~ Florida is blessed with hundreds of crystal clear springs, representing the highest concentration of freshwater springs on Earth.Â Many of these springs have been set aside for public use and to protect habitats for a wide variety of wildlife that depend on them for survival.
Blue Spring State Park is on the eastern edge of a vast basin of preserved lands — state parks, wildlife refuges and water management preserves â€“ that protect the watershed of the oddly north-flowing St. Johnâ€™s River, making this park an ideal launching pad for paddling your canoe or kayak in the wild.
People gravitate here in summer to keep cool, but the big attraction is in winter, when large herds of manatees gather here to keep warm. Â Blue Springâ€™s constant 72 degree water temperature is inviting to both breeds of mammal.
The spring and its run are closed to swimmers and divers from mid-November until March to accommodate the manatees.
Shortly after the spring is opened to swimmers in March, Blue Spring has a brief “firefly season.” For three or four weeks, usually the first weeks of April, thousands of fireflies light up the woods at dusk. The park lets day visitors stay late to see it. Here are details.
Historically, Blue Spring was an important steamboat landing along the St. Johnâ€™s River, dating back to the mid-19th Century. Â The boats would load agricultural goods and tourists at the landing for transport â€œdownâ€ the St. Johnâ€™s to Jacksonville and beyond.
The state didnâ€™t take it over until the late 1960s. At the time, visitors had abused the natural spring, driving their cars and parking on the banks, littering and dumping garbage in the woods around the spring.
During the 1970s, boardwalks and other improvements were gradually made and the area cleaned up, returning it to its near-pristine state today.
If you drove through Orange City, youâ€™d barely know Blue Spring State Park is there. Watch closely for signs, and then turn off U.S. 17 onto two-lane West French Avenue, which takes you through a typical suburban neighborhood until you reach the park entrance.
Camping and cabins at Blue Spring State Park
This is not my favorite campground, largely because you feel like youâ€™re camping in thick underbrush with no trees.
I was in a tent, so I was particularly sensitive to the closeness of the thicket, low-growing scrub palm and the hard-packed sand and shellrock ground beneath my tent. I was uncomfortable.
Night and day, especially at dusk or dawn, you could hear the critters scampering around in the thicket, and you never knew what would pop out on your picnic table. During the day, it was difficult to escape the sun for the lack of trees and shade.
I think it would have been more comfortable if I was in an RV, although it would still have been cramped.
Blue Spring State Park
2100 West French Ave.
Orange City, FL 32763
Park Office: (386) 775-3663
Reservations: Book online through ReserveAmerica
Scenic rating: 8 out of 10 (campground itself is a 4)
Family rating: 8 out of 10
Sites: 51 sites for RVs or tents and six cabins
Hookups: Water and electric; dump station in the campground
Reservations: Up to 11 months in advance through ReserveAmerica, or call 800-326-3521
Pets: Yes, but follow the rules.
There are a total of 51 campsites, for $24 per night, and six two-bedroom cabins, which rent for $95 per night.
The cabins, on the other hand, are terrific. They are located in a shady oak hammock near the spring. One bedroom has a double bed and the other has twin singles. There is also a sleeper sofa in the living room with converts to a double bed. Â Each cabin has central air, a bathroom, fully equipped kitchen, a screened porch and outdoor grill with a picnic table. Here’s more about cabins in this and nearby parks.
Each of the 51 campsites has water and electric hookups, a picnic table and a grill. There are no sewer hookups, although there is a dump station available to campers in the park. Pets are allowed in the camping area. Maximum RV length is 40 feet.
The campground is near the spring, and there is a path that will take you there.
Reservations for both the cabins and camping are available up to 11 months in advance through ReserveAmerica, which handles campground bookings for most state parks.
Another option for tenters and boat campers is to paddle from Blue Spring State Park to the adjacent Hontoon Island State Park, which also has cabin rentals.
Swimming, tubing and scuba diving at Blue Spring State Park
Swimming and diving with the manatees is prohibited, but once they move out in March], the spring and run reopen to swimmers and divers.
This is a wonderful swimming hole with multiple access points from a boardwalk that also allows you to hike through the woods along the run to the spring itself. Â You can rent tubes, buy souvenirs or get a snack at the concession stand at the beginning of the boardwalk at the far end of the parking lot.
Tubers carry their tubes up the boardwalk to an entry point just below the spring. The takeout is a quarter mile downstream.
Scuba divers must register at the entrance to the park and provide proof of up-to-date certification, and you must have a partner.
Canoeing and kayaking (and other boats)
Blue Spring Run and the St. Johnâ€™s River offer an unbelievably wild environment for paddling, both north and south of the park.
Adventurous sorts can paddle upriver into the Wekiva River basin, or paddle to Hontoon Island State Park, where youâ€™ll find another 12 primitive campsites, 40 boat slips for boat campers, as well as six rustic, one-room cabins with bunk beds, a ceiling fan, a single electric outlet and screened porch.
There are two launches at the park, one inside the gate at the canoe concession on the St. Johnâ€™s River, and another outside the gate, where you donâ€™t have to pay the $4 park admission to access the river. You can also launch larger motorboats outside the park. (To find the St. Johns boat ramp, go past the park entrance on a shell rock road that dead-ends at the river.)
If you plan to rent a kayak or canoe, then going inside the park is your only choice. Â You can rent a kayak or canoe at the main concession on the river. Â An added bonus: this concession also operates a tour boat that will take you out on the river with a guide.
Hiking and biking at Blue Spring State Park
There is a four-mile nature trail through pine flatwoods and a marsh (wear boots in summer) and an oak hammock, where there are four primitive campsites. Â The trail is off-limits to bicyclists, but there are other areas available for biking, mostly on park roads.
Drive two miles back to U.S. 17/92 (Volusia Ave.) for a full complement of eateries, grocery stores, etc., that you would find in a suburban community.
Check out this Florida Rambler story on the nearby Wekiva River Basin.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection web site about Florida’s Springs
Campground reservations through ReserveAmerica
Take Interstate 4 to exit 114 (State Road 472) and follow the signs to U.S. 17/92. Go a little more than two miles south on 17/92 to the traffic light at French Ave. Turn right and go two miles through a neighborhood of modest homes to Blue Spring State Park.
If you are going to launch your own boat, continue past the park entrance on a shell rock road to the free boat launch at the river.