You've Gotta Try This: Kayaking at Ichetucknee Springs State Park

By Kevin McGeever

Ichetucknee Springs is one of the jewels of the nationally recognized Florida State Parks system.

A day trip to this north central Florida paradise is:
- an adventure into the clear-water wonders of the Sunshine State’s subterranean network of freshwater springs;
- a meditative, let-everything-go tube drift on the Ichetucknee River;
- and a swimmer’s baptism, available year-round at 72 degrees of attention-getting chill. 

Here’s a planner for your adventure – from driving distances to packing the car to navigating the park – plus accommodations and adventure opportunities for travelers with disabilities.


Depending on your travel time and activities, the park is at minimum a half day and more likely a full day of family fun.


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.


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.


Getting your backside into a tube that wants to float away may be a juggling act for a single person. I pinned my tube by the ladder of the floating dock, then held the ladder railing and lowered myself onto the tube. Whether tube or kayak, the river’s 1-mph current will do a lot of the work for you.

The clarity of the natural swimming pools is stunning and deceiving. The bottom is visible from 50 feet away, leading a novice to think the water is shallow. But most of the water is over an adult swimmer’s head. By the spring’s vent in the main pool, what looks like 5 to 10 feet to the bottom is more like 30-35 feet. Use caution. There are no lifeguards.

The terrain of the hiking trails can be uneven, with exposed tree roots and ruts carved by rainfall.

At Blue Hole Spring, only certified divers can enter the vent/cave entrance, which is 10 feet down and about the width of a Volkswagen. Divers advise against trying to swim against the forceful flow of the first-magnitude spring; it’s energy-sapping. Instead, divers use their hands to “climb down” the walls of the tunnel. But a visual treat awaits …

Tubing and kayaking on the river is a physical and spiritual gift.
--Vy Nguyen Films


After descending the cave entrance at Blue Hole, the underwater world literally expands into a “ballroom” that is 40-50 feet wide and another 30 feet deep. On a clear day, the sun reaches all the way to the bottom and reflects off the ballroom’s white sand floor, illuminating any divers exploring the cave and creating a picture window for snorkelers floating on the surface.

The main swimming area at the headspring is a natural amphitheater. A forest of tall longleaf pine, live oak, magnolia, pignut hickory, and maple frame a translucent pool that covers what is essentially a hole in the earth.

The Floridan Aquifer flows beneath the state’s mostly limestone foundation and gushes up through “vents” to create freshwater springs. These clear-as-glass ponds number about 700 statewide, most of them in central and north central Florida.

Wheelchair-accessible paths, picnic areas, and stone walls accommodate spectators and swimmers who want to stow their gear. Broad steps, 20-30 feet across, allow time for second-guessers to think about their life choices before the plunge.

Another world awaits under the surface. Is this really water? How can it be so clear? Be sure to bring a mask and enjoy the view.

Tubing on the river is a physical and spiritual gift. Even on a blazing summer day, the room-temperature spring water adds a layer of air conditioning at the river surface. In a 90-minute trip, I didn’t break a sweat and spent perhaps two minutes in direct sunlight. The dappled light finding its way through the lush canopy of trees makes for great photography. The cooters and water fowl are ready subjects (the park is part of the Great Florida Birding Trail). Manatees, otters, and alligators also are occasional guests. Or just lay your head back and let it flow.


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.

The headspring and Blue Hole swimming areas and three hiking trails are footsteps from the north entrance parking lot off SW Elim Church Road. Divers with proper certification are permitted only in Blue Hole Spring.

The park website has all the details.


There are shaded and/or covered picnic areas at both the north and south ends of the park. The Ichetucknee General Store adjacent to the south parking lot has a hot and cold menu, plus hand-dipped ice cream. Dine outdoors at tree-shaded picnic tables located throughout the park. Sunscreen and other sundries are also available. A food truck 75 yards from the headspring and even closer to the north-end trails has vegan and vegetarian options on its menu of handheld sandwiches and tacos.


