The Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention BureauWindshield wipers do no good in this kind of rain. Heavy sheets swipe at my car from every direction as my tires send a spray of water up over the sides. I squint to make out the headlights of oncoming traffic on this country highway—and decide it’s best to pull over and wait out the shower.
My dramatic introduction to Ocala-Marion County is fitting since I’m not here to visit The Horse Capital of the World’s ranches, but to explore its waterways. Tucked into the pastoral landscape of Central Florida, the county is home to some of the world’s most beautiful artesian springs. Here are three ways to experience them.
Paddle up a river
The Rainbow River winds gently through the lush landscape of Dunnellon. Fed by the Rainbow Springs headsprings, which pumps out millions of gallons of crystalline water every day, the river is punctuated by deep, clear aquamarine pools. Head out on the water with Get Up and Go Kayaking and you’ll get an even better view.
The outfitter rents clear-bottom kayaks so you’ll be able to see the river’s aquatic life, including turtles, otters, and myriad fish, gliding along beneath you. A trip along the main river will give you a snapshot of local life, with its banks dotted with ranchers and swimming docks where people dock canoes and boats. But head into the narrower mangrove tributaries for a quieter, peaceful paddle under the arching branches of oak trees.
Go for a swim
If you’d rather be in the water than on top of it, make your way to the headsprings themselves in Rainbow Springs State Park. The park has a long and diverse history, first acting as a pioneer community in the early 1800s, before being transformed into a theme park with a monorail, zoo, and rodeo in the 1920s. Today, the state park has returned to its natural state and is a popular spot for families looking to escape the Florida sun.
Surrounding the headsprings, shady trails decorated with man-made waterfalls (a remnant of the area’s theme park past) have been carved into the oak forest. Keep your eyes peeled for osprey and hawks in the trees and listen for the rustle of fox squirrels and indigo snakes. In spring, the lush forest is peppered with the blooms of pink and purple azaleas.
Take a boat ride
The Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau
Locals flock to Silver Springs State Park to marvel at the sparkling turquoise springs that decorate the Silver River. But it’s even more renowned for the glass-bottom boat rides that takes visitors out onto the water. A peak through the boat’s clear bottom reveals an underwater world teeming with fish and turtles, as well as the remnants of centuries-old Indigenous dugout canoes.
The beauty of the springs captured the imagination of mid-20th-century filmmakers and the area played a leading role in films like Tarzan and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Remnants of this Hollywood era can be spotted on the river’s sandy bottom, where statues and other film props stand shrouded in algae and eelgrass. While devoid of the movies’ mythical creatures, the river is home to alligators, which can be spotted basking lazily in the sun along its reedy banks.
Ocala/Marion County offers countless opportunities to connect with nature and relax in a classic Florida destination. Centrally located less than two hours from Orlando, Daytona Beach and Tampa, Ocala/Marion County is a must-stop when visiting Central Florida.