Florida Travel: Take a Ride on Rock Springs Run
By Leanora Minai
Kelly Park in Apopka is 45 to 60 minutes away from famous theme parks Orlando is known for, but the 355-acre oasis is its own theme park, brought to life by the free-flowing Rock Springs, picturesque natural surroundings, and enjoyable recreational activities for an all-day family adventure.
Here’s a guide for your outing, from how and when to access the popular park, where to rent an inner tube to drift along the natural spring, and other fun things to do at the second oldest park in Orange County.
Before you go
Kelly Park, which opens at 8 a.m., has limited daily capacity, in order to preserve and protect the area and habitats. There’s a hotline to call to check on entrance and parking availability. Before you head out, call 407-254-1906. With a daily maximum number of vehicles allowed, guests have been known to get in line at 4:30 a.m., and the park has filled up as early as 9 a.m. in the summer.
If You Plan to Tube
The park does not provide inner tube rentals. If you need a tube, stop at nearby Rock Springs Bar & Grill (4939 Rock Springs Rd.) to rent a tube for $7 for the day. In addition to the fee, you’ll be asked to leave your driver’s license behind as collateral for the inner tube. If you forget to rent a tube or decide later that you want one, you are allowed to leave and re-enter the park; just be sure to have your admission receipt for re-entry. However, if the park is full, you may not be able to re-enter. You can bring pool noodles or floats, but they must be less than 5-feet in length or width. I brought my own inner tube for our outing.
A Home Base in Nature
When you arrive at the park entrance, ask for a park map, or see it here. You’ll find ample opportunities and green spaces to relax, unwind and spend the day amid a diverse ecosystem. Pick a spot and set up at a picnic table near a charcoal grill, string a hammock between tall pines, magnolias, or oaks, or spread blankets along the waterfront. Pavilions are also available for rent. With a home base, you’ll have a gathering spot to take in the beautiful scenery, a meal, snacks, and down time, while you and the family enjoy multiple runs down the cool spring under the warm Florida sunshine. And wherever you land, there’s easy access to restrooms and amenities such as trails, a concession stand, playground and volleyball court.
What to Expect While Tubing Rock Springs
Whether you visit solo, with friends or family, the slow-flowing Rock Springs is Kelly Park’s main draw, an incredible experience in crystal-clear water that stays at 68 to 72 degrees year-round and maintains an average flow of 26,000 gallons per minute. What’s unique is the spring’s setting amid the woods, where you may see wildlife (or signs of it) such as pileated woodpeckers, bobcats, barred owls, wild turkeys, gopher tortoises, white-tailed deer, and more. The surface of the water, which feeds the Wekiva River, sparkles like gemstones in shades of turquoise, teal and green, depending on how the sunlight filters through surrounding trees. Ferns, plants and grasses, and tall pines hug the sides of the spring, bolstered in some areas by outcroppings of rocks. The whole scene is set with a blue sky for a backdrop, and, as you take it all in while floating, you feel in awe and lucky to experience this place on Earth.
Getting to the spring head for tubing involves a walk with your inner tube from the parking and concession area to the boardwalk path. Follow the path toward the spring head. If you get turned around, just ask someone or follow the direction most people are walking — it’s what we did.
You’ll know you’re at the spring head when you see a cool-looking cave, but you’ll be able to observe only from afar; it’s not open for exploring (by humans). The flat rock ledges are the perfect launch pad for tubing. It’s as if Mother Nature custom-built the place for us to easily place tubes in the water and gently lower ourselves down.
Once you’re in a tube, your float down the spring immediately begins. The constant current and breeze (depending on conditions) are gentle but firm. If you plan on linking inner tubes, grab hold of a nearby rock right after getting in and wait so you can connect before everyone is swept off in different directions or speeds.
