Most folks come here for the tubing – the narrow, gushing channel down which Rock Springs Run pours is the best natural water park in Florida – but some of us appreciate the trails, too. The Kelly Loop Trail shows off Rock Springs and the best features of the park. Kelly Park exists because Dr. Howard Atwood Kelly, one of the founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital, gifted this beauty spot to the people of Apopka in 1927 for use as a park, wildlife preserve, and bird sanctuary. I’ve never been disappointed with wildlife sightings here: always a few deer, and I saw my first Florida black bear in the wild on my first hike here!
Length: 2.4 miles
Lat-Long: 28.757290, -81.500509
Fees / Permits: $3 per carload for 1 or 2 passengers, $5 for 3-8 passengers
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: flush toilets at swimming area
Open 8-8 summer, 8-6 winter (daylight savings time). There is a second trail system in the park at the Western Addition that you can hike in the same day.
The campground is an excellent family getaway, especially when paired with the outdoor recreation opportunities of the park – swimming, tubing, kayaking, and hiking. Dogs are not permitted. $18 for county residents, $23 for out-of-county residents.
From Interstate 4 in Altamonte Springs, follow SR 436 (Semoran Blvd) to Apopka, where it joins into US 441. Turn north (right) onto Rock Springs Road (CR 435). Drive 5.8 miles to Kelly Park Road. You’ll see a tubing rental place on the corner. Turn right. Follow the road around less than a half mile to the park entrance on the right. Pay your entrance fee at the ranger station and continue down the park entrance road to the main parking area. Park near the swimming area. The hike is described starting from the monument on the hill along the entrance road, above the concession area.
Start your hike by walking from the parking area to the big monument above the concession stand. It’s here you’ll learn about Dr. Howard Kelly and his contributions to the medical world. Continue down through the concession stand – the restrooms flank the sides – and to your first view of the swimming area and Rock Springs Run on a platform in the woods. The walk along the run, heading uphill from here, is an easy one, and tens of thousands of visitors do it each year as they carry tubes up to the source of the run for a cool ride downstream.
A boardwalk zigzags you down the hill to wander along the edge of the run at access points that seem almost dream-like, stretches of rock rimmed with ferns with the turquoise-tinted waters flowing above sparkling sands. A bridge leads across the run right at Rock Springs, a cavern of significant size from which the spring flows forth. With children splashing and brave people snorkeling the 68-degree outflow, it’s quite the sight, a tropical oasis in the hills. An average of 26,000 gallons of pure spring water gush past per minute beneath this bridge.
On the other side of the bridge, walk uphill and away from the spring and the attendant lifeguard’s chair. It’s here, after a quarter-mile walk, you’ll find your first sign for the trail system – “Kelly Loop Trail.” Make a right at the fork in the trail. At the next intersection, go straight across to the next “Kelly Loop Trail” sign. Look for the yellow blazes on the trees to confirm the route.
The trail is a broad path through the upland hammock, with an understory of grapevines beneath laurel oaks, hickory, cabbage palms, and slash pine. You pass a slash pine with an obvious catface on the front, a reminder that even before this was a park, the trees were tapped for turpentine. There is obvious topography to the trail as you climb away from the spring basin, passing a bench. One of the joys of this particular loop is those ups and downs created by the spring basin and its attendant upland sinkholes, the karst landscape rugged beneath a dense carpet of leaves and sand.
Cross the park road, which is flanked by benches. The trail continues as a bark chip path in the median towards the front entrance. Follow the median along a series of green posts paralleling the campground road. The trail re-enters a forest of pines and oaks near the front entrance and meanders through it, the understory very open, before it comes to a drop in the landscape as you drop down to a sinkhole at a half mile. A bench overlooks the sinkhole. Outlined by boards, the footpath rounds a series of sinkholes in quick succession, likely openings into the same underground stream. Cross over the entrance road to the campground.
Even though the sand has both the tracks of deer and ATVs, this is the right trail – look for the yellow blazes on the trees as you ascend into a sandhill with laurel oaks, sand live oaks, and longleaf pine. Squirrels are especially active here – you might catch a glimpse of a Sherman’s fox squirrel. Wiregrass grows in clumps beneath the pines. You pass an unmarked fork. Up to the left, a sign encourages you to continue along the more obvious path. A small sinkhole is starting off on the left, raveling the topsoil. Pass the next bench, and the canopy begins to open up overhead, with tall longleaf pine on the hillside. This is an excellent spot for fall wildflowers and paw-paw blooming in spring. The trail heads downhill.
At 0.9 mile you pass through a 4-way junction at the base of the sandhills, transitioning into a lush, dense hardwood hammock with saw palmetto surrounding the footpath, which is still a sandy track. Deer’s-tongue and blazing star blooms in fall. Passing a bench on the left, the trail twists and winds through the hammock.
At the fork in the trail, there’s a “Kelly Park” sign. Keep left to walk down to Rock Springs Run. The view across the run is spectacular here at “Third Landing,” the last take-out for tubers. There’s a picnic bench overlooking the scene as the crystalline waters flow across aquatic grasses.
Leaving this beauty spot, you reach a T intersection. Turn left, and there’s a yellow blaze, and a catfaced pine on the left. Passing around a gate, crossing under a power line access road, watch for posts with yellow tips as the trail markers. Look off to your left. The first left turn takes you on a path behind the back side of a sign for the trail. The ATV usage (by rangers) ceases, and you’re now walking on pine duff and oak leaves through more hardwood hammock. Passing a bench, the trail is now a nice corridor in the woods under a shady canopy of oaks. Bromeliads drape from the trees. Pass the back side of a trail sign. There are many young cabbage palms in the understory, straining to create a palm hammock.
At 1.5 miles, you emerge at the lower entrance to the park that surrounds the spring run. There are picnic pavilions here, horseshoe pits, and a boardwalk within view. Head for the boardwalk behind Pavilion 3 and turn left to follow it. It parallels Rock Springs Run downstream, with glimpses of the aqua waters and shimmering tapegrass beneath the surface from points within the forest and from little lookout spots along the boardwalk.
Past an access point for swimmers to slip into this pristine waterway, the boardwalk pulls farther away from the stream and you walk through a floodplain forest with a lot of ferns in the understory – royal fern, cinnamon fern, netted chain, and southern woods fern. The boardwalk provides access to another ramp into the water – “Second Landing” – just as you come up to a bridge over the spring run with a sign: “Hiking Trails ahead.” Imagine that!
As the boardwalk ends, look for a yellow blaze next to a strange structure with benches around it, like a covered horseshoe pit. The next bench is at a fork. Keep right, and you’ll see the next blaze up ahead as you walk through the bluff forest above the spring run. At the next trail junction, take the left fork to stay farther up the hill – the right fork goes straight down to the main swimming area. Slash pines tower overhead in this part of the forest, where we encountered both wild turkey and deer.
At the next fork, keep right. A blaze soon confirms your route, and you pass a catfaced pine. At 2 miles, there’s another bench just before the trail goes up and over a rise, heading back downhill under hickories, oaks, and southern magnolias, steadily dropping elevation as you hike. The next intersection of trails completes the loop.
Take the right-hand trail to head down through the lush forest to Rock Spring. After you cross the bridge, take a moment to wander down the little side boardwalk on the left that lets you get right in front of the cavern mouth to peer into the spring. The cavern is gated so no one can crawl into it, but you can look in and see the water flowing out. Retrace your steps back up the boardwalk to the main swimming and concession area to return to the parking lot via the Kelly Park monument. You’ve hiked 2.4 miles.