By Kevin McGeever

Travelers with disabilities – impairments that limit their physical activities and/or make difficult their interactions with the world – will find an accessible paradise at Florida’s Ichetucknee Springs State Park.

Universally praised for its spring-fed swimming holes and river float experiences, Ichetucknee is a peaceful meditation in the Florida outdoors. It’s laugh-out-loud fun, too.

Recent physical improvements to the park infrastructure and a welcoming staff add to the accessible vacation opportunities. “Accessibility is an important part of resource-based recreation,” says park manager Raymond Semanchik. “Every experience is different. Every situation is different. Every person is different. If people call and let me know what their needs are, we can accommodate them.”

The 175   state parks are first-person chances to enjoy natural Florida and a diversity of bucket-list experiences:
- snorkeling a coral reef;
- riding horseback on a beach;
- climbing historic lighthouses;
- watching manatees and mermaids.

In north central Florida, Ichetucknee is one of a couple dozen parks that introduce visitors to the looking-glass wonders of freshwater springs and the history and ecology of a legendary river (the Suwannee).

For travelers with disabilities, this story will feature five parks in the region and describe their amenities to increase accessibility. For visitors seeking to virtually rehearse their adventures before they travel, start with the accessibility page on the state parks website. Accommodations can vary significantly at each park.

 Take a dip in the headspring swimming hole at Ichetucknee Springs State Park.
-Peter W. Cross


Ichetucknee Springs State Park

I made two weekday trips to Ichetucknee in early September; both school days, so the parking lots were virtually empty and for the most part we had the river to ourselves. I tubed and kayaked and swam. It was warm, wet, and wonderful.

My companion for kayaking was David Jones, founder of the Florida Disabled Outdoors Association (now rebranded as SportsAbility Alliance).

In 1988, David was shot in the head in a hunting accident. “I wasn’t supposed to live, (then) I wasn’t supposed to talk, and (then) I wasn’t supposed to walk. I spent three months in a rehab hospital learning how to live again.”

In 1990, the same year that the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, David founded FDOA. He wanted to “enhance the lives of people of all ages and abilities through accessible and inclusive recreation and active leisure.”

 Ichetucknee features wheelchair-accessible boardwalks.
 -Kevin McGeever

We met at the general store in Ichetucknee’s south parking lot to rent our tandem kayak. A van transported us for 10 minutes to the north end of the park and the launch point. From the van to the floating dock was a trip of perhaps 30 yards, briefly on crushed shells and then descending on a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk that switched back and ended at water level.

(A note here for kayakers that use a wheelchair. The concessionaire’s van is currently not equipped to accommodate a wheelchair. Rent your kayak, then drive to the launch point in your own vehicle. Park staff will make sure that your wheelchair is waiting at Dampier’s Landing, the accessible exit point.)

 One of Ichetucknee’s accessibility highlights is a floating dock, where the kayak waits in a cradle that ideally will descend into shallow water with the weight of the paddler.
-Kevin McGeever


The aforementioned floating dock is one of Ichetucknee’s accessibility highlights. The kayak is waiting in a cradle that ideally will descend into shallow water with the weight of the paddler. To access the river, a person places his paddle horizontally in front of him into grooves on the walls of the cradle and then pulls the kayak into the river … in theory.

With our combined weight, pulling was a challenge. We needed a push – that’s okay, just ask – and we were off.

David is hemiplegic, with paralysis on his left side. His left arm is bent at a 90-degree angle in front of his flat stomach and has limited mobility because of paralysis of his left leg and foot. He is otherwise fit and capable.

Kayakers navigate the waters of Ichetucknee Springs.
-Kevin McGeever

He sat in front of our tandem kayak and used a shortened paddle with a single blade. He most often steered and navigated for the city-bred greenhorn in back who was spending a good deal of brain power sorting his right from his left.

The top end of the river is a national natural landmark. It is narrow for 15-20 minutes and presents some opportunities for embarrassment (low branches and tight turns). But here’s the first beauty of tubing and paddling on the Ichetucknee River: It’s stress-free. The river’s 2-mph current will do the work for you. Just steer. Or float. And let the mind wander.

There were cooters and limpkins and a juvenile alligator corkscrewing against the stream. Looking down into the brilliant water, we saw groups of gray-black mullet and prehistoric-looking gar.

Closing my eyes, the only sounds besides our own voices were birdsong and the occasional slicing of paddle blades in water.

We could feel the warm sun on our faces at times (bring sun block), but the canopy of oaks and pines mostly dappled the river in dollops of sunshine and shade. Even on a Florida summer day, there was a layer of air conditioning at the river surface thanks to the cool spring water.

Exiting at the south takeout was the most physically demanding moment of our two hours on the river. From a low, seated position, and with the current pushing the kayak, a person must have the strength to use a hand railing and pull themselves onto a set of wide and shallow-rise concrete steps. A river runner that uses a wheelchair would need assistance. In either instance, be prepared to get wet.

After kayaking, we took our own vehicles from the south lot to the north entrance to try out the accessible chair lift at the main swimming hole.

 Ichetucknee Springs State Park manager Ray Semanchik lowers David Jones, who is paralyzed on his left side, into the main swimming area.
-Kevin McGeever

The distance by foot from the north parking lot to the swimming hole is perhaps 300 yards or 2-3 minutes. The path is smooth concrete – there are accessible restrooms and a shower off to the right, a food truck to the left – until we arrive at a wide wooden boardwalk, which gently descends and switches back until it finishes at a platform. Here, perhaps 10 feet above the water, is the motorized chair lift. 

