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Orlando Nature Tour, Day One

An Exhilarating Orlando Nature Drive

Experiencing natural Florida

You'lll love this!

Starting in Orlando, this driving itinerary visits beautiful gardens, several subtropical forests, almost pristine springs and swimming holes, two wild rivers, beaches without development (a rarity in Florida), salt marshes, orange groves, scenic highways, and the famed Kennedy Space Center, set adjacent to a wildlife preserve.

You'll experience a large variety of animals, reptiles, and birds in their natural settings. Driving directions are given throughout.

Duration: One to four days. Spending just one day is very worthwhile.

Too many Florida travelers just focus on the artificial Florida—the planned theme parks, the big hotels, the manicured beaches—and do not experience just how beautiful this state is.

Here, you will transcend the non-natural and have an experience that will be remembered for a lifetime.

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When to go, what to bring

From June through October, you may encounter heavy thunderstorms, but these usually brief rains should not spoil enjoyment of your trip, unless nature provides the most truly memorable Florida natural experience, a hurricane, which seldom reach this area.

On the first day, bring along some items for a picnic lunch at one or more of the springs described below, as on site food is limited, but remember to pack food that will not spoil quickly in the heat.

Dress lightly. Long-sleeved t-shirts and light trousers made of natural fibers are fine. If you do not plan to take the long canoe ride described below, short-sleeved t-shirts and shorts are better. Have mosquito repellent, sun block, comfortable shoes, a hat, a swimming suit and a beach towel, and during the rainy season a light rain parka. From November through February, take along a light sweater or jacket, but you may not need to use it.

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Day One

Starting out from Orlando

If driving on weekdays, leave Orlando before the morning "rush hour" (between approximately 6:30 and 9:00 A.M.) or immediately after it.

From Orlando, zip northwest on the Florida Turnpike, which charges a small toll. (When driving in Florida, always carry coins, especially quarters, which you can throw into bins at toll booths, instead of waiting in longer queues for change. Some rental car companies provide a "SunPass," which let's you skip the cash only line. Ask.)

From the turnpike exit 285, go north on State Route 19.

Continue on Route 19 through Eustis, Florida, a pleasant small town, and enter the Ocala National Forest.

Soon on the left you see the entrance to the U.S. Forrest Service visitor information center. Be sure to stop, as its very pleasant staff offers excellent advice and free maps and guides.

Continue north on Route 19 until you reach the marked turn off to Alexander Spring. Turn right. (If you reach State Highway 40, you have gone too far).

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Viewing nature at Alexander Spring

Alexander Spring, a wonderful natural preserve, comes up on your left. Enter and pay the small entrance fee.

At Alexander Spring, a large spring gives birth to a real river in a fabulous natural setting.

You'll love swimming in the large pool formed by the spring surrounded by semi-tropical vegetation.

The water temperature is perfect for warm days. If certified, you can scuba here. The large sand beach accommodates many without crowding.

Change rooms come with hot showers. Camping, too, is available, as well as pleasant picnic areas.

Here, wildlife and bird observation is superb.

You may take marked paths to observation decks to view wildlife, including at times eagles and other birds. If you see brown bears, do not approach them.

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Canoeing at Alexander Springs

The paths are interesting, but the big deals are the canoes that can be rented to travel down river. As of this writing, approximately $26 gets a group a canoe for a day, and a pick up from some 7 miles away with transportation back to the spring. Contact the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center, 1 352-669-3522 or 1 352 669-7495, near Alexander Spring to verify the current availability of boats and pickup.

However, you must be brave.

After signing a form at the boat rental stand that releases the owners from all liability in case of accident, you are given a boat and a heartfelt goodbye and good luck, and off you go.

Almost immediately, you see alligators sunning themselves on the banks, looking at you, and thinking of dinner (Once in awhile, a gator heads for the swimming area. That is always exciting!).

Do not approach these reptiles! Even the small ones can do serious damage to capsized boaters.

Howwever, any fear is forgotten, as the beauty of the river is stunning.

A profusion of birds fly overhead, including eagles at times. Because the water is so pure and clear, river life too is easily visible. This is a wonderful place.

Take the time to enjoy this spectacle, but do not take foolish chances. If your children are not mature enough to behave themselves and follow simple instructions, do not attempt this canoe trip with them.

Otherwise, go for this wonderful opportunity to canoe here, as traveling a short distance on this wild river may be one of your most memorable travel experiences.

Nevertheless, if you do not want to, beautiful but less demanding alternatives come later on. And just the swimming beach here and nature trails here make this a worthwhile stop.



Enjoying Juniper Springs

When done, exit Alexander Spring and turn left.

Continue to the "T" junction, and turn right.

Drive on a short distance to State Highway 40, and carefully turn left, watching out for the fast traffic on Route 40.

Go west on Highway 40 to the entrance to Juniper Springs. Be careful, as its sign is on the left side of Route 40, but the actual entrance is on the right.

If you did not canoe at Alexander, you may wish to experience Juniper Springs, another excellent swimming spot. Or, you can visit it tomorrow morning.

The more tamed Juniper Springs is usually more crowded than Alexander, but it is very pretty and worthwhile visiting. Picnic tables are available.

During your drive through the Ocala National Forest, you have crossed the marked Florida National Scenic Trail several times. For this very sandy trek, you should bring boots and should not walk alone.

Ocala, Florida

Now, some readers have done the canoe ride at Alexander Spring, and it is getting late. Others may be getting hungry.

In any case, from Juniper Springs, continue west on Highway 40 into the city of Ocala. Numerous restaurants line Route 40, Silver Springs Boulevard, as it passes through Ocala, while others are found along the side routes like U.S. Highway 441 and State Highway 200 that branch off Route 40.

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Silver Springs

Even if you did the canoe ride at Alexander, try to spend some time at Silver Springs, one of the largest and most impressive springs in the world.

You enter from the left side of Route 40, just east of Ocala. You won’t miss the turnoff, which is well signed.

Silver Springs is a commercial development, albeit a nice one.

The first major theme park developed in Florida, back when Orlando was merely a small trading center for the local citrus growers, Silver Springs still has a wholesome, natural charm that some human-made parks lack.

The setting of Silver Springs has been much more modified than other springs in the area, but the springs—there are some 12 of them, including the largest in the state—create a river as wild and beautiful as any in Florida.

The rather steep admission fee includes a fascinating glass-bottomed boat ride that views the various springs that form the river.

Numerous species of fish are seen, and you experience the power of the huge outflows that create the river. The boats give views as fine as you would have by donning a scuba-driving outfit.

Wonderful nature cruises (the "Lost River" cruises), included in the admission, glide along the river, where knowledgeable guides help you identify the profusion of animals, reptiles, and birds seen.

The boats stop at Silver Springs' animal rehabilitation Center, where, if possible, injured birds and animals from all over Florida are conditioned to return to the wild. Otherwise, they live their last days in an environment of loving care.

One of the most popular attractions at the park is the birds of prey show held periodically throughout the day.

Other attractions exist, especially for smaller children, so you can easily spend a half day or longer. Note that the park closes early.

If you must return to Orlando by car today, continue west on Route 40 through Ocala to Interstate 75. Take I-75 southbound to Florida's Turnpike. Then drive southeast on the turnpike into the Orlando area. Do not worry if you must drive from Ocala after dark, because the route is not very scenic.

Otherwise, overnight in the Ocala area. Check out the discount prices available on Hotels.com and Hotwire.com.

Go on to day Two of the nature tour.

(Those who have just two days for the tour can either continue on to day Two or join the tour in Ormond Beach on day Three.)


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