On a hot summer afternoon, the 72-degree waters of Florida’s springs are first bracing and then gloriously refreshing to the people jumping or stepping in to swim, explore, or drift lazily on an inner tube. But in winter, that same 72 degrees creates a desirable warm-water refuge for manatees escaping the colder rivers and coastal waters.
Here in Indian River County, we are blessed with our fair share of Florida’s natural beauty. One phenomenon we lack, however, is a spring. Florida has hundreds of them—more than any other state, in fact—but they are all to the north and west of our area. The good news is that, with a robust day trip or a leisurely overnight getaway, we, too, can enjoy the exhilarating charm of an authentic Florida spring.
The most prolific springs, known as first-magnitude springs, gush more than 100 cubic feet of fresh water per second—that’s more than 65 million gallons per day! Some of our springs have attained fame: Many movie scenes have been filmed at Silver Springs; the mermaids of Weeki Wachee are renowned the world over; and Crystal Springs near the town of Zephyrhills produces the water that makes its way to grocery store shelves around the Southeastern United States as Zephyrhills bottled water.
Most of the state’s 33 first-magnitude springs are several hours away, but the closest, Blue Spring, is just over two hours away and well worth the drive. Both history and natural beauty are on full display at Blue Spring, sometimes referred to as Volusia Blue, as there are several “Blue Springs” in Florida, and they are distinguished by prefixing them with the names of their respective counties.
Volusia Blue Spring is within Blue Spring State Park, just outside the small town of Orange City, on the St. Johns River. The spring run is less than half a mile long. At the north end is the “boil,” where 102 million gallons of water, filtered naturally by the limestone that underlies our peninsula, surges up to the surface, causing a visible movement of the water. The small current generated by the spring is negligible to paddlers but quite evident to swimmers and tubers, who must expend extra energy while headed upstream, but are rewarded with its gentle assistance on the way downstream.
A string of buoys marks the end of the swimming area; nearby, a long, railed platform allows visitors to observe the serene beauty of the flora and fauna as well as the frolicking of human visitors enjoying the spring. Three sets of steps give swimmers access to the spring waters. There seem to be two schools of thought on how best to enter the chilly water: one brave, sudden dunk or the more reticent, incremental approach.
Either way, the result is a thoroughly delightful escape from the summer heat and an opportunity to get an up-close look at the plethora of fish that inhabit the crystal-clear water. Many visitors bring goggles or snorkeling gear for this very purpose.
A second platform, closer to the boil, is the preferable entry point for tubers beginning their float downstream and for snorkelers who want to explore the springhead area. Tubes can be rented near the entry point, but many visitors opt to bring their own.
During the peak hours between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., paddlers are prohibited from entering the swimming area. That leaves plenty of time in the morning and early evening for those exploring the spring run via the kayaks or canoes available for rent on-site. Visitors are welcome to bring their own kayaks and canoes, but the distance from the nearest parking area to the put-in point is less than ideal.
Blue Spring State Park is a designated manatee refuge, so when manatees enter the scene, visitors are instructed to give them a wide berth—at least 20 feet. Park employees and volunteers make it clear that the water is their home and humans are not to interfere with them in any way. However, manatees are curious creatures with no natural fear of humans, so incidental proximity is inevitable. It is not unusual to hear a child shout with glee, “It came right up to me!”
People are fascinated by manatees. When one swims near the platform, everyone gathers and becomes enchanted—taking photos or videos, sharing their observations with one another, or just standing transfixed by the spectacle. The excitement ratchets up even higher when a mother approaches with her calf.
What is it about these creatures that mesmerizes children and adults, Floridians and Minnesotans, Englishmen and Germans? Blue Spring’s proximity to Orlando makes it a destination for tourists from all over the nation and the world as well as for locals availing themselves of the irresistible waters in their own backyard. For some, the sighting of a West Indian manatee is an exhilarating novelty; for others, manatees are familiar neighbors. Regardless, these aquatic mammals possess an exotic quality that appeals to all. Perhaps it is their gentle innocence and unhurried composure, combined with their prodigious proportions.
The universal appeal of manatees is evidenced by the fact that, as crowded as the park is with spring enthusiasts in the summertime, even more visitors flock there in winter, when paddling, tubing, and swimming are prohibited! From November through March, the spring run is off limits to humans, but it becomes a veritable Grand Central Station for manatees. Hundreds of them gather in the spring run, venturing out only on warmer days to forage for nearby plants to eat.
A boardwalk runs parallel to the spring run, offering a scenic and nonintrusive vantage point for visitors to observe the manatees and for park employees and volunteers to conduct daily manatee counts.
While the spring itself is the main attraction, Blue Spring State Park includes additional features to round out one’s visit. Hiking, picnicking, and birding are popular activities, and two-hour pontoon boat tours of the St. Johns River offer relaxing and informative adventures.
History buffs will find something especially for them at the park. The 150-year-old Thursby House sits atop an ancient Indian midden less than 40 yards from the spring. Now a museum and interpretive center, the house was built in 1872 by Louis Thursby, who had arrived with his family via steamboat in 1857. Having left his Brooklyn birthplace to seek his fortune in Florida, Thursby purchased 133 acres, planted crops that included citrus, and built Thursby Landing, which became a regular stop for the then-popular steamboats that plied the St. Johns.
Vero Beach residents wishing to check out our nearest major spring have a nice variety of options. With an early start, a daytrip is definitely doable, but an overnight or longer stay allows for a fuller experience. Campers are in luck, as Blue Spring State Park has a lovely campground for both tents and RVs. It also has six two-bedroom rental cabins that are close to the spring. For the less rustic traveler, lodging will not be a problem. Even though Orange City is somewhat limited in its accommodations, Deland, home of Stetson University, is just a few minutes away. Some may prefer a full-on Orlando-area getaway that includes a daytrip to Blue Spring.
A word to the wise: To dodge the biggest crowds, stick to weekdays when visiting Blue Spring and other popular springs, and arrive early; a finite number of day-trippers are allowed into the park at a time.
Yes, it may take a bit of doing to get to a Florida spring—but once you’re in, you won’t want to get out!
Blue Spring State Park
2100 W. French Ave., Orange City
Open every day of the year from 8 a.m. to sundown
Admission: $6 per vehicle (two to eight people)
Camping: $25 per night
Cabins: $95 per night