HIGH SPRINGS — I think Florida’s springs are so special that somewhere along the line, the best ones should have been designated national parks.
When Florida weather turns too muggy for hiking and too buggy for paddling, the perfect outing is to go tubing in Central Florida. And the perfect place for tubing is Ichetucknee State Park, about an hour north of Gainesville.
The 2,242-acre state park has hiking trails and picnic areas, but the true highlight involves getting wet, especially via tubing. (Kayaking, canoeing, snorkeling and scuba diving are all wonderful here too.)
The park charges $6 admission per person for tubing and you rent your tube from one of the businesses just outside the park, for $5 to $15, depending on the size. (Tubes must be smaller than five feet in diameter to float freely down the river.)
This Orlando Sentinel travel story provides some good tips (arrive early!) and description.
What I loved about tubing the Ichetucknee was the bracingly cold gin-clear water and the pristine forest through which it passed.
If you’ve never tried it, you’re missing one of the best Florida outdoor experiences around.
The Ichetucknee has been a favorite destination for years, but the upper stretch of the river, which is shallower, is showing ill effects from heavy tubing. Park officials are proposing that all tubing occur on the middle section of the river.
Before planning a trip, always check the park website before you go.
The park already limits tubing to 3,000 a day — 2,250 for the 1.5 hour float and 750 for the longer three-house float from the north entrance.
If you want to tube the Ichetucknee in the summer, don’t wait until late in the day. Park rangers advise arriving as soon after the 8 a.m. park opening as possible.
After Labor Day, the off-season schedule means no tram service for tubers and no tubing the longer stretch starting from the north entrance.
Fall is a good time to visit, though. The area available for tubing is shorter and, without the tram, you have to walk back to the starting point, but it’s just a 15-minute walk and you can take a second ride down the river if you like. Crowds are thinner, particularly if you come on a weekday. And there’s good news for paddlers: Once the northern stretch of the river is closed to tubing, it remains open to kayaks and canoes.
A few tips for tubers:
- No beer on this trip. Park rules prohibit any food, drink, tobacco or disposable items on the river.
- Beginning May 28, 2016: An additional fee for the park shuttle was added. To use the park’s shuttle and tram service during tubing season, visitors need to buy wristbands for $5 plus tax per person. The wristband is good for all day on the trams to Midpoint Launch and from South Take Out at the south end of the park. This also includes shuttle service back to the North End from the South End for drivers dropping off their cars and going tubing. The park’s concessionaire, Paddling Adventures, also rents kayaks and paddleboards. For pricing and more information, visit the Paddling Adventures.
- Entrance to the park is $6 per vehicle for two to eight in a car.
- Don’t worry about gators. The water is too cold for them.
Camping and cabins: There is no camping in Ichetucknee, but nearby O’Leno State Park in High Springs was ranked as one of the 100 best campgrounds by Reserve America. Here’s a story about O’Leno. Here’s a link to the park site. The park also has cabins available for rent September through April.
Other popular Florida tubing spots:
- Blue Spring State Park in Orange City in Central Florida. You can access this wonderful swimming hole from multiple access points along a boardwalk. You can rent tubes at the concession stand at the beginning of the boardwalk at the far end of the parking lot. Tubers carry their tubes up the boardwalk to an entry point just below the spring. The takeout is a quarter mile downstream.
- Rainbow Springs State Park, in Dunnellon, west of Ocala. Tubing is so popular on the Rainbow River that you need to arrive before 10 a.m. on weekends. You can’t tube in the headsprings; the park’s tube entrance is located on S.W. 180th Avenue Road. Tube rentals and a shuttle service that takes you upstream two miles are available from the concessionaire, Nature Quest, Inc. The trip takes about two hours to complete.
- Blackwater River State Park in Holt, the Panhandle. The park’s canoe outfitter also rents tubes.