Just where central Florida begins and ends is a bit arbitrary. It is safe to say that Orlando and the major theme parks like Disney World and Sea World and Busch Gardens are in central Florida. Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center is on the Atlantic coast of Florida east of Orlando and Tampa and St Petersburg are west of Orlando. Perhaps the border with “northern Florida” is near Gainesville, the college town that is home to the University of Florida.
Geographically, central Florida contains the highest parts of Florida – a sand ridge (Lake Wales Ridge) contains large numbers of lakes that are a result of solution and collapse of the underlying limestone. The ridge itself was slightly above sea-level during recent interglacial periods and has some uniquely adapted species not found elsewhere in Florida.
For nature, there are many attractions in Central Florida. High on our list would be the natural springs than have very high flow rates (a major spring in Florida is one releasing more than 20 million gallons of water a day). Most of these springs are in the Ocala National Forest or in Florida State Parks. However, some are private but allow swimming, scuba diving or other activities. Below is a brief summary of some of the highlights of Central Florida for nature-focused travelers.
Ocala National Forest
The Ocala National Forest is the only National Forest in central Florida – the other two are in north Florida. The Ocala is unusual in that it is mostly sandy, and contains the largest track of Sand Pine (Pinus clausa) in the world (it is only found in Florida). The deep sand allows for excellent drainage and rainwater percolates quickly into the aquifer and then may appear in the numerous springs of the region. Some interesting reptile species endemic to the sandhill region of central Florida include the Florida Sand Skink (Plestiodon reynoldsi) (we have never seen it) and the Florida Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens). The geographical semi-isolation of the Florida peninsula (to the north by colder climates and the the east, south and west by ocean) has allowed for a certain degree of endemism to evolve among various biota.
The Ocala National Forest has several recreation areas with camping and canoe facilities and these are good bases for exploring the National Forest. Alexander Springs is our most regular camping area. Hotels are available on the periphery of the forest, but require longer commutes – especially if you want to explore for the nocturnal wildlife.
Myakka River State Park and Carlton Preserve (contiguous)
Highlands Hammock State Park
As noted under the Ocala National Forest, there are many springs in this part of Florida and most out-of-state tourists know very little about them. They are more frequented by locals. Here we describe how to see them and why they are so interesting.
It is best to visit any spring early in the day – and on a week-day – never on a weekend if you can help it! As locals use the springs as a local cooling-off place in the warm season (especially when school is out in the summer), there is simply too much noise and congestion at the springs at these times. A week-day will be much quieter (but not as much during summer school break as during the rest of the year). Sunlight is important to see under the water, so sunny days are better than cloudy days. Very early in the day is not as good for this reason and some other activities, like canoeing along the spring run, are better at this time. It is important to avoid times when many people are in the springs, since much silt and fine sand can be kicked-up by children and adults who are not interesting in looking underwater with a face mask. Water visibility usually get worse as the day progresses if people are in the springs.
Something not often appreciated is the possibility of snorkeling on cool winter days. There are usually few to-no people using the springs during the winter months, yet if the park is open, it is quite feasible to snorkel during these months. The water temperature is almost the same – winter or summer. You thus have the spring to yourself!
The springs consist of two components; a spring head – where the water is often seen “boiling” out of the bottom and a spring run, which is the river that flows out and away from the spring head. The spring head is typically the deepest part of the spring, due to erosion of the underlying limestone and the rapid flow of water, and some spring heads can be more than 100 ft deep. (Note: cave diving is the somewhat popular attraction in some (mostly private) caves in Florida, but is quite specialized and can be dangerous). If the water flow from the spring is strong enough the sand filling parts of the bottom of the spring head will be appear to be “boiling”, though the water temperature is that of the ground temperature – typically between the upper 60’s and mid-70’s depending on the latitude of the Spring and the depth from which the water is originating.
For seeing most wildlife the shallower parts of the spring head are best; here schools of fish can almost always be seen. Often both fresh and brackish water species are seen, since there are no migration barriers for aquatic organisms on most of Florida’s waterways.
There are some interesting reptiles and amphibians found in Florida’s springs; one turtle, the Loggerhead Musk Turtle ( Sternotherus minor minor) is restricted to spring-fed streams and is most commonly seen in the Spring head pools. It never basks on logs, unlike the more common turtles of Florida’s wetlands and waterways, and is seen (but only if you are snorkeling) crawling along the bottom.
Though we have not visited all, or even most of the larger Florida springs, we have visited and read about enough of them to recommend some of the better ones for naturalists. These include the following.
Alexander Springs: Nice camping area, spring head is 30 ft deep, shallow partly vegetated areas for seeing fish, turtles etc. The spring run is canoe-able for several miles, good for a two hr round trip. Canoes available for rent. A short (less than half mile) nature trail / boardwalk goes through forest to several river lookouts.
Silver Glen Springs: Good for seeing large schools of fish around spring head – but the spring run is very short and small boats anchor just outside. But for fish it may be the best. No canoeing or camping.
Salt Springs: Rocky (limestone) bottom in most places, water slightly salty, Great for fish, but water less clear than other locations. Can be crowded because it is also a campsite location.
All of these springs are in the Ocala National Forest and are operated by concessionaires and have entrance fees (very reasonable).
Ichetucknee Springs (northern Florida)