In 1775, botanist William Bartram marveled at Blue Spring, writing “what a surprising fountain it must be, to furnish such a stream.”
He didn’t mention the manatees, but perhaps it was the wrong time of year.
Ever since “Save the Manatee Club” was formed in 1981 by Jimmy Buffet and Governor Bob Graham, we’ve been visiting Blue Spring near DeLand to see their numbers grow.
It can be almost impossible to visit the park while the manatees are here, unless you reserve a cabin or campsite well in advance.
Cars line up at the front gate hours before opening time and once parking capacity is reached, the gates close. Even to pedestrians and cyclists.
All year round, however, there is plenty to do at this popular state park, including ecotours that show off the river basin.
Like Bartram, paddlers also can explore the wild reaches of the St. Johns from the same dock where tour boats depart.
An accessible boardwalk provides the connection between busy picnic areas and the spring itself.
Hikers and cyclists can also follow miles of trails far from the crowds to explore lesser-visited wild spaces in the park.
With a nicely situated campground and a handful of cabins, many visitors make Blue Spring State Park an outdoor vacation destination.
Resources for exploring the area
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Location: Orange City
Trailhead: 28.9516, -81.3337
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.
For information on ecotours, call Blue Springs Adventures at 386-775-0046.
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, adjoining the boat dock and both trailheads.
About the Park
Established in 1972, the park provided protection to a spring basin that was seeing degradation from casual use.
It also made it possible to manage the spring run for the sake of the manatees, which only numbered 14 during the park’s first winter census.
By comparison, more than 600 individual manatees wintered here in 2019. It’s not unusual to see 300 or more in the spring basin on a winter’s morning.
This is one of the few spots in Florida where you can, from the boardwalk, count them yourself and delight at the number of baby manatees you see.
The park has also restored a scrub ridge where the natural forest had been ripped out a century or more ago for orange groves.
That initial loss of scrub habitat throughout Volusia County was followed by a more recent wave of home building on scrub ridges.
Florida scrub-jays are very picky about their habitat, and they were in decline. These restoration efforts have brought them back in the park.
Birders will also appreciate being able to see osprey, cormorants, anhingas, and the many types of herons and egrets that feed on the fish found in the spring basin.
Blue Spring Adventures manages the upper concession area near the swimming area.
They cook hot food, provide rentals of floats and other watercraft, and have a camp store that campers may want to look into.
Blue Springs State Park has several hiking options. The most popular one and an accessible option is the half-mile boardwalk that parallels the spring run.
Near the upper concession area and campground are a marked series of woodland paths and forest roads with “FVA” signs for Florida Volksmarch Association.
Starting from the lower parking area, the Pine Island Trail offers a 7.3-mile round trip out to the St. Johns River through a gradient of habitats.
Power walkers and runners may also find the new paved bike path a pleasant place for a long walk or run.
If you’ve never seen manatees by the dozens, let alone a hundred or more at once, there is no better place in Florida to watch these gentle giants than the Blue Spring Boardwalk in the wintertime
The newest trail to be added to Blue Spring State Park, the Spring to Spring Trail is a paved bike path that glides along its eastern edge.
It’s obvious when you drive in on the park road, as you can see cyclists on the other side of the fence.
A walk-thru / bike gate offers access to the Spring to Spring Trail close to the campground. There is also a connector trail across from the park’s front gate.
The trail follows the eastern boundary of the park through a forest canopy to the north and through scrub forest to the south.
The Spring to Spring Trail will eventually connect to three other major springs in Volusia County: De Leon Springs, Gemini Springs, and Green Springs.
For now, more than 7 linear miles of bike path with no road crossings along it can be accessed directly from the park.
The launch at Blue Spring State Park adjoins the boat docks and concession, where kayak and canoe rentals are available.
Since there is regular boat traffic in the river itself, paddlers tend to head for the lagoon, which is just a little bit south of where the spring run meets the river.
Continue a little farther past the lagoon and there is a place to cross the river and enter the Snake River on the other side.
The Snake River is considered a dead river as it leads nowhere other than to parallel the St. Johns to the west briefly.
