ABOVE: A view from Blue Springs Run on a day with over 600 manatees in the run. (Mount Dora Buzz file photo)
It’s nature like you’ve never seen it. On chilly days the spectacle of hundreds of gentle manatees easing through crystal-clear water is what awaits nature lovers visiting Blue Springs State Park. Located about 35 miles northeast of Mount Dora, the approximately 2,600-acre park features pristine Blue Spring, the largest natural spring on the St. Johns River and a designated warm-water refuge for manatees during Florida’s winter months. The spring’s year-round water temperature of 72 degrees attracts hundreds of West Indian manatees from November through March. On a recent chilly day, over 600 manatees were counted by the park’s staff.
At times, visitors can also see hundreds of large fish, including tarpon, gar, redfish and black drum, that take refuge in the warmer water of the spring run. The park is also home to Florida scrub jays and water birds like anhingas, cormorants, herons and egrets.
The focal point of the park is Blue Spring Run, a crystal-clear inlet connecting the St. John’s River to Blue Spring. The run is lined by the lush Pine Island Trail, 3.6 miles of a one-way boardwalk ending at the spring. Blue Spring is a steeply banked emerald pool featuring an impressive spring vent at its center which leads to an underwater cave system.
To keep the protected manatees safe during their stay in Blue Spring Run, the spring and spring run are closed to all water-related activities including swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving and boating, from approximately mid-November through March. However, canoe and kayak rentals are still available year-round for use on the adjoining St. Johns River.
After manatee-watching, visitors can opt for a two-hour boat tour of the St. Johns River. The narrated nature cruises depart daily at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Reservations can be made by calling Blue Springs Adventures at 833-953-2583. Anglers can try their luck fishing from the dock on the river, but lines aren’t allowed in the spring run.
To make a day of it, there are many picnic tables throughout the park, and a food concession with hot dogs and hamburgers is available for anyone that didn’t pack a lunch. The park also features two picnic areas with covered pavilions and grills to accommodate larger groups. The pavilions are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
The park's history began in 1856, when Gold Rush prospector-turned-orange-grower- Louis Thursby- purchased Blue Spring. He built Thursby's Blue Spring Landing which became a bustling destination for steamboats transporting goods and travelers until Florida’s railroad was established.
In 1971, Jacques Cousteau filmed a television episode titled “The Forgotten Mermaids" which brought attention to manatees, as well as the importance of Blue Spring as a winter haven for the gentle giants. The airing of the documentary episode influenced the State of Florida's decision to purchase the land for its current use.
In addition to abundant wildlife, the park also features 51 scenic campsites within walking distance of the spring. Campsites are $24 per night plus tax plus a $7 nightly utility fee for water and electricity for RVs. Florida residents who are 65 years of age or older get a nice perk of a 50% discount on the current base campsite fees. For those who want a little more creature comforts, cabins are $95 per night plus a $7 nightly utility fee.
The park is located at 2100 W. French Avenue in Orange City and is open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. until sundown. The cost is $5 per vehicle. Park guests should always plan to arrive early as the park reaches capacity early in the day.