David can walk, but it’s ultimately tiring. He brought an EcoRover tracked wheelchair to explore some of the trails and to experience the necessary physical transition from his chair to the lift.

For travelers with a disability wishing to use this accommodation, know that the chair lift platform requires a ranger’s assistance. Bring your phone and call the park manager’s number on display.

David Jones didn’t swim on this day, but he happily dangled his feet in the cool spring water. Park manager Ray Semanchik said one of his most frequent visitors is a woman who uses a wheelchair and swims here with her grandchildren.

I swam on a solo trip a week earlier.

Ichetucknee's main spring sits at the base of a natural amphitheater of forest and sky.
-Kevin McGeever



The main spring sits at the base of a natural amphitheater of forest and sky. The pool, bubbling up from the subterranean Floridan Aquifer, is a constant 72 degrees. Seven months of the year, the daytime air temperatures in north central Florida exceed 80 and 90 degrees. On those days, after a sweaty hike or paddle, immersion in either of the two swimming holes is a welcome rush of chill.

Here’s an oxymoron about Florida springs: The water is crystal clear, but still deceiving. You can see to the bottom, but how deep is the water? I thought the spring vent, where the water was rising from underground, was maybe 10 feet deep. More like 30 feet, the park manager said.

At the Blue Hole, which requires a 5-minute hike on a forest trail that – be forewarned – can be uneven and occasionally interrupted by exposed roots, the water clarity creates an almost daily spectacle.

When the sun is high in the sky, a snorkeler floating above the Blue Hole’s wide vent can see 40 feet down to the white-sand floor of an underwater ballroom.

“It’s wonderful to get on a river and see things that I might not have enjoyed had I not known they were prepared for my visit,” David Jones said. “It’s so nice to have a destination where I could be successful, where I wasn’t afraid of failure.

“One of the benefits of our state park system is they want to include everyone. The kayak launch and the nice boardwalk (to the main swimming hole) send a great message about mobility access.

“Recreation is great for healing. Anticipation is also a great healing tool, knowing that you have somewhere to go and someone to do it with.”

Here are more good-to-know details about Ichetucknee Springs. Read more about the flora, fauna, and history at the park website.


Tubers with mobility impairments enter at Dampier’s Landing. A member of the person’s party needs to return the wheelchair or mobility assist device to the tram before they enter the river. There is an ADA-compliant boardwalk at the south takeout point. Again, any equipment related to their disability will be waiting for them.

Virtual experience

There also is an option to watch video of the snorkeling, tubing, and kayaking adventures at the Education Center and listen to the sounds of the resident wildlife and bubbling springs.

Distance from big cities

Ichetucknee Springs, in Fort White, Fla., is less than an hour from Gainesville, two hours from Tallahassee or Jacksonville, or up to three hours from Orlando, Tampa, and St. Petersburg.

What to bring

Depending on your activities, you may get dirty; more than likely, you will get wet. Prepare yourself and bring:
- water shoes;
- hiking shoes;
- drinking water;
- change of clothes;
- towels;
- sun block;
- bug spray;
- snorkeling gear;
- waterproof bag for important items such as a phone.

Hours and rentals

The park is open every day from 8 a.m. until sundown. Visitors planning to tube the river and/or rent kayaks should use the south entrance on U.S. 27. Tubes come in a variety of shapes, including a “love seat” with arm rests for twosomes. Rentals and wrist bands can be purchased at the concession stand next to the south parking lot. The concessionaire provides tram and shuttle services to the tube and kayak launch locations.

Note that there are no lifeguards at either swimming hole.


There are three ADA-compliant restrooms – near the south and north parking lots and at the south takeout point. A tubing trip – the tram rides, the connecting trails to and from the river, and the river itself – takes at least two hours. You have been warned.

When You Go…

Ichetucknee Springs State Park
12087 S.W. U.S. Highway 27
Fort White FL 32038

More Accessible Parks in North Central Florida


Wakulla Springs

The Tallahassee-area state park, which already features one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs on the planet and millennia of history dating to mastodons and some of the earliest Native Americans, has daily tours on wheelchair-accessible river boats. The gentle cruises inform visitors about the local flora (ancient cypress forests) and fauna (manatees and alligators). After the ride, consider a meal in the dining room of the 1930s lodge or a fountain drink (ginger yip) and vintage candy in the gift shop. 

Bald Point

The park on Alligator Point on the Gulf coast is hallowed ground. Discovery of the earliest known North American pottery means Native American lived here 2,500-3,000 years before the first European explorers. Bald eagles and monarch butterflies annually use the park as a migratory pit stop. A wheelchair-accessible boardwalk and observation deck place visitors in the heart of this natural solitude. And there are beaches, with a beach wheelchair and Mobi-mat providing access to the Gulf of Mexico for swimming and fishing among other water activities.


Located on the bank of the Santa Fe River a short drive north of Gainesville, O’Leno is a place for visitors to enjoy a peaceful retreat in natural Florida. The developed group camp has a dining site and cabins that are accessible to wheelchair users and “within walking distance of the Upper Santa Fe River, nature trails, a playground, a swimming area, a canoe launch, the nature center and the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum,” according to the park website.

Lafayette Blue Springs

The Big Bend park, little more than an hour’s drive from either Tallahassee or Gainesville, features a first-magnitude spring and a campground on the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail. Visitors who use a wheelchair can take a ramp to access the spring and river. Cabin 1 is equipped with an elevator to provide access and is designed to serve guests who use mobility devices. The day-use area also features three interpretive panels with audio recordings for guests with visual impairments.

Places to Remember