Magazine article American Forests

Sand Pines & Springs: In Addition to Housing Some of the Southeast's Most Rare and Valued Ecosystem, Ocala National Forest Offers Birdwatching, Canoeing, Hiking and More

Magazine article American Forests

Sand Pines & Springs: In Addition to Housing Some of the Southeast's Most Rare and Valued Ecosystem, Ocala National Forest Offers Birdwatching, Canoeing, Hiking and More

Article excerpt

THERE AREN'T TOO MANY NATIONAL forests where you have to be on the lookout for both alligators and bears. It's also unusual to be able to swim in a pool where 60 million gallons of water are bursting through the Earth's surface underneath you. Add to that a relatively close proximity to the home of Mickey Mouse and the most visited theme parks in the world and is it any wonder that Ocala National Forest is the most popular national forest in Florida?

Located north of Orlando in the central part of the state, Ocala National Forest is the southernmost forest in the continental United States. Established in 1908, it is one of the oldest national forests east of the Mississippi River. Its nearly 383,000 acres also happen to protect the world's largest contiguous area of sand pine scrub forest. These vegetative islands of elevated sandy ridges have desert-like conditions that support only the hardiest of species, such as the sand pine tree. Yet for all of these superlatives, Ocala National Forest is perhaps best known among visitors and locals for something entirely different--its natural springs.

There are four bubbling freshwater springs in the forest that amaze visitors with their crystal-clear clarity and constant, year-round temperature of 72 degrees. The springs are an enchanting attraction for out-of-state visitors who have never seen anything like them, and even though Florida has among the largest number of springs anywhere on Earth, they can still be a little-known enigma for residents, too.

"I've always lived in Florida, and I didn't realize that we even had springs before I started working here," says Tonee Davis, a natural resource specialist with Ocala National Forest. 'The first time that I saw them I thought. "Wow! These are gorgeous.' The fact that the federal government owns these springs and is protecting them for future generations so that they're not loved to death is amazing."

While the springs are an integral part of the state's ecosystems, they can also serve as great spots for recreation--when treated with respect. The springs were formed when limestone layers in the earth started to break down, after millions of years of acidic rain. When the limestone finally dissolved, sinkholes formed and created caves, underground channels and springs from which groundwater flows out to the Earth's surface. Springs are rated on the amount of water that flows out of them each day--from Eighth Magnitude springs, which release small amounts of water, to First Magnitude springs, which discharge more than 64.6 million gallons a day. Ocala National Forest has two First Magnitude springs.

The springs are popular watering holes for all ages, whether for just floating around on a tube or the more active pursuits of snorkeling and scuba diving Some people even believe that soaking in the cool springs can fix what ails you. Bob Esposito, who moved from Connecticut to Silver Springs, Florida, just a few miles outside of Ocala National Forest, comes regularly throughout the year to bathe in the springs. "In all honesty, I always feel better when I come out of the "water, at least aches and pains wise," he says.

Each of the springs is a little different and offers distinct opportunities for enjoying the waters. Juniper Springs has a terraced, circular wall surrounding the smaller pool which is located adjacent to an old mill house and water wheel built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps to provide electricity to the campground. A short walk from Juniper Springs to Fern Hammock Springs, which is located within the same recreation area though is not open for swimming, offers ideal viewing spots of the boils--areas in the Earth's crust where the water is gushing out to the surface. These white sandy areas that stand out in the otherwise crystal-blue waters are constantly bubbling and look like sandy magma rising to the surface. Frequent visitors know about the resident alligator, which can usually be safely seen from a raised bridge in Fern Hammock Springs every day, offering a great opportunity to say that you have actually seen an alligator in Florida. …

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