Situated in Orange City in Central Florida, Blue Spring State Park is a haven of beauty that evokes the “Old Florida” and its natural wonders. The park is famous for its eponymous Blue Spring, where 102 million gallons of water flow out of Blue Spring into the St. Johns River every day. It is also well-known for being a wintertime gathering place for the manatees. The manatees congregate at the 73 °F spring and the spring run when the temperature of the St John River system dips lower than is comfortable for them.
On chilly days, as many as 400 manatees have been counted there. How close can you get to them? About a few feet away, from the viewing platform nearest the water. Keep in mind, interaction with the manatees is not permitted due to the fact that they are a protected species. Visitors will find other creatures and wildlife during warmer seasons. In any season, the park is well worth a visit to stroll, sightsee, relax, reflect, and enjoy some of the hidden wonders of the Sunshine State.
The Thursby House
Stop in to see the Thursby House, a wonderfully sited three-story white house with large porches. The house has served as an orange grove plantation house since it was built in 1872. In addition, it served as a fishing and hunting hotel. If you are lucky a bluegrass group may be perched on the porch offering sweet sounds that evoke a simpler time. Young children will enjoy rolling down the long grass lawn in front of the house. Inside there are some special historic displays to see.
The spring run is the centerpiece of the park. You can walk it from the St John River to the spring itself. An easy to manage trail that is part paved and part boardwalk. As you follow the stream’s course there are many overlooks where you can gaze down upon the clear waters. Also, you may see herons, egrets, ibis, anhinga, and cormorants, as the water’s edge. In the water, you may see turtles, catfish, tilapia, gar, sunfish, and schools of mullet. It is not unusual to see otters, raccoons, red-shouldered hawks, owls, and wood storks. In addition, you might see songbirds in the wooded areas. Occasionally bears have also been seen. As for “tame” life, well-behaved dogs on leashes are welcome to stroll the park with you.
Things to Do and See
Near the big viewing area, there is a small gift shop and café. Here you can order simple food such as hot dogs and hamburgers, and then eat them on the patio outside. Or plan ahead and bring a picnic, there are numerous tables to perch and enjoy an alfresco meal. Some of them are near the big playground that is a magnet for the younger visitors, where another small snack bar also awaits.
Blue Spring & Scenic Views
While you can have a very nice time by staying in the portion of the park between the Thursby House and the river, a visit to the park would not be complete without making your way all the way to Blue Spring itself. Once there, you have several choices about seeing it. The lower path takes you to the spring’s pool. Or you can follow the upper path, which provides a view of the spring from above. Along the walk are many informative signs about the spring and the wildlife.
Gift Shop & Cafe
One of the signs reminds visitors that alligators can be present, and to be alert to that possibility. The sign actually says, “Alligators Swim with Caution”, which does not mean that the alligators take particular care when they are swimming, but rather that visitors should. I share this not to alarm but to inform you.
For a truly delightful several hours, plan ahead to take a boat tour on the St John’s River, which you can access in the park. The tour starts at the dock at the foot of the park where it meets the river. St. Johns River Cruises and Tours operate boat tours daily at 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. The large and comfortable open-air pontoon boat allows for a two-hour hour exploration of the river that was the first source for the settlement of this region of Florida long before there were roads or railroads. Canoeing, kayaking, fishing, scuba diving, and swimming (when permitted) are all offered at Blue Spring State Park.
People come from all over to experience Blue Spring State Park. On a recent visit, we spotted license plates from 28 US states and 4 Canadian provinces. There are camping options in the park. There are a number of motels in Orange City, which had grown tremendously in the past several decades. Most any chain type food restaurant is represented there. Also, you may enjoy exploring the Heritage Inn. It houses a cafe, barber shop, and a free postal museum, in addition to being a hotel—it claims to be the oldest in the state—located directly on 17-92. If you would like to enjoy a comfortable meal right on the St John ’s River, with great views of the water, you can do that, at the Swamp House Riverfront Grill, in DeBary.