If you’ve ever enjoyed a “lazy river” at a water park or hotel/resort, Rock Springs feels similarly relaxing, inducing an immediate exhale as you float and observe the great outdoors. Depending on how many others are in the spring when you go, you may bump into other tubers here and there, but if you visit in the off-season, like I did in January, you may have areas along the spring to yourself. There was plenty of room to search for fish, turtles and other critters. Although the water is clear, you can’t see through grasses in areas, and for some park-goers, that added an element of thrill. Alligators inhabit freshwater lakes, ponds, rivers, marshes, swamps, and bayous, but sightings are uncommon along the spring, and some people climbed out of tubes to walk, swim and snorkel, while others (like me) were content to stay inside the tube.
Depending on how often you and your family stop along the spring, the three-quarter mile long run takes approximately 25 to 30 minutes. At the end, much like sledding, you can walk back to the spring head with your tube and go again and again. As you drift, you’ll pass under a few bridges and shallow beach areas that are popular for snorkeling and hanging out in the water with your children just outside the pull of the current. These areas have steps in and out of the spring, providing multiple access points, so you can easily get to different areas of the park without needing to float all the way to the end.
A Bit of Park History
A state historical marker just outside the park tells the story of how Kelly Park came to be. New Jersey doctor Howard A. Kelly visited Rock Springs in 1910. A founder of Johns Hopkins Hospital, he loved the “sweet” water flowing from a cave at the spring head and purchased 200 acres around Rock Springs in 1921 for a wildlife preserve and bird sanctuary. Kelly and his wife donated the land for use as a public park to Orange County in 1927. The park is named after Kelly.
“The land was steeped in history reaching back to the Timucua Indians and Dr. Kelly stipulated that ‘it be held as a preserve,’ a sanctuary of wildlife and woodlands,” according to Orange County. “His generous donation came to exemplify his deep concern for the preservation of Florida’s natural spaces.”
While at The Park, Fit This In
The Kelly Loop Trail (marked by yellow) awaits. It’s just a short walk from the tube run. At 2 ¾ miles, Kelly Loop Trail is perfect for a tranquil and shady stroll amid a forested area with a view of clear water and paddlers at the “3rd landing.” Shorter walking trails are available, and along a few, the kids will enjoy spotting sink holes (marked on the park map).
The park offers individual, family and group camp sites with picnic tables and fire rings and access to restrooms and hot showers. There are various fees for tent and RV sites, as well as accessible camping options.
The park does not provide kayak, canoe, or paddleboard rentals, but you can bring your own to launch for a fee at Camp Joy, which is next to Rock Springs. If you want to paddle, bring a completed Kayak/Canoe Launch Form to the Kelly Park office upon arrival to register. Launch hours are between 8 a.m. and 12 p.m., and you must return by 5 p.m.
For Guests with Mobility Challenges
Most pathways at Kelly Park are wheelchair accessible. There is a lift in the main swim area to help guests in and out of the water. Call the park at 407-254-1902 to inquire about special needs.
Getting to the Park
Here are directions to the park at 400 East Kelly Park Rd., including GPS coordinates.
The entry fee is $3 per vehicle for one to two people; $5 per vehicle for three or more; and $1 for each walk-in/motorcycle/bike. The park has an FAQ, which covers fees, but if you have more questions, call the park.
The concession, which is open from spring break until early October, serves hamburgers, veggie burgers, corn dogs, chicken nuggets, fries, funnel cake, and more. Ony cash is accepted.
What to Bring
- Inner tube
- Life jackets for small children. You can ask a staff member if a life jacket is available.
- Padlock – there are a limited number of small lockers near the concession stand for day use
- Sneakers/water shoes/light hiking shoes
- Bathing suit
- Towels/picnic blankets
- Folding chairs
- Portable hammock
- Food/supplies for grilling
- Cash for the concession stand
- Snorkeling gear
- Drinking water
- Change of clothes
- Bug spray
If you forget something, like charcoal or a lighter for the gill, there’s a limited supply of some products for sale at the concession stand.
What Not to Bring
Pets, unless they’re ADA service animals, and alcohol, which is not permitted.