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Going Bananas Over The Silver River

Mammoth Spring, Silver River's headwaters

One of the most beautiful paddles I've done is the gorgeous Silver River near Ocala, Florida. The entire Silver River lies within Silver Springs State Park. One of Florida's top state parks, it has a very rich history. Only in 2013 did the state acquire the river's spring-fed headwaters. Prior to that, it was a private operation - in fact, this spring was Florida's first ever tourist attraction! In the 1870s, a man by the name of Phillip Morrell attached a piece of glass to the bottom of his rowboat and a tourism business was born! Ever since, some type of glass-bottom boat tour has been offered at Silver Springs, and that still continues to this day. Now operated by the state, they offer daily rides and you can find more information here. I have not personally taken this tour, however it's a wonderful way to get a sample of the river's beauty if you're not able, or not interested, in paddling the river yourself.

For those of you who do want to paddle the river, you have a few different options.

If you don't have your own vessel

If you go all the way to the right of the parking lot of the main entrance into Silver Springs State Park, you will easily find the launch site that is just a few minutes paddle away from Mammoth Spring, the headwaters to the Silver River. There is an outfitter on site you can rent canoes, kayaks or paddle boards from. While I've never rented from them, they've always seemed very friendly. Typically, you have two options for your paddle adventure.

Your first option is to paddle downstream for a while, then back upstream back to the launch. Just make sure you keep track of the time and know it will take more time and effort to paddle back upstream.

The second option is to paddle the entire 5+ miles downstream to Ray Wayside Park and grab their shuttle back to the parking. Please note that post-Covid this shuttle has been suspended, so make sure to call them ahead of time to know your options. At the time of writing this, there were no shuttle services, from any outfitter, available.

I have seen several different travelling outfitters with customers at the launch as well. I can't vouch for any of them, but a quick internet search will help you find some.

If you have your own vessel

The good news is, with our own vessel, you are on your own schedule and can paddle your heart out all day long. The bad news is, at the time of writing this post-Covid, there are no shuttles available from Ray Wayside Park back to the launch. So, you have a few options:

First, you can paddle however long you want downstream, then paddle back upstream to the launch. I have done this and it's not too bad, however if you're not an experienced paddler or are out of shape, it might be tough.

Second, you can drop your vessels off at the launch and have someone from your party stay with them (they have an area you can wait that isn't in other peoples' way) while you drive your vehicle to Ray Wayside Park ($5 charge/vehicle) and try to grab a cab for $15-$20 back to the launch. This is what we did and thankfully it worked out well. The only risk is there not being a cab available in a timely manner. You are close enough to Ocala to not be in the middle of nowhere, however we still had to wait a little while to get a driver from Uber and/or Lyft. And of course, if you have more than one vehicle, you can park a vehicle at each end and shuttle your travel partners back.

Your third option is to park and launch from Ray Wayside Park ($5 per vehicle), then paddle upstream as far as you want, then paddle back downstream. The benefit of this option is getting the upstream over with first, then you can relax back downstream. The con of this option is if you get too tired to paddle all the way to the headwaters, or you don't have enough time to do so, you will miss out on seeing the incredible Mammoth Spring at the headwaters.

If you are able to paddle the entire 5+ mile river, I highly recommend it! Once you get a half mile or so down from the main spring and headwaters, you almost have the river to yourself (especially while the shuttle services are suspended).

Monkeyin' Around

One of Florida's non-native Rhesus macaque monkeys in Silver Springs State Park

How did it take me this long to get to the monkeys?! There are no native monkey species to Florida; in fact, there are no native monkey species in all of the United States. So while they are definitely not supposed to be here, they are a delight to see! While Silver Springs went through several different ownerships before becoming acquired by the state, it was Colonel Tooey in the 1930s who released 6 Rhesus macaque monkeys, native to parts of Asia, onto "Monkey Island" to make his jungle cruises, well, more jungle-y. It was around that time that parts of the Tarzan movies were being filmed in the area, so what could be better than a small island with monkeys?! However, something he could have maybe researched ahead of time is that these monkeys can swim. And that's what they did. They swam right off Monkey Island and into the Silver Springs surrounding forests, where they easily adapted and thrived. I've ready many different articles, all with conflicting information on today's population of these feral monkeys, however it seems there might be a few hundred, with several different troops.

