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 car and each person tubing must buy a $5 wristband to ride the shuttle. You also need to rent (or bring) a tube and in the summer of 2017, the park concession started renting tubes inside the park. Tubes rent for $5 (for a child size) to $20; here’s information. In the past, you had to rent your tube from one of the businesses just outside the park, and you can still do that. (Tubes must be smaller than five feet in diameter to float freely down the river.)
What I loved about tubing the Ichetucknee was the bracingly cold gin-clear water and the pristine forest through which it passed. You can gaze down to the white sandy bottom (about 8 feet down) and see fish and turtles in water so clear, they seem to be flyibg.
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, especially for college students from nearby University of Florida.
Before planning a trip, always check the park website before you go.
Tubing in the summer
The full tubing experience takes about three hours and you must enter at the northern gate, where you launch and float to the take-out point six miles downstream on the southern end. The park limits this run to 750 people a day and closes the northern launch when that number has been reached or at 2 p.m.
When you start at the northern end, someone in your party must drop off the tubes and tubers at the north entrance (where they can swim while they’re waiting) and drive and park at the south take-out point. From here, a shuttle van returns the driver to the starting point, where the tubing adventure begins.
A shorter tube run is available from the southern gate. Here, you use the mid-point launch and float about 90 minutes to the southern take out. The park limits the number of people tubing this section to 3,000 a day.
With wrist bands, tubers can make repeated runs down this shorter section.
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.
The longer three-hour tubing experience is available from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Off-season, there is no tram service for tubers and tubing is not allowed from the north entrance.
Tubing in fall and spring
Off season is a good times to visit, however. The area available for tubing is shorter — from the mid-point to the south take-out — 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.
There’s good news for paddlers off-season: 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 — and there may be inspections.
- 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 tubes, 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.
- Here’s a map of the Ichetucknee tubing experience.
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.
Just an hour away from Ichetucknee are two state parks with cabins and camping that are a great base for exploring the springs of northwest Florida. Here’s a Florida Rambler story on staying on the Suwanee River in Lafayette Blue Springs State Park or Suwanee River State Park.
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.