This park was another reminder of that old adage, ‘If you don’t get what you want you often get something better.” We planned to spend Tuesday and Wednesday nights at Paynes Praire Preserve State Park in Gainesville but when I went online to make the reservation Monday morning they were sold out. This was a surprise as usually the parks away from the coast don’t fill up 100%. We wanted to go back to Paynes Praire because it is almost exactly half way between Port Charlotte and Enterprise, AL. We picked the next closest state park along I75, Silver Springs near Ocala. It had a few sites available so we made the reservation.
As we drove in we thought, “Gee, this looks pretty nice.” When we pulled into our campsite we thought, “Boy, this is nice.” The sites are not carved out of the jungle like in southern Florida, but are nicely wooded and easily twice as big as most other state parks. As a bonus, the bathrooms were modern and well maintained. They even had heat lamps in the showers. Talk about living large!
Tuesday afternoon we took a little orientation bike ride then hiked four miles along one of the scenic marked trails.
Wednesday morning we drove a couple of miles to the other side of the park to see the Silver Springs tourist attraction.
The largest spring in Florida flows out of the ground here and becomes the Silver River. The crystal clear cool water (500 million gallons per day, 72 degrees year around) has attracted people since 10,000 B.C. In more recent history, Hullman Jones invented the glass bottom boat and started selling rides to post Civil War tourists who travelled here by train. When automobiles became common in the early twentieth century the tourist industry grew and by the 1950’s Silver Springs, along with other attractions like Cypress Gardens, were booming. Silver Springs featured a zoo, a monkey island, alligator wrestling and rattle snake milking along with the glass bottom boats. It was also the site of many movies and TV shows. The Tarzan movies and TV shows were shot here. A local man developed the underwater movie camera and the Florida climate and clear water made Silver Springs a popular place to film scenes underwater.
The zoo is gone, many of the buildings torn down, but some are being renovated, the glass bottom boat rides are still offered and the landscaping around the spring head are well maintained. It is easy to imagine the glamour and excitement of Silver Springs at its height of popularity.
In the afternoon we rented a double kayak and paddled a couple of miles down the river looking at the fish (lots of mullet jumping), birds, turtles and watching the trees for monkeys. In 1938 the Jungle Cruise tour operator here put a group of monkeys on an island to build interest in his excursion. Of course they quickly escaped and to this day live in the forest surrounding the river. They have increased from 74 monkeys to around 1,000. We did not see any, but heard a weird screeching call that sounded a lot like what the internet says a rhesus monkey sounds like. In addition to the above we also spotted about 20 alligators at rest in the water and one large alligator swam across the river in front of our kayak.
We needed to get to Enterprise Thursday by dinner time, so our mid-morning departure allowed enough time to stop at Suwannee River State Park for a picnic and walk along the river. Spring had definitely sprung in the park.
We will visit the kids and grand kids for ten days and then head west for a three week visit to Texas and New Mexico.