The biggest issue with these monkeys is the potential for monkey-human conflict. This is entirely the fault of irresponsible humans, since it is a learned behavior for these monkeys to interact with humans. Typically they would want to stay far away, however when irresponsible humans start offering handouts the monkeys quickly lose their fear of us. This species can carry the herpes B virus, which can be fatal to humans if left untreated. No infections have ever been reported from Silver Springs, but the more comfortable the monkeys get, the more likely there is for an injury. Feeding them can also cause issues within their social structure and lead to fights between the monkeys. And lastly, they are omnivorous, feeding on plants and small animals. They thrive off the natural diets found in the forest around the river, so your Cheetos and potato chips are obviously not good for their health.

A Rhesus macaque Mama with her baby clutching tightly

Will they stay?

I have no idea. Part of me thinks the state probably doesn't mind them, as they could bring in some tourism. However, you won't find much mention of them on any of the state park pages (even the history and faq), so that leads me to believe the state would like to ignore their existence. Since they can carry a life-threatening virus, perhaps they will eventually want to remove them? That would be a very expensive and controversial decision, so I'm sure they are hesitant to make that call as well. I feel it's a lose-lose situation for them unfortunately, and I have no idea if the monkeys are here to stay or will eventually be removed. I did find an article stating that the Department of Environmental Protection used to issue removal permits, and between 1984-2012 around 1000 monkeys were either removed or sterilized. The DEP stopped issuing those permits in 2012, after finding out that removed monkeys were ending up in research facilities. Since then, I do not believe there have been any efforts to control the population.

I appreciate this monkey's vibe!

Should they stay?

I don't have that answer. The environmentally conscious side of me says they should go, while the warm and fuzzy side of me says aww, let them stay. I can't really find solid information that they are damaging the ecosystem, however I don't know of too many situations where non-native animals were good for an ecosystem either. Regardless, they are a joy to see, and while they are here I definitely recommend you take a trip out to Silver Springs to (respectfully) look for them. I've been three times now, and only saw them once. According to one private outfitter's website, they see them almost every time (highly doubtful) and one kayaker we talked to says he has paddled the river often and has never seen them. So I really think it depends on the day and if you're feeling lucky.

What about the rest of the river?

Don't just come for the monkeys!

While it's a treat to see the monkeys, the river is TEEMING with other wildlife, all of which to my knowledge, is native. You can expect to see many different species of birds, fish, alligators, turtles, and if you're extra lucky, manatees (especially during the colder months). The crystal clear water and sandy bottom make this river look like it's somewhere in the middle of a Caribbean jungle.

Come winter, the trees are more bare and you'll need layers, but your chance of seeing these gentle giants is high!

A few things to keep in mind

  • This is not a "swimming" spring. Many springs in Florida offer a family-friendly swimming area. For the first mile or so of the Silver River there is a strict no swimming rule. Even after this point, while you are technically allowed to swim, there are no beach-like areas to get off your vessel.

  • Speaking of no beach-like areas to get out, there really aren't any places to get off your vessel, other than the launch inside the state park, about 2 miles downstream. If you need to, you can exit the water here, where you'll find a few benches and a porta-potty. In my opinion, this still is not a great swimming spot, but it does make for a good lunch spot and bathroom break.

  • Not only is it irresponsible to feed or harass the monkeys (or any wildlife), it is a second degree misdemeanor and punishable by a fine of up to $500 and 60 days in jail. Just leave them alone and watch from a distance!

  • In addition to the 5 mile river, there is also a shorter 1.1 mile roundtrip loop available called the Fort King Paddling Trail. It is near the headwaters, so make sure you don't pass it if that is your plan. We once met a couple several miles downstream and they asked us "when is it going to start looping back?" They were NOT pleased when I informed them they most certainly missed their turn and they needed to paddle several miles upstream.

  • If you are camping at Silver Springs State Park, your launch fee and park fee are both waved. Make sure to bring your parking tag to show the concessionaire at the launch site.

  • Pack the essentials. The Florida heat can really beat you down quickly. Snacks, water, hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, and long sleeve rash guards are a must in my opinion. We didn't have issues with bugs, but bug spray is another good thing to have on hand. A few other suggestions would be a waterproof phone case (and a way to keep it handy for pictures, while also keeping it from falling overboard) and a set of towels and change of clothes in the car for afterwards.

What are you waiting for?

If you're looking for a serene and breathtaking place for your first paddle or your thousandth paddle, I highly recommend you check out the Silver River. I give it a 10/10 and I will happily go back any time the opportunity arises!

Have questions? Did I miss something? Comment below!

Big thanks to my dad for doing all the work the day I brought my nice camera!

A few interesting links...


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