Florida’s original water parks the springs b games zombie

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They had to be hot and tired after months on the trail and probably welcomed a respite in the cool, clear water. Given the choice of continuing into the unknown wilderness, or staying put and chilling out by the creek, more than one Spaniard probably chose the latter.

Florida has more than 600 freshwater springs. Some are small — barely noticeable — while others are big enough to feed a river. Back in the 1800s, the state’s first towns popped up around the most popular watering spots, including Ocala near Silver Springs, Jacksonville near Green Cove Springs, and Daytona Beach, northeast of De Leon Springs. Today, while some springs are privately owned, there are dozens still held in the public trust, and most still serve as old-fashioned swimming holes on a hot summer’s day.

For decades, the Ichetucknee has been a favorite getaway for students at the nearby University of Florida. Just walk down the path from the parking lot to the first of several springs and the air suddenly feels 10 degrees cooler. All together, nine springs pump 233 million gallons of crystal-clear water into the Ichetucknee River, which then flows south into the Sante Fe and Suwannee rivers. Right off the main parking lot at the north entrance to the park you will find Head Spring, which has a bluish hue that makes it particularly appealing.

The average depth is 8 feet, but experienced snorkelers with strong legs and good lungs can drop down to 25 feet. The numerous shallow areas make this an ideal place for families with small children. From the headspring, a half-mile hiking trail leads to Blue Hole, a first-magnitude spring (one that discharges at least 100 cubic feet of water per second) that measures about 75 feet by 120 feet. The water is exceptionally clear and deep (about 35 feet) with a strong current, which can be intimidating for inexperienced swimmers.

But the big draw at this state park is tubing. If you start your trip early you stand a good chance of seeing one of the river’s more entertaining residents, the North American river otter. These playful creatures can weigh up to 45 pounds and can measure 4 feet long.

"This amazing and delightful scene, though real, appears at first but as a piece of excellent painting," he noted. "… There seems no medium; you imagine the picture to be within a few inches of your eyes, and that you may without the least difficulty touch any one of the fish, or put your finger upon the crocodile’s eye, when it really is twenty or thirty feet under water."

Swing by Salt Springs today and the water is just as clear as it was when Bartram travelled through Ocala National Forest nearly 250 years ago. Go for a dip and you too might be moved to the put together prose worthy of an 18th century romantic.

Back during the Great Depression, when poor, tired men came to the forest to work for the Civilian Conservation Corps, the springs hadn’t changed much since Bartram’s time. So the men built roads, campgrounds, picnic areas, and to help run it all, a water-powered millhouse.

The old structure is still there, although it no longer generates electricity. But after months of swimming in the bath-like waters of the Gulf of Mexico, you’ll feel like you got a jolt when you dive off the mill steps into that 72-degree water.

For more than 100 years, this creek, named for the deep-blue hue of the water, has been a magnet for tourists and locals alike. The first inhabitants followed game to this watering hole 10,000 years ago. Archeologists have found numerous prehistoric animal bones in the river as well as tools made by these stone-age hunters.

At the time of De Soto’s march, the land around what is now Rainbow Springs State Park was inhabited by Timucua Indians led by a chief named Ocale, whose name would lend itself to the modern city of Ocala. The first pioneers settled the area in the 1830s and developed a booming community, complete with a railroad station, sawmill and hotel. The local economy took off when they discovered "white gold," or phosphate.

By the 1920s, visitors from the northern states also discovered this pristine waterway which quickly developed into a tourist attraction, complete with glass-bottom boats, a gift shop and aviary. The attraction catered to visitors until the 1970s, when the snowbirds headed south to the larger, more modern amusement park — Disney World.