Florida has an excellent array of over 150 state parks, allowing visitors to sample a wide range of natural areas, from coral reefs to whitewater. In Northeast and Central Florida, some of the best state parks are those centered on springs. During the summer, there’s no better way to escape the heat than cooling off in crystal clear, 72 degree spring water. Ichetucknee Springs State Park is one of the best known Florida state parks with springs. The park provides a variety of options for outdoor recreation.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park is best known for tubing on the Ichetucknee River, which flows six miles from the springs before it reaches the larger Santa Fe River. The beauty of the Ichetucknee River is almost unreal. You can look down into perfectly clear water, watching aquatic plants wave in the current and turtles and fish swim about. The river winds through a swamp with towering cypress trees, and until the power lines at the very end of the route, there is no sign of civilization – it’s as if the tube is a time machine taking you back to Old Florida. On a recent early morning trip, we were the only people on the river. With a mist rising from the water and cicadas whirring in the trees, we floated past turtles, owls, raccoons, and a family of otters.
Visitors can bring their own tubes (under five feet in diameter) or rent them from concessions just outside the park. The park runs a tram to shuttle visitors and their tubes from place to place. To reduce the amount of trash going into the Ichetucknee, no food or drinks are allowed on the trip. In peak season, the park can see 5,000 visitors a day, most of whom are there for tubing, so it’s important to start early and on a weekday if you want a quiet trip. There are several trip options: The full ride, open from late May to early September, starts just past Ichetucknee Springs and lasts approximately three hours – enter the park at the North Entrance. For shorter trips, enter the park at the South Entrance. Here, you can take a tram to the Midpoint Dock for a one and a half hour ride, or put in at Dampier’s Landing to reduce the ride to 45 minutes. South Entrance tubing is open year round. Whichever option you chose, the $5 per person tubing fee is well worth it for this unique experience. You can also canoe or kayak the Ichetucknee, but the slower ride provided by tubing leads to a more intimate experience with the river.
Swimming, Snorkeling, and Diving
The park contains two accessible springs: Ichetucknee Springs, for which it is named, and Blue Hole Springs. Both can be reached from the North Entrance, and both provide crystal clear, 72 degree water year round. Ichetucknee Springs can be crowded; for a more secluded swim, walk the half mile trail through floodplain forest to the larger Blue Hole Springs, named for the 30 foot deep, narrow hole with a shaft of sunlight casting a shimmering blue glow on the bottom. Taking a mask and snorkel to the springs allows you good views of aquatic life, and from October to March cave certified SCUBA divers can explore Blue Hole Springs for a $15 fee. The blue hole leads to an extensive cave system.
Ichetucknee Springs offers three short but scenic wooded hiking trails. The trail to Blue Hole Springs is a half mile walk, and your reward on a hot day is a cooling dip in the spring at the trail’s end. The Trestle Point Trail is an approximately mile long loop, part of which parallels the Ichetucknee River. The Pine Ridge Trail is a two mile loop through longleaf pine sand hills. Abundant wildlife can be seen on all the trails, including hawks, deer, and snakes. Although not extensive enough to warrant a park visit for themselves alone, the trails offer an interesting interlude from time spent in the water.
Many other excellent Florida state parks contain springs, but due to the unique and beautiful Ichetucknee River float trips, Ichetucknee Springs State Park should be a high priority on anyone’s list of parks to visit in North Florida.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park is located at 12087 S.W. U.S. 27, Fort White, Florida 32038. The number for the park is (386) 497-4690, and the park website, www.floridastateparks.org/ichetuckneesprings/default.cfm , provides additional information.