Ichetucknee Springs State Park is a world-class place to get wet. Nine named springs — and a few smaller, anonymous ones — bubble up hundreds of millions of gallons of limestone-filtered water that is always 72 degrees and clear as a newborn’s conscience. The springs feed the Ichetucknee River, a six-mile strip of pristine.
Yes, on a hot summer Saturday afternoon this getaway near Gainesville, Fla., can get as crowded as a theme park. But it’s not hard to paddle off from the horde once you leave one of the put-in sites.
The refreshing river run attracted local people trying to cool off for decades before the state of Florida bought the land that is now Ichetucknee Springs State Park from the Loncala Phosphate Company in 1970. The U.S. Department of the Interior declared the Ichetucknee Spring a National Natural Landmark in 1972.
Things to do
Grab a tube, grab a shuttle, jump in the water, drift downstream, chill. Repeat.
There are three tubing run options, all ending at the take-point at the park’s south entrance. The most ambitious — and the one most worth doing — is a three-hour float from the north entrance. The run is limited to 750 people a day, so get there early. Putting in at the mid-point launch at the south entrance is perhaps the most popular option. It’s about a 90-minute trip to the last take out point. Jump in at Dampier’s Land and it’s only a 45-minute trip.
Be sure to take a diving mask and snorkel. Float face down with one arm hooked over your tube and be amazed at the life underwater (at right.)
If you want to get hot and sweaty before slipping into the water, there are three hiking trails at the north entrance of the park. The Blue Hole Trail is a half-mile walk through forest and cypress floodplain the largest spring in the park. The Pine Ridge Trail is a two-mile loop through longleaf pine and sandhill countryside.
Why you’ll want to come backPaddling a canoe or kayak from the launch at the North Entrance after Labor Day — when the summer tubing madness eases — offers two hours of serene beauty and a much better chance of spotting a river otter.
Flora and fauna
Ichetucknee Springs State Park contains shady hardwood hammocks, sun-baked sandhills, wild rice marshes and swampy floodplain forests. Tubers will float past stands of reeds, water lettuce, and duckweed and over swaying patches of eel grass and other water plants anchored to the river bottom.
The varied habitat provides a home for 38 species of mammals and more than 170 different birds. Visitors may see whitetail deer, raccoons, bobcats and armadillos. Drifting downriver you might see beaver and river otter.
Along the water you’re likely to see great blue heron, snowy egret, green heron and a variety of ducks. You may also see white ibis and roseate spoonbill.
Tubers who take along a diving mask and snorkel (and that should be everyone) will think they’re floating through an aquarium, looking down at Florida gar, mullet, sunfish, bluegill, Suwannee bass and largemouth bass.
By the numbers:
- Website: Florida State Parks
- Park size: 2,241 acres
- 2010 visitation: 204,586
- Funky fact: The seven springs that feed the Ichetucknee River pump out an average of 233 million gallons a day.