Close to Orlando and Daytona Beach sits one of the most special places in Florida. Sure, there are hundreds of springs you can choose to spend your weekend at in the Sunshine State. But Blue Spring State Park is one of the best places in Florida to get outside and see some great nature.
In the winter, the spring is home to hundreds of manatees, but Blue Spring State Park is fun year-round. Come in the winter to see the manatees floating through St. Johns River or try to catch a glimpse of a bald eagle eyeing his next dinner below the water’s surface.
In the summer, rent a tube or a kayak and explore the streams that flow from the spring, like Snake Creek. You can also enjoy a paved biking trail or an out-and-back hiking trail that takes you through the area that lets you feel like you’re in a jungle without having to leave Florida. If you are planning on going to Blue Spring in the summer, get to the park early especially on the weekends so the park doesn’t hit its capacity before you’re able to get in.
Blue Springs State Park is an excellent vacation destination no matter the time of year. You can spend your weekends in the winter searching for manatees and bird watching. And come back in the summer so you can do water sports. It is a great slice of heaven close to Orlando that everyone falls in love with.
Where is it
You can find Blue Spring State Park about an hour north of Orlando and 30 minutes from Daytona Beach in Orange City. It is a fantastic spot for people just visiting the area, or locals, to come to year-round.
There are more than 1,000 natural springs throughout Florida, but the St. John’s River and Blue Spring State Park are one of the hidden gems. The water here remains 72 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. It is a designated manatee refuge, which has more and more West Indian Manatees returning every winter. It is recommended to visit the park in the mid-morning before the heat of the day sets in, both in the summer and winter.
Things to do
Depending on the time of year, you may not be able to do everything you want in Blue Spring Park. There is always plenty to do no matter what time of year you head to Blue Spring:
Blue Springs manatees can be seen in the waters at any point during the year, but you are more likely to see them from mid-November until mid-March. Blue Spring is where the main manatee research projects and studies are conducted. Researchers will photograph them to study their scar patterns to see how many generations can make it back each year. There have been moments in recent history where 400 manatees were sighted in one day!
Because of these slow-moving giants lurking in the water, you cannot do any water-related sports from November 15 through March 1. You can look for manatees from the half-mile-long boardwalk on the perimeter of the spring. You will also be able to see giant gar, schools of fish, and many even alligators also swimming in the spring water. If you want to swim with manatees, consider visiting Crystal River instead.
Some tours go through Blue Spring on kayaks or standup paddleboards at different lengths of time in the late fall and winter months. The tours will take you to the St. John’s River that flows through the park.
Whether you go in the summer or winter, there are tons of opportunities to go bird watching. You can see eagles, wading birds, and ospreys all looking into the spring to find their next meal. There are also the endangered Florida scrub jays, which live in the protected areas of the park. And while not a bird, you may even see an armadillo.
Swimming, tubing, and snorkeling
Swimming at Blue Springs State Park is a very popular activity for people to do in the summer heat because of the constant 72 degrees Fahrenheit water temperature. There are many different spots you can use to hop into the spring water and a concession stand on the boardwalk. You can also rent tubes at the concession stand.
A lot of people will come to this park in the summer to go tubing down the spring since it is so close to major hubs like Orlando and Daytona Beach. And yes, there are alligators in the water. But, since there is so much human activity, they do keep to themselves and there haven’t been any alligator attacks in the park’s history.
It may be hard to believe, but you can go scuba diving in Blue Spring Park if you are certified and have a dive partner with you. You also are not allowed to go diving if the manatees are in the park, which is monitored by staff and volunteers. Besides diving into the main area of St. Johns River, you can head down different streams and find underwater caves that scuba divers enjoy exploring.
Canoeing, kayaking, and paddleboarding
You can rent kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards from the concession stand inside Blue Spring State Park. There are very strict rules about where you can paddle since they want to keep people and groups close by in case someone needs to be rescued. If you want to go and enjoy a longer adventure, head up to Snake Creek.
On the Spring-to-Spring rail trail, there is an 11-mile round trip paved trail that is perfect for cyclists of all levels. You will ride from Blue Spring State Park to Lake Beresford Park, which has restrooms and picnic tables so you can spend some time before heading back.
