The Blue Spring Boardwalk and its connecting pathways parallel the length of Blue Spring Run between the St. Johns River and the spring.
This accessible path and boardwalk offers multiple viewing platforms from which to watch the manatees and fish, turtles and birds.
In 1766, Florida was a British colony. Royal Botanist John Bartram rowed up this spring run with his son William, who returned in 1773.
He later wrote of the spring that “multitudes of fish resort to its head…the alligators very numerous either on the shore or swimming on the surface of the water.”
While the manatees now outnumber the alligators, that’s not a bad thing. Soon before the state park was established, only 14 were counted wintering in the spring.
After Florida protected manatees as an endangered species, their numbers rebounded. Now as many as 600 have been seen here in a season, and 500 in a single chilly day.
That means traffic jams, both of manatees and humans. If you visit in winter, line up outside before the gate opens, or better yet, get a campsite or cabin to guarantee a stay.
When it’s not manatee season, the boardwalk remains a delightful shaded walk from which to enjoy the views and watch for all sorts of wildlife.
Resources for exploring the area
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Location: Orange City
Length: 1.2 mile round-trip
Trailhead: 28.9424, -81.3411
Address: 2100 W French Ave, Orange City
Fees: $4-6 per vehicle
Restroom: Near the boat docks and concession area
Land manager: Florida State Parks
Open 8 AM to sunset. Leashed dogs welcome. The entire walkway is accessible. Side boardwalks lead to water level in several spots.
The park closes its gates when parking capacity is reached. This can happen as early as 8:30 AM during the peak manatee viewing months.
Follow Interstate 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 W French Ave. Follow it for several miles. The state park entrance is near where it ends. Once you drive into the park, the campground is the first turnoff of the park road. The next turnoff on the right is the upper parking area closest to the spring. The following turnoff on the left is for the cabin area. The park road ends in a large parking area below the Thursby House. The walkway leading to the boardwalk starts near the boat dock.
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.
This is where where Blue Spring Run flows into the St. Johns River. It provides a panorama of the river bend, the spring run mouth, and the lagoon just south of the spring run.
There are always wading birds along the shorelines, and you’ll see coots and gallinules in the river shallows.
In the morning, watch the mouth of the spring run carefully for manatee activity. They drift past frequently after dawn and before dusk.
They do so to find food. There is little growing in the spring run, so they move 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 first 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.
Curious why you’re walking uphill? This hill is an enormous shell midden, an aboriginal landfill made up of tiny bleached-white snail shells that ancient peoples once consumed.
Excavations in the area have uncovered pottery shards and tools made from shells, making this a significant archaeological site.
The first large observation deck is downhill and across from the Thursby House. A mosaic manatee sculpture begs for a selfie.
There are quite a few decks along the boardwalk, so if this one seems too crowded, just move along and try the next one.
Branches arc out across the water from the dense forest of live oaks on the far side of the spring run, so cormorants and anhingas use them as perches.
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.
The clear water makes it easy to spot the manatees. Normally you’d look for a surface disturbance or a snout or tail slap. Here, you can see them right below you.
They chomp on fallen branches, drift by in pairs, scratch against logs. Mothers with calves are common.
Park personnel keeps the vegetation trimmed between the boardwalk and the spring run, so views are great all along the walk.
The boardwalk is well shaded by the ancient oaks and hickory trees above.
Emerging into the open near the Manatee Cafe and concession area halfway to the spring, take a trip down the side boardwalk to the swimming area.
It’s not open during the summer months, which makes it perfect for up close viewing of manatees that swim up under the platform.
Past the concession area, the boardwalk has a sign that says “Blue Spring Trail.” It narrows and starts climbing well above the surrounding forest.
It also winds gently back and forth between the ancient oaks and palms, offering views down into the floodplain below.
The hills become much more pronounced the closer you get to the spring, with steeper dropoffs evident below.
A trickle of water runs below in a stream that flows in a deeply eroded gully into the spring run.
A lengthy side boardwalk leads down to the spring run and is the launch point for snorkelers, swimmers, and tubers to explore the headspring during the summer season
Take that side trip in the winter for another potential vantage point to see manatees up close.
As the boardwalk reaches the bluff above the headspring, it enters a large pavilion.
Inside is interpretive information about how the aquifer works and how deeply this spring has been mapped.
The boardwalk swings around the bluff to offer another perspective, this one straight down Blue Springs Run. It ends at this high point after 0.6 mile.
Savor the view before you turn around and walk back down the boardwalk the way you came.
Take the time to visit the overlooks on the return trip, too, at least the ones right off the main boardwalk.
In winter, it’s a delight to be caught up in the magic of watching manatees move through the crystalline waters of this very special spring run.
Learn more about Blue Spring State Park and its trails
Blue Spring State Park is well acclaimed for being the best place in Florida to see manatees in the wild, and we don’t mean a dozen or two. Think hundreds.
See our photos of the Blue Spring Boardwalk
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Along the St. Johns River at Lake Beresford, discover the river anew through William Bartram’s eyes as he recorded his observations of alligators, fish, and flora in 1774
With nearly 5 miles of gentle woodland paths and paved trails, playgrounds, picnic area, paddling trail and a dog park, Gemini Springs Park is a popular, well-connected getaway
Centered on a deeply shaded campground with direct access to the St. Johns River for boaters, Lake Monroe Park is a gateway to outdoor adventure