The average daytime high temperatures range from 68 degrees Fahrenheit in January to upper 80s and low 90s from May through September. Remember: The spring water is always 72 degrees.

Summer is high season at Ichetucknee Springs; arrive early and expect a playful traffic jam of “bumper tubes” on the river. For a quieter experience, weekdays during the school year are more solitary. On my recent trip, a family of deer lingered in the tram path to the tube launch.

For kayakers, the launch area is ADA-compliant.
--Vy Nguyen Films


Visitors using wheelchairs can navigate safely from the north parking lot to the headspring swimming area in two to three minutes.

A paved trail connected to the parking area leads visitors past the food truck and restrooms and outdoor showers – all accessible – and then to a wide wooden boardwalk with handrails.

This portion of path, perhaps 50 yards in length, descends gradually and turns sharply left toward the spring. (Note: The return trip on the boardwalk is uphill and could require assistance.)

For visitors with mobility impairments who want to swim or float or snorkel in the spring, there is a motorized chair lift that will place them in the water and bring them back to the platform.

For kayakers, the launch area is ADA-compliant. A wheelchair user would navigate 20-30 yards of crushed concrete to a wooden boardwalk that leads to a floating dock. The kayak, secured in a cradle, sinks with the person’s weight into water. The kayaker then places his paddle horizontally in slots in the walls of the cradle and pulls or pushes himself into the river.

The person’s wheelchair or prosthesis will be waiting at Dampier’s Landing, the exit point, where the trail is ADA-compliant.

Tubers with mobility impairments enter at Dampier’s Landing. A member of the person’s party needs to return the wheelchair and/or prosthetic 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.

Visitors can call 386-438-9166 to use the chair lift; a park ranger will arrive in minutes. Or call the same number in advance for information about all of the park’s accessible amenities. The park staff is prepared to help with any accommodation.

For visitors who can’t physically experience the river, they can watch video of snorkeling, tubing, and kayaking adventures at the Education Center and listen to the sounds of the resident wildlife and bubbling springs.


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.

Showers are available at the north and south takeouts.


Tubers and kayakers are prohibited from swimming in the river. Hikers are required to stay on the trails. In each instance, the goal is to protect the environment, the wildlife, and the visitor.

Dogs are permitted on the Trestle Point and Pine Ridge trails at the north end of the park. They must be kept on a six-foot leash.

Early cultures of Native Americans, the original Floridians, lived off the river and springs for thousands of years.
--Vy Nguyen Films


Early cultures of Native Americans, the original Floridians, lived off the river and springs for thousands of years. Spanish colonials established a presence in these areas in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Mission de San Martin de Timucua, built in 1608 as part of El Camino Real, was one of many missions serving the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine. Now an architectural site, the land is managed by the park service. In 1972, the Department of the Interior declared the Ichetucknee Spring a National Natural Landmark.


Ichetucknee is centrally located in Florida springs country. Stay in Gainesville and experience Lafayette Blue, Troy, Ginnie, Fanning, Blue Grotto, and Peacock Springs among others.


1. Enter the park via the south entrance off U.S. 27.
2. Rent equipment at the concession stand.
3. Use the restroom.
4. Don’t forget water shoes or something comparable. The trails from tram to launch are hard on bare feet.
5. Take the tram to tubing or paddling launch points.
6. Enjoy the river.
7. Exit the river at designated takeout point.
8. Return by tram to the concession stand.


1. Enter the park via the north entrance. (Note: Your park admission receipt, which is taped to the inside of your windshield, allows you to exit and re-enter the park.)
2. From the parking lot, follow signs to the hiking trails or …
3. Walk about 200 yards on a paved path and then wooden boardwalk to the headspring swimming hole or …
4. Follow signs and walk the trail – about 10 minutes – to Blue Spring Hole.
5. Caution: The swimming areas for the most part are over your head. Use caution. There are no lifeguards.
6. Outdoor showers are available. ADA-compliant restrooms are large.

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