Miami Day Trips: Blue Spring State Park
Sultry Florida sizzles in the summer, leading visitors and residents alike to run for the water. While many believe that their only choices are swimming pools, murky rivers and lakes, the Gulf or the Atlantic, there is another frequently overlooked option that’s shark, sludge and chlorine free: the natural springs!
Central Florida has more of them in one area than any other spot on the planet. Remember Ponce de Leon and his quest for the fountain of youth? It was this region’s healing spring waters that brought our forefathers here in the first place!
And of all the springs in Florida, it is said that none are as prolific and noteworthy as Blue Spring (2100 West French Avenue, Orange City, Florida 32763, 386-775-3663). Each day, it pumps out some 100,000,000 gallons of fresh water, making it one of the largest springs in North America. Located just about 2 miles west of Orange City, this sprawling 2483-acre state park is about a four and a half hour drive from Miami; with its 51 campsites and four cabins, it makes for a perfect weekend getaway.
So how did it get here?
THE FLORIDAN AQUIFER
Deep beneath the Sunshine State’s surface is a layer of permeable rock which gradually filters rainwater over a period of many years. The pristine, transparent, mineral-rich H20 collects and rises up through a network of subterranean caves, producing “boils”, so-named for the manner in which the water bubbles up to the surface.
Contrary to what the name implies, the spring water in Florida isn’t hot (with the exception of Big Salt Spring and Little Salt Spring, near Tampa). It maintains a constant, year-round temperature of 72 degrees, just the right temperature for a refreshing summer dip—but too cold for harmful bacteria like the flesh-eating Chromobacterium violaceum that is sometimes found in lakes.
That’s a little too nippy and clear for alligators, who prefer to congregate in warmer, murkier waters. However, manatees love it during the winter months, making this one of the most popular places in the state to observe these unique mammals. In fact, Blue Spring is closed off for swimming during that time because over 200 of these snowbirding sea cows flock to it from the nearby St. John’s River, whose winter temperature can dip down to about 50 degrees.
During the summer months, the most common fish is the scary-looking but timid gar. The boil’s low oxygen content makes marine life scarce for many species; however, the gar get their oxygen from the water’s surface.
THE HISTORY OF BLUE SPRING
For hundreds of years, Blue Spring was a home to the Timicuan Indians, who found its location on the St. John’s River to be an ideal spot for hunting and fishing. In 1766, British explorer and botanist John Bartram visited the area while searching for resources of value to the Crown. Later, in 1856, gold rush prospector turned orange farmer named Louis Thursby bought this land, making it a prime steamboat destination for visiting northerners, prior to the advent of the railroad in the 1880s. He built an impressive home atop the Timicuan shellmound in 1872 and lived there until his death from consumption in 1890.
The property remained in the Thursby family until 1972, when it was purchased by the state of Florida and converted into a state park.
LAY OF THE LAND
A wooden boardwalk runs along the periphery of the run, which feels like a clear river. The main swimming area is just down from the complex. A 10-minute walk along the wood plank trail leads to the springhead in one direction, and past the Thursby House to the St. John’s River in the other.
At the springhead, people congregate around the underwater cave with scuba and snorkel equipment, or simply float idly along the water’s gentle current on inner tubes in a setting that would make the Creature from the Black Lagoon jealous.
Beyond the swimming area are a number of viewing stations located off the main boardwalk where you can observe the local wildlife. The clear water allows you to see straight to the bottom, creating a natural aquarium in which you can watch schools of fish exploring the depths. Many species of birds flock to the water’s edge, while moss-laden oaks and cabbage palms provide a picturesque canopy.
Further back, the non-looping Pine Island Trail leads hikers on a 4.5 mile journey through awe-inspiring oak hammocks and pine forests.
Aside from swimming in the springs and hiking the trails, there is much to do here: admission to the first floor of the Thursby house is free and offers a captivating look at 19th century Florida life.
A two-hour narrated wildlife tour along the St. John’s River departs daily at 10 am and 1 pm near the junction of the spring and the river, at a rate of $22 for adults and $16 for children. For more details, call 407-330-1612 or 386-917-0724.
Canoes and kayaks can be rented in the same area, and house boats dock nearby.
Camping is available on 51 tent sites, which provide a table, grill, and water. In addition, six 2-bedroom cabins are available. They each feature a screened in porch, central air and heat, a gas fireplace (for use between November and March), a private bathroom and a fully-equipped kitchen. Linens, pillows, towels, and blankets are also provided.
Two caveats: there is a railway near the park and you will hear trains passing through at various times during the day and night. Also, during peak summer hours, they will shut the front gates if the park should fill to capacity. Therefore, arrive early on a non-holiday weekday, if possible. If camping, make sure to reserve in advance!
HOW TO GET TO BLUE SPRING
Driving Directions: Take exit 114 off Interstate 4 and follow the signs. Go south on 17/92 to Orange City, about 2.5 miles. Make a right onto West French Avenue. To see the complete route from Miami, click here.
The front gates are open from 8 am until sundown each day—unless the park should fill to capacity. Then the gates will close.
PARK FEES, AT THE TIME OF THIS WRITING
Call ahead or visit their website to verify rates.
For more pictures, click here.
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