Of everywhere I’ve ever lived, it seems like all the great abundant beauty of nature is being swallowed up to make way for another suburban community, strip mall, or apartment complex. I recently moved into a neighborhood lush and green, where great blue herons graze on people’s lawns and leaping lizards bask in the balmy sun. My heart broke one morning as I was driving past the cow pasture on my street. I watched as the cattle craned their necks through a freshly constructed barbed wire fence. They gazed forlornly as tractors tore up the pasture they had just lounged around in the previous day. The developers were starting work on another massive apartment community.
This urban sprawl is the origin of my great esteem of state parks. I know that even when my sleepy little neighborhood is being paved over to build the next great theme park, there will always be protected lands just a stone’s throw away from my front door. They’re peaceful and clean, and admission to the parks is a bargain.
Today, I visited one of my favorites, Blue Springs State Park in central Florida’s Orange City. Less than an hour northeast of Orlando, Blue Springs offers a picturesque day of nature observation and activities. The park is a designated manatee refuge best known for its winter-time congregation of endangered manatees. But the park has an extensive history as well.
Blue Spring is the largest spring that feeds into the St. John’s River. Far into the woods, it boils up from a depth of 120 feet through limestone caverns. One hundred and four million gallons of 72°F water flow out of the spring every day, the temperature never changing. The water here is so low in oxygen content that there is very little vegetation and fish don’t dare to swim here. As the water flows towards the river, it becomes oxygenated and the waterway comes to life. Schools of large-mouth bass, snaggle-toothed gar, and freshwater stingrays swim amongst manatees, turtles, and snakes. I even saw two enormous alligators on the opposite shore.
The manatees are the stars of the show here. From May to October, the sea cows set out to the warm waters of the St. John’s. But once the winter comes and the days get shorter, the water in the river cools. Apart from boats with propellers, manatees have no natural predators. The only key to their survival is finding warm waters to stay in so they seek refuge in the warm water of the spring. The park has constructed platforms over the water to catch the best glimpse of the manatees and their calves. And when the manatees are in residence, a sign posted advises visitors how to identify each manatee. Each one has his or her own name and a brief biography posted on the board. Sadly, the only characteristic that differentiates one manatee from another is its scars incurred by propeller blades. Some are even missing parts of their flippers and tails severed by propellers.
While Blue Springs State Park is known for its manatees, it offers a host of other points of interest for history buffs, hikers, swimmers and snorkelers, nature lovers, campers, boaters, sunbathers, and so on. Along the run of the spring is a smooth boardwalk that goes from the dock on the St. John’s River to the spring head. This makes this park ideal for visitors with disabilities and limited mobility. The views from the boardwalk are magnificent. There are two docks for swimmers to gain access to the spring. The cool, clear water is a welcome refreshment from the dog days of summer. But parents might not want to leave small children unattended because the water is very deep. Masks and snorkels, fins, and inner tubes can be rented hourly or for $10 a day.
Out where the spring meets the St. John’s, visitors can take a scenic river cruise. This is one of the best ways to see the manatees in the summer months. You’ll also get a feel for the unique ecosystem of the central Florida waterways. For reservations, call St. Johns River Cruises at 386/917–0724. If staying on the dock is more your speed, fishing is also permitted here with a valid fishing license. Canoes are available for rent on-site on an hourly basis or for $28 a day.
This area is also the location of the historic Thursby House. The first written account of the spring was in 1765, when botanist John Bartram encountered it in his appointment as the British Crown’s "Naturalist for Florida." But it wasn’t until the 1860s that the property was settled by Louis Thursby and his family. Built in 1872, it is now a museum open Wednesday through Sunday. The house was built upon an Indian mound, a midden consisting mostly of shells. Initially, this mound was thought to have been a result of natural flood deposits. But in 1880, Harvard archaeologist Jefferies Wyman concluded it was man-made 3,000 to 4,000 years earlier. He uncovered pottery, bone fragments, clay figures, tools, and projectile points beneath the mound.
Camping is plentiful in the park. Nestled in the woods adjacent to Thursby House and the covered picnic areas are six deluxe cabins. Each one features air-conditioning, heat, a full kitchen, linens, and utensils. In the winter months, gas-fueled fireplaces are operational, too. There are 51 other campsites in the park that are equipped with water, electricity, picnic tables, and grills. There are no sewage facilities at the campsites, but there is a dump station in the park. Primitive camping is available right on the St. John’s River shore by following a 4-mile trail. It’s an easy hike through acres upon acres of live oak woodlands, palm forests, and saw palmettos as far as the eye can see. Keep in mind that if you’re just in it for the hike, this trail isn’t a loop. The only way to get back to the main area of the park is to hike back from the way you came. If you’re planning on bringing your dog, be sure to pack his proof of rabies vaccination.
Whether you’re looking to escape urban mayhem, looking for an alternative to Orlando theme parks, or if you just want to get to know authentic Florida, you will not leave Blue Springs State Park disappointed.