Located just off the busy I-4 Corridor in Orange City, Florida is a beautiful spot featuring the natural beauty and resources of Florida. Blue Spring State Park is an easy drive for tourists visiting the East Coast beaches, or the theme parks in Central Florida. Here you can escape the hustle and bustle and discover the real Florida year-round.
Blue Spring was discovered by Europeans in 1774 when John Bartram was exploring the waters. Later history saw Blue Spring purchased by the Thursby family their house still stands at the park. During the 1850 to 1880 period when Louis Thursby first established himself there was a lot of steamboat activity for shipping at Blue Spring and on the St. Johns River in this area—before the railroads came through in the 1880s. Thursby was a gold prospector and later an orange grower, and his wife was the first Post Master of Orange City.
The Blue Spring itself and its diverse wildlife is the real attraction here. The spring discharges 104 gallons of water each day into St. Johns River. The crystal clear waters are home to gar and sunfish which you can clearly see from the boardwalks around the spring. Alligators, tortoises, bears, and various species of water birds also call Blue Spring home. In all 15 species of threatened or endangered plants and animals are found at Blue Spring.
In the winter, West Indian Manatees are the reason many tourists flock to Blue Spring, and the reason for my recent visit on the way to Orlando. The warm waters of Blue Spring stay at 72 degrees and serve as a winter refuge for these beautiful native animals. They come in from the St. Johns River to seek the warmth of the Spring. On the day we visited there had been a run of about 90 Manatees in the Spring in the morning, but as the day warmed up they ventured out into the River to forage for food. As we strolled around the 1/3 mile boardwalk through the hammock of hardwoods we were able to see at least a dozen Manatees in the clear blue waters.
The colder the weather, the more Manatees come up into the Spring waters. The week prior to our visit Central Florida experiences a cold snap and we were told by rangers that 550 Manatees were in Blue Spring seeking its warmth. As amazing as the number was that we saw, I can’t imagine over 500!
We really enjoyed our time at Blue Spring walking along the trails and boardwalk and taking in the beautiful sights. We walked through the three-story white clapboard Thursby House finished in 1872, it gave us a nice chance to learn about Florida’s early history and agricultural heritage.
There is a nice gift shop at the park so that you can take home a memento of your visit, along with a snack bar. With plenty of picnic tables, you could bring your own lunch, or get a sandwich or hot dog (and other snacks) from the shop. There is also a playground for the kids to run off some steam if they’ve been in the car for a while traveling.
In the Summer Blue Spring State Park takes on a different identity with lots of recreational activities for your family. Swimming is allowed in Blue Spring (although not while the Manatees are there in the winter). In the summer the water stays at 72 degrees, so it may feel a little cool, but that is a nice break from the hot and humid Central Florida weather. Guests can swim, snorkel, or tube in Blue Spring. You are also allowed to Scuba dive if you are a certified diver, you just need to check in before you begin.
River Cruises and Segway Tours
Blue Spring offers cruises on the St. Johns River that feature 2-hour narrated nature and ecological tours. There is a fee for the cruises and they depart twice daily, or once from January-April. There is a Wilderness Escape guided Segway X2 Experience through the backcountry parts of Blue Spring State Park. Reservations for the Segway Experience are required 24 hours in advance.
Canoe and Kayak Tours
The experience I want to return for is the Blue Spring Paddling Adventures “Up Close & Personal.” The equipment is provided, and the tour is led by guides who are very familiar with the area to help you spot wildlife and learn about the ecology of the Blue Spring and the St. Johns River. Being able to experience the Blue Spring by paddling in lets you access areas that others cannot and gives you a sense of what those early settlers and explorers like Bartram may have experienced. Kayak and Canoe rentals are also available for self-guided tours, but I recommend going out with a guide to make the most of your time on the water and learn about Florida’s natural history. A 4-mile hiking trail is also part of the park.
If you wish to stay overnight there are 50 campsites with water, electricity, tables, and fire rings, along with 6 cabins available to rent. There is a hiking trail through the woods to the Blue Spring, or you can take a bike. There are also dedicated areas for boating, swimming, and sightseeing.
Blue Spring State Park is a popular destination in the Winter and the Summer. We visited on a Thursday mid-morning and one of the two parking lots was already full, the second was nearly full when we arrived. As we left the park around 12:30-1:00 pm there was a line of cars down a side strip waiting to be able to enter the park. No matter what time of year you come you will want to arrive early to make sure you are able to get in. In the Winter time if you want to see the Manatees in the Spring a cooler day is better, and it seems that earlier in the mornings may give you a better chance of seeing more of them.
I highly recommend a stop at Blue Spring State Park, whether it is a side trip on your way to or from Orlando, or if you want to make a full day trip out of it. We plan on coming back in the summer to enjoy more of the recreational opportunities like the paddling tours.