water flows from underground caverns at a steady 72ºF. Actually, the water feels ice-cold during times like that. Nevertheless, once you adjust, it's very refreshing.
During the cold days of winter where the temperatures can drop below freezing, this is still a great place to visit. Why? If the spring is void of manatees, you can take a swim. The constant 72ºF water feels very warm on a 50ºF day. Just be ready for a cold blast when you get out of the water.
But your real hope is that the spring is closed for swimming when the manatees are present. These gentle mammals come into the spring-run from the river to stay warm on cold winter days. With the clear water, you can easily view them resting on the bottom. Just click the picture above and look closely....you'll see them on the bottom. Be sure to look at my travel logs of pics from the Springs on a cold day in January, 2002, when there were 96 manatees in the water. This was the most I'd ever seen there.
If you are travelling during Winter (upto March), the Manatees head to Crystal River on the Gulf Coast for the warm Winter waters. Take a trip out with an organised tour and get to swim in the 'wild' with these incredibly gentle giants of the water. Young & old got in the water to interact with the Manatees. My wife (who cannot swim) said the look on everyones face as they got back on board told the story of a truly amazing experience.