Overhanging vegetation prevents most boats from getting very far into this marshy area. And yes, there are snakes on the islands.
Paddlers can also go up or downriver along the shoreline. The eastern shore is best for this. Still expect to get tossed about by boat wakes.
During the winter manatee season, the spring run is blocked off to all casual paddlers. Only park staff may enter by water.
As we discovered, the big bonus to camping at Blue Spring State Park is guaranteed entry if you book during manatee season.
We also were able to walk down to the boardwalk to watch the manatees before the crowds showed up after the park gates opened.
When Florida State Parks first started building large modern cabins in their parks, Blue Spring was home to some of the first, which we stayed in when they were new.
The six cabins have two bedrooms and a sleeper couch. Each feels like a small house, with a living room, dining room, full kitchen, and porch.
Especially for families or groups of friends, the cabins are a great value at $95 a night. One cabin is wheelchair accessible.
The campground at Blue Spring State Park is in the upland area not far from the main entrance, with easy access to the bike path.
Other than the sounds of trains passing along the edge of the park, it’s relatively quiet, being down the bluff from residential Orange City.
This is a popular destination for families to tent camp, since the campsites are tucked in a forest. Sites have picnic tables and grills, plus 50 amp power and water.
The campground has two bathhouses with hot showers and laundry. Maximum size for RVs is 45 feet. All sites are back-in.
Camping rates start at $24. Leashed pets welcome.
Manatees at Blue Spring
There is something special about this spring run to the West Indian manatee, which spends part of its life cycle in the Atlantic Ocean.
In winter, they swim up the St. Johns River from its mouth in Jacksonville to this spring run each winter to keep warm and feed their young.
As the water temperatures drop below 68°F, manatees crowd into this and other Florida springs to warm up in the constant 72°F water, essential for their survival.
As a result, more than 500 manatees may crowd into the spring run all at once. The park posts a daily manatee count.
Normally, the park counts at least 600 distinct individual manatees each season. Some are tagged for tracking.
Others bear obvious permanent scars on their backs, flippers, or fins from boat propellers. Each adult manatee can weigh more than a ton.
The manatees will head into the river to feed during the day and return to the warmer waters of the spring run at night.
For Florida scrub-jay sightings, birders have several choices. One is to follow the Pine Island Trail.
It leads to a T at a bench where you can go in either direction along and into an extensive area of restored scrub habitat.
The other is to use the back pedestrian / cyclist gate off the park road to join the Spring to Spring Trail.
Follow it south to reach the east edge of the same large scrub area.
A bridge over the railroad tracks provides a perfect perch for scanning the scrub with binoculars.
The upper spring run and Blue Spring itself open to swimmers after manatee season is over.
This varies according to the volume of manatees still lingering in the spring run through springtime.
Once the upper run opens, you are welcome to swim, snorkel, or float between the landings.
Paddlers may only come up to the edge of the swimming area, which is clearly marked.
On 133 acres surrounding the spring, the Thursby family built a two-story home atop a midden with a view of the St. Johns River.
Their landing became a regular stop for steamboats plying the river after the Civil War, and for local growers to ship their produce.
A short line railroad later connected the landing to Orange City, which was growing as more people moved to Florida in the 1880s.
The home contained a museum for many years, but it has not been open to the public on our recent visits.
Departing from the landing at the floating dock, the St. Johns River Cruise is a 2-hour pontoon boat tour on a smooth-riding, quiet boat.
Wheelchair accessible, these narrated nature tours take you up the St. Johns River towards Hontoon Island and Lake Beresford.
The boats venture into some of the side channels, like the Snake River, for birding and wildlife encounters.
Tours are provided by Blue Spring Adventures and can be booked online in advance. They also lead guided Segway tours.
See our photos from Blue Spring State Park
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
An island in the St. Johns River, Hontoon Island State Park is accessible to boaters thanks to a marina big enough to accommodate a houseboat and to everyday visitors by a free ferryboat. It’s worth the short trip to see the bounteous wildlife of the St. Johns River, from wading birds to manatees to turtles lying in the sun.
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
While pancakes and De Leon Springs go hand-in-hand thanks to the popular Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant, the natural beauty of De Leon Springs is the reason to visit