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.
Length: 2.6 mile loop
Trailhead: 28.757290, -81.500509
Fees: $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
Land Manager: Orange County Parks & Recreation
Dogs are not permitted.
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. $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.
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. 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. Pass the next bench, and the canopy begins to open up overhead, with tall longleaf pine on the hillside. 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 at Third Landing, although it is no longer used as a take out.
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. 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 and horseshoe pits. Unfortunately, the boardwalk behind Pavilion 3 has been closed off to use and has rotted away, since it provided a nice walk along the run. Once you get to the pavilion, turn right and follow the shoreline around the beach. At the bridge, turn left and cross it. Take a moment to wander out along the peninsula that divides the tubing run in two.
At the T intersection, turn left for a short walk down to Second Landing, which is now the permanent take out for all swimmers and tubers. The trail ends here, but the views are worth the walk. Return back past the 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 2.6 miles.
- Kelly Park (12/23/2018) - Tubing down Rock Springs Run is why most folks show up at Kelly Park, but the Kelly Loop Trail is a nice dry way to see the waterway and wildlife.
- Oakhill and Prairie Lakes Trails (8/19/2012) - On the Western Addition trails at Kelly Park, explore scrub and oak hammock habitats where the remains of a spring-fed lake can be seen.
- Just Bearly (7/21/2011) - After an hour of traipsing around Kelly Park, an Orange County Park north of Orlando, I’d about had it for the morning. 9 AM and 86*F. Blackflies swarming along the trails in the lush river bluff forest. And now, hordes of kids pouring off buses in the parking lot and streaming down to Rock Springs […]