If you’ve never seen manatees by the dozens, let alone a hundred or more, there’s no better place in Florida to watch these gentle giants drift past than near Deland along the boardwalk at Blue Spring State Park, paralleling the length of Blue Spring Run to the St. Johns River. This short, easy trail offers plenty of viewing platforms for you to stand and stare at the mystically beautiful movement of these massive mammals through crystalline waters, and leads to the spring first described by John Bartram (accompanied by his son William) in 1766 as a place where “multitudes of fish resort to its head…the alligators very numerous either on the shore or swimming on the surface of the water…so tame, or rather bold, to allow us to row very near to them.” You’ll see few giant alligators here today, but this clear spring has become a mecca for a rebounding manatee population over the past three decades, with the winter gathering growing exponentially each year.
Location: Orange City
Length: 1.3 miles
Lat-Long: 28.942581, -81.341119
Type: round trip
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: easy, wheelchair-accessible
Bug factor: low
Restroom: two along the hike
During manatee wintering season, the spring run is closed to paddling, swimming, and diving, activities which can be enjoyed at other times of year. Interpretive 2-hour nature tours on the St. Johns River are available through St. Johns River Cruises, which departs from the base of the boardwalk nearest the parking lot. Their fleet includes a fully wheelchair-accessible pontoon boat
This park also includes a 7-mile round-trip trail, the Pine Island Trail, which is prone to flooding as it makes a horseshoe around a rather large lagoon near the mouth of the spring run.
Take I-4 east from Orlando to exit 114. Head northeast on SR 472 for 3.5 miles to US 17/92 south. Take US 17/92 south towards Orange City for 1.5 miles. Turn right on West French Street. A large overhead state park sign calls your attention to the turn. The paved road ends after several miles. The park entrance is on the left. After you pay your fee, take the left fork to drive to the lower parking area.
Start your walk with a meander to the St. Johns River landing within sight of the lower parking area, where the interpretive boat cruises depart. It’s directly where Blue Spring Run flows into the St. Johns River, and offers a panorama of the river bend, the spring run mouth, and “The Lagoon,” one of many dead rivers in the St. Johns and an alternate place for kayaking when the run itself is closed during manatee season. There are always wading birds along the shorelines, and you’ll see coots and gallinules in the river shallows. Watch the mouth of the spring carefully for manatee activity. The manatees drift past most frequently after dawn and before dusk, moving from the spring run – where their steady diet of aquatic plants is severely limited – to the open river and its many side channels to feed on vegetation.
Leaving the landing, turn left and walk past the ticket booth for the river tour uphill along the broad boardwalk. A notable landmark at the top of the hill is the Thursby House, built in 1872. It was one of the firs plantation homes along the St. Johns River. Their steamboat landing, which was roughly where the landing is now, encouraged the growth of Orange City, which was known back then for its citrus that was shipped from the landing. Decorated with period furnishings, the plantation house is open for tours. Kids will love having their photo taken with the oversized manatee on the front porch.
Curious why you’re walking uphill? This is Florida, after all, and Central Florida isn’t especially known for dramatic elevation changes, especially along the edge of the St. Johns River. The hill is an enormous shell midden, an aboriginal landfill made up of tiny bleached-white snail shells that ancient peoples once consumed. As you continue along the boardwalk, notice how the hills become much more pronounced the closer you get to the spring. Excavations in the area have uncovered pottery shards and tools made from seashells, making this a significant archaeological site as well as a historic site and wildlife sanctuary.
You’ll pass a canoe launch on the left, and soon after, encounter the first large observation deck. There are quite a few of these along the boardwalk, so if any particular one seems too crowded, just move along and try the next one- you’ll be returning this way anyway, and there are three large decks along this open area. Branches arc out across the water from the dense forest of live oaks on the far side of the spring run, creating perfect perches for cormorants that cluster close together as they dry their wings. Anhingas aren’t so social but they fish these waters too, so you might see them on a higher branch, all alone. On a cool day, it’s unlikely you’ll see alligators, but if you do, they tend to stick to the far bank. Look straight down. The water is so clear that the fish seem to float in air. Massive alligator gar cruise past, and you may see a tilapia or two. But you’re here, of course, for the manatees. Normally, the best way to spot a manatee is to look for the spring boil-like disturbance of the water’s surface as they rise. But in Blue Spring Run, the water is so clear that all you have to do is look carefully for their tell-tale elephantine skin and massive bulk. They may be scratching their backs against fallen logs, cruising past with calves, or chomping on fallen vegetation. Stand here for a while, and you’re sure to spot one—their sheer wintering numbers make that guaranteed. In the 1970s, only a dozen or so wintered at this spring. The most recent counts have hovered around 200 each year.
Park personnel have worked to optimize the manatee viewing experience in recent years. Low vegetation has been cleared so that the boardwalk provides a continuous view of the spring run, and the manatees, as you ascend through the dense bluff forest of oaks and cabbage palms. The boardwalk narrows once it passes out of sight of the Thursby House, providing a shady corridor in the woods while you spy on the manatee from high above. More broad spots and observation decks offer a variety of views of the manatees, which often travel in groups. As the water temperatures in the St. Johns River and its tributaries drops below 68°F, manatees crowd into Blue Spring Run to warm up in the constant 72°F water, essential for their survival. Each adult manatee can weigh more than a ton. At this time of year, you’ll see a lot of mothers and calves cruising together through the shallows. It’s worth taking a trip down the side boardwalk to the swimming area (which will be closed this time of year) for the potential of a very up close look at the manatees as they swim around and under the platform resting on the run.
The boardwalk continues through a beehive of activity at the park store and main picnic area, where there are restrooms. It quiets down and narrows again past the building, and is marked here as the “Blue Spring Trail.” Continue heading upstream paralleling the run. It’s here that the pronounced topography gets very interesting, the boardwalk lifted high up above side channels of the run between ancient middens swaddled in cabbage palms and live oaks. A lengthy side boardwalk leads down to the water and is the launch point for divers and swimmers to explore the headspring during the summer season. It offers yet another place to see manatees up close. As the trail reaches the headspring, it enters a large pavilion with interpretive information about how the aquifer works and how deeply this spring has been mapped. The boardwalk swings around to offer another perspective, this one straight down Blue Springs Run, and stops at this high point after 0.6 mile. Savor the view before you turn around and walk back down the boardwalk to the St. Johns River, pausing again at the various overlooks to be caught up in the magic of watching manatees move through the crystalline waters of this very special spring run.