Walking and hiking
The main hiking trail in Blue Spring State Park is the Pine Island Trail, a 7.2-mile out and back trail. You will walk past the pines and the marsh and through an oak hammock around the perimeter of the park. There are signs throughout that will tell you what native species of flora and fauna you’re walking past and what fun creatures you may stumble upon.
Renting a boat
One of the most fun things to do in Blue Spring Park is going on a St. Johns River Cruise and Tour! This is a two-hour tour that will teach you about the ecology and nature in the park and surrounding areas. It is considered by many to be one of the most popular nature tours in the state of Florida. The open-air—but covered with a canopy—boat gives you 360-degree viewing opportunities as your guide points out all that is around you.
Touring the Thursby House
In 1857, Louis Thursby and his family were some of the first European settlers to come to this part of Florida. He grew an orange grove on the land and a pier for the steamboats that went through the spring.
You can now tour the house that he built, a preserved testament to the frontier days of Florida’s state history. When on a tour of the house, you can learn about the transition in Florida from steamboat to railroad and modern electricity, while also seeing glimpses into how the Thursby family lived.
There is a lot more history here than just from pre-Civil War Americana. This land was inhabited by Native Americans for nearly 6,000 years before European settlers came. Throughout Blue Spring are archaeological sites called middens. These are mounds that were created by debris from prehistoric people and communities. In these middens, researchers can find out the diet, crafts, trade, and patterns of prehistoric communities.
Playing on the playground
As if the chances of seeing manatees or going on a river cruise weren’t exciting enough, there is also a great playground that kids just love. The playground is also next to the shaded picnic area, so it’s a great spot to spend your lunchtime and tire your kids out before heading back to your house or hotel.
Camping and cabins
If you want to use the cabins, you will have to plan far enough ahead—there are six cabins, all two bedrooms, available at the park. Covered by shaded oak branches, each has one bedroom with a double bed and a second with two single beds. The living rooms also feature a sleeper sofa. The cabins all come with central air and a gas fireplace, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a screened porch that leads out to a grill and picnic table. The kitchens are not stocked with any cutlery or bowls, so be sure to bring your own. Pets are not allowed in the cabins.
There are also 51 campsites to camp in the park. Each of these campsites has electric and water hookups, as well as a grill and picnic table. There is also a dump station for campers. The maximum length for an RV is 40 feet. Pets are also welcomed in the campsite area. Reservations can be made up to 11 months early, and they can go fast!
What to pack
Whether you want to visit for a day or spend a whole weekend at Blue Spring State Park, it is important that you pack appropriately. You’ll be outside during your stay, so you will need to bring your sun gear with you. This includes sunscreen, a hat or cap, and sunglasses. It is also a park with a lot of nature and water right there, so it would be smart to pack bug spray as well. If you’re going for birdwatching, you will also want to pack your binoculars and/or camera.
There is a concession stand at the park and you can purchase water, drinks, and food here, but hours can be a little limited. However, you can also bring in your own to save a little bit of money, especially for water. Plus, everyone loves a picnic overlooking a spring!
A few tips if you are visiting:
- Bring water, sunscreen and bug spray.
- Try to arrive at the park early, especially in the summer. They frequently close the park when it reaches capacity.
- There are limited facilities (including restaurants and lodging) near the park, so plan ahead.
- If you have children, keep a close eye on them. There are alligators, snakes, and other creatures that your children might not like to encounter.
Location: 2100 West French Ave., Orange City, FL 32763
Hours: Open from 8 a.m. until sundown every day (campers can stay later)
Admission: $6 per vehicle
Where to stay
If you want to stay close to the park, but are looking for a bit more comfortable than the cabins, consider the Holiday Inn Express in Orange City. However, the park is close enough to Orlando that all of the hotels in Orlando (and even the theme parks) will also work.
Whether you make it a day trip or a whole weekend adventure, you are guaranteed to have a fun time at Blue Spring State Park. The park is perfect for families, young adults, or those that have always wanted to see a manatee in the wild. The park strives to be a source and space for conservation and knowledge, imparting to its guests the importance of knowing the environment around you. It is a very special place that is the winter home to some of the most special and treasured creatures in Florida, the manatee.
Next time you’re visiting Orlando or the Daytona Beach area, take a drive out to Orange City and spend some time in Blue Spring State Park.