On a beautiful, clear blue Florida morning, we headed up US 417, right on past the exit for Sanford International Airport – for us – uncharted territory. We had chosen the toll road because our destination, Blue Springs State Park, is at Orange City, and we had no wish to fight with Interstate 4 all the way through Orlando. We rejoined I 4 at the end of US 417 for just a couple of junctions before leaving at US 17 – 92 towards Orange City. After a steady journey, conserving the fuel in our Ford Escape rental car (gas is currently $3.89 a gallon), we arrived at the State Park just before 10 am. The park was still reasonably empty as we strolled down to the concessions and visitor center where we stowed our day clothes in a locker. There is a lawn for sunbathing here, but there is no lounging area with a view of the springs, these can only be accessed via board walks. We followed the signs towards the head of the Blue Springs , a journey of about a third of a mile on wooden boardwalk through natural Florida hammocks, (an Indian word meaning shady places) until we reached the entry point to the water.
The water felt icy cold at first, but once the shoulders were in, the body soon acclimatised. We were still below the head of the springs, but the current at this point was too strong to swim against, so we had to wade upstream avoiding submerged tree trunks and the sharper of the stones which form the bottom of the stream. Once we reached the head of the springs the current eased with the natural widening of the water and it was possible to slowly snorkel over the head point of the spring, able to see quite a way down into the 170 foot chasm – which sends 104 million gallons of fresh water into the St. Johns River every day.
After this, we slowly snorkeled our way back down stream to the lower boardwalk and this was possibly the best part. Once away from the initial ‘boiling’ point, we began to see many different types of fish. The first fish seen was a long thin Longnose gar, rather a pike-like fish that looks a little scary but in fact, they scatter away from any human touch. Once our ‘eyes’ were in, we observed large, fat, black catfish hiding under the submerged tree trunks and branches, shoals of sunfish and mullet and many, many more basking gar. The gar is striped or spotted or both, but the Florida gar is spotted like a leopard. Many of our fellow tourists were drifting down the run on inflatable tubes, oblivious of the wildlife teaming below them. We spotted a sand coloured flat fish lying on a patch of green weed, looking for all the world like a dead fish. As soon as it detected our presence it gave a couple of flicks of its tail, covering its body with sand from below and just vanished from view!
At the bottom of the run is a slightly wider area where the steps exit the water and this forms a natural playground for the swimmers – gar rising between them, but mostly unseen – and the end of the run for humans. A rope divides the human part from the rest of the run which is left to nature. During the winter the run is full of manatee enjoying the warm 73 degree water. Swimming is of course, prohibited during these months, but there is a web-cam set up to view the manatees, and it would be well worth the $6 entry fee to take a picnic and enjoy nature spotting from the many viewing platforms along the board walks away from the head springs. When we walked down these we spotted even larger groups of gar and shoals of mullet, along with the rolling, silver flashes of tarpon and watched with great amusement as a large alligator attempted to climb a log that was too small and promptly fell off, with little dignity!
Blue Springs State Park is at 2100 West French Avenue, Orange City, Florida 32763. Admission is $6 for a vehicle, boat tours, canoe and kayak rentals are extra. Tandem bikes can also be rented.