After driving among the green sand pine scrubs on either side of the winding, two-lane country roads of Florida’s Ocala National Forest, you’ll stumble upon an aqua-blue oasis teeming with people, riddled with fish and water-dwelling flora and sprinkled with the occasional otter or alligator.
The millions of gallons of clear Florida spring water pumping from beneath the calm water’s surface north of Orlando is the Alexander Springs, Florida Recreation Area — and it holds the title as the best springs in Ocala National Forest and one of the best springs in Florida that’s controlled by a public entity.
It’s one of only a few springs in the Ocala National Forest that allows swimming (and actually keeps a lifeguard on duty for those sweltering Central Florida summer days), snorkeling, diving, kayaking and canoeing (although kayaks and canoes are relegated to the amazing river run at the mouth of the springs).
Since the natural Florida springs keep the freshwater pool at around 72 degrees year-round, it’s just about perfect to visit throughout the entire year! So let’s get into the entrance fee, camping facilities, snorkeling, diving, mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking and hiking.
Alexander Springs Swimming, Snorkeling and Diving
At its most shallow, Alexander Springs is about 2.5 feet deep with soft grains of sand easing their way between your toes. At its deepest, its jagged rocky slopes cut down to depths of about 25 to 30 feet, making it a great spot for snorkeling, free diving and beginner scuba divers.
From end to end, the first-magnitude spring, which is the official swimming area, is about 300 feet wide. Even though much of Alexander Springs is only the shallow side of being able to walk through, you’ll get to the meat and potatoes toward the middle.
Once you get to the middle, you’ll weed out all the wee ones who came with their parents and separate yourself into the pack of underwater adventurers.
As you dive to the sandy bottom and make your way deeper and deeper, eventually reaching the enormous moss-covered jagged rocks and slim caverns that weave throughout them, you’ll transition from the crystal clear to the aqua blue tints. From the safe to the unknown. Holding your breath near the bottom as long as humanly possible until rocketing toward the reflecting surface waters above.
Some people visit for the cool, calm salt-free waters. Others, like me, visit for a taste of untouched Florida and a dose of adrenaline as the snorkel breaks the surface and fills with water, deep down in the depths of a piece of Florida that few people will get to see and even fewer have ventured.
There are no dive shops or snorkel rentals on the grounds of Alexander Springs, Florida, so you must bring your own or rent from a company.
For snorkelers, I highly suggest buying a set of mask, fins and snorkel before your trip. The gift shop may have a few pairs for you to purchase, but they aren’t guaranteed and will be double or triple the price you’ll pay online.
For divers, you must either have your own gear or rent a full set of gear from a company that does business in the area. You can even book a private or group dive with a few companies in the area.
Alexander Springs Canoe and Kayak Run
The Alexander Springs Run begins at the mouth of the spring, navigating open waters for about 6.5 miles until reaching the FR52 Landing area that concludes the run.
Since there aren’t any shuttles running from the FR52 area back to the main spring, you’ll either have to count on leaving an extra vehicle at the end or making it a 13-mile day of paddling. Or, if you have another vehicle on standby, it’s about a 14-mile paddle to the St. John’s River.
The Alexander Run for canoes and kayaks run takes you down Spring Creek, which is fairly wide and slow-moving, making for a pretty easy day of paddling if you don’t run into a storm. Canoe and kayak rentals are available at the visitor center or you can launch your own for just the day-use fee of Alexander Springs Recreation Area ($6).
- Canoe & Kayak Rentals: $16 for 2 hours; $24 for 4 hours; $38 for a full day
Hiking in Alexander Springs Recreation Area
There are three main hikes you can take directly from Alexander Springs: the Timucuan Trail, Florida Trail or Yellow Loop. Each has its pros and cons and may be worth considering during your visit. Let’s take a look at each.
- Distance: 0.9-mile loop trail
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation Gain: 10 feet
- Amount of Time Needed: 25 minutes
- Trailhead Coordinates: Google Maps
Alexander Springs Yellow Loop
- Distance: 12.9-mile loop
- Difficulty: Easy
- Elevation Gain: 380 feet
- Amount of Time Needed: 3.5 to 5 hours
- Trailhead Coordinates: Florida Trail (Yellow Loop) at 445
Florida Trail: Alexander Springs to Juniper Springs
- Distance: 17.1-mile out and back
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Elevation Gain: 511 feet
- Amount of Time Needed: 5 to 6 hours each way
- Trailhead Coordinates: Florida Trail at 445
Mountain Biking the Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail
The Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail is a 22-mile loop with a trailhead at Alexander Springs. The Alexander loop (11 miles) intersects with the Clearwater Loop (11 miles) to create the 22-mile loop run that intersects hiking trails through Ocala National Forest.
Since you’re biking through Florida sand scrub, the ground may be difficult to navigate at times throughout the year, depending on the weather and how packed down sandy parts of the trail may be.
Alexander Springs Entrance Fee
Alexander Springs is on the lands controlled by the United States’ National Forest System, so it’s much cheaper than many of the state’s privately owned springs. That being said, everyone — except for Ocala National Forest Recreation Area Passholders — is still charged a day-use fee that you must pay each time you visit.
Sorry, National Park Annual Passholders like myself, there’s no skipping this fee. But you can minimize the fee if you decide to camp at one of the many designated campsites on the premises (more on that later).
But the good news is that the daily fee is good for the springs, entrance to the 8.4-mile section of the Florida Trail and the highly coveted Alexander Spring canoe and kayak run.
- Alexander Springs Daily Fee: $6 per person, per day
Alexander Springs Camping
The Alexander Springs Recreation Area offers 67 campsites, most getting direct shade from the southeastern conifer forest’s towering longleaf pine trees, that can accommodate anything from tents up to 35-foot RVs.
The best part about Alexander Springs camping is that you’re just a short walk away from the springs, Florida Trail section and the canoe and kayak run! You can beat the visitors early in the morning or stay an hour later than them at night to get the place all to yourself!
Each campsite is equipped with a water spigot, charcoal grilling station, picnic table, fire pit and bear-proof lockbox. Yes, black bears roam the woods of the Ocala National Forest, so keep your food stored properly and in the safe space of the bear box.
There are a few bathhouses on the property with hot water, and they’re kept pretty clean (with the occasional cobweb here and there). All campsites, restrooms and showers are accessible as well.
Sites can be booked ahead of time on the Recreation.gov website (which I highly recommend you do) or they can be taken on a first-come, first-served basis. But if you opt for the latter, don’t count on an available spot, especially during weekends in the area’s busy summer.
- Campsite Price: $26 per night (totals $32 with taxes and fees)