This is a little piece of heaven, this Kelly Park where the Rock Springs bubble up from underground rivers at the breathtaking rate of 26,000 gallons a minute, feeding a string of swimming holes with crystal clear water at a constant temperature of 68 degrees.
Just downstream, a freshly replenished creek spills down a shallow run that is popular in summer with tubers and waders.
Outside the park’s boundaries, as Rock Springs Run deepens, you can launch a kayak or canoe for a scenic 8.5 mile paddle down to Rock Springs Run through pristine sub-tropical forest to the river’s merger with Wekiwa Springs Run, forming the nationally designated Wild and Scenic Wekiva River.
Inside the 325-acre Kelly Park, near the popular day-use area, there are 26 shady campsites tucked under a dense canopy of pine and hardwood forest, each site ranging from 35 to 70 feet deep with comfortable separation.
Some sites back up to the woods, affording unusual privacy.
This is bear country, so be bear aware, and a natural habitat for alligators and cottonmouth snakes, although those are largely confined to the river below Kelly Park.
Otherwise, the wildlife in the park and campground is fairly tame, lots of wild turkeys, a few river otters and white-tailed deer, and birds. We saw woodpeckers, egrets and various water fowl on our most recent visit.
Next to the park is recently acquired Camp Joy, a former church camp with lodges and meeting rooms where groups can reserve dormitory-style bunk rooms. With a signed release and $3, you can also launch your kayak here.
With seven miles of hiking trails, a fabulous playground, picnic shelters and, of course, swimming, this park is particularly popular with locals, especially in summer when the kids are out of school and in desperate need of relief from their phones, tablets and other gadgets.
We visited the park in winter, and my wife commented that the playground, with its tube slides, swings and jungle gym, is one of the nicest she’s ever seen.
During summer, you can hardly get into Kelly Park. With a limit of 280 vehicles, it fills up fast. The line at the gate starts before the park opens at 8 a.m. Fair warning, the park is sometimes full by 9 a.m. An additional 50 vehicles are admitted after 1 p.m.
Day-use admission fees are $3 per vehicle with 1-2 passengers, $5 per vehicle with 3-8 passengers and $1 per person for bicycles and walk-ins.
Rock Spring Run
There are no kayak or canoe rentals inside the park, and the only place campers can launch their own is at Camp Joy, but be prepared to portage a few hundred yards from the parking lot.
Camp Joy gives kayakers access to Rock Springs Run below Kelly Park proper and the Emerald Cut, arguably the prettiest section of the stream. But it’s a paddle out and paddle back, unless you have your own shuttle to pick you up downstream or make arrangements at nearby Kings Landing. The currents are mild here so a paddle out and back is definitely doable.
Otherwise, you have to go just outside the park to the private concession at Kings Landing, just east of Camp Joy at the end of Baptist Camp Road.
Kings Landing is the only kayak and canoe concession for Rock Springs Run. There is nothing available inside the park.
Kings Landing is closed on Monday and Tuesday with only one shuttle on weekdays, returning from the takeout at Wekiva Island at 4 p.m. On weekends and holidays, shuttles run at 2:30 and 4 p.m. The last boat should leave no later than 11 a.m., unless you have your own shuttle plan.
Although the full 8.5 miles takes an estimated four hours, that would be pressing it if you are in a canoe or like to pause to observe or photograph wildlife.
We launched our own kayaks at 11 a.m. from Kings Landing and arrived at Wekiva Island at 3:40 p.m. with a few stops along the way to eat lunch and stretch our legs.
This was our second attempt to tackle Rock Springs Run. The first time around, late fall of 2017, we learned on arrival that the popular 8.5-mile paddle was off-limits because of the forest destruction left by Hurricane Irma just two months earlier.
Our only choice during that outing was to paddle upstream to the Emerald Cut and back to Kings Landing. Emerald Cut was a fabulous outing and one we might not have enjoyed if it wasn’t for Irma. I recommend it highly if you only have a couple of hours for paddling or if you arrive too late for the full run.
This time around — January 2019 — we were given the all-clear for the full run downstream to Wekiva Island, so we arranged for our shuttle and jumped right into our kayaks.
Initially, you pass a few rustic cabins but are quickly immersed in the forests around you. Rock Springs Run State Reserve lines the east side of the river and Wekiwa Springs State Park dominates the west bank. (Despite its name, there is no access to Rock Springs Run from Rock Spring Run State Reserve.)
For the first four miles, there is no mistaking the damage from Hurricane Irma. Toppled trees and debris litter the waterway and its banks, although it is now easily navigable thanks to volunteers and park service personnel who literally cut their way through.
Still, nature has yet to restore much of the beauty of that section. You’ll still see plenty of wildlife, turtles resting on logs, alligators sunning themselves on the banks and flocks of birds.
After passing the halfway point, the storm damage is less evident and the subtropical flora comes to brilliant life. It was worth the wait. Expect to pause often to take photos.
The halfway point is marked by the first of three primitive campgrounds along Rock Springs Run, Big Buck Campsite, soon followed by the larger Indian Mound Camp on the east bank and Otter Camp.
All three primitive campsites are managed by Wekiwa Springs State Park and must be reserved for $5 per person through the park office at 407-553-4383. Each primitive site can accommodate up 10 campers. Amenities are limited to fire rings, and they can only be reached by boat.
Our journey wrapped up at the Kings Island pavilion at Wekiva Island, a private recreation area with an outdoor bar, just past the junction of Rocks Springs Run with Wekiwa Springs Run, which join to form the Wekiva River.
I’ve also paddled the lower Wekiva River many times from Wekiva Falls RV Resort in Sorrento.
The Wekiva River is one of only two federally-designated Wild and Scenic Rivers in Florida, the other being the Loxahatchee River near Jupiter.
An alternative launch ramp is at Camp Joy, now part of Kelly Park. But you have to either paddle back to the ramp or arrange your own shuttle at Wekiva Springs State Park or Wekiva Island. Access fee is $3 for 1-2 people or $5 for 3-8 people, and you have to complete a waiver and bring it to the Kelly Park office. Download the form here.
The Campground at Kelly Park
Each of the 26 campsites is hard-pack shell rock, excellent for RVs, and most sites offer softer shoulders for tents.
The sites are arranged in a circle with feeder paths to a clean and well-maintained bathhouse in the middle.
On a previous visit (a tent), I settled into No. 10. On my latest visit (in a travel trailer), we bunked in Site No. 12.
Each site has a picnic table, campfire ring (with a flap grill), water and electric, and you are allowed two sleeping units (such as an RV and tent) for up to six people.
If you have two RVs in your group, go for No. 17, a pull-through, double site for family or group camping of up to 12 people, allowing up to four camping units.
There is also group camping available.
Hot tip for RVs: While all of the sites are spacious, they are angled, so you may want to opt for sites where your rig can face away from the campground access road. Most of those sites are on the outside of the circle.
As for availability, I was surprised to see so few sites occupied in January. My experience at state parks has been just the opposite with the flood of snowbirds across Central and South Florida. When I checked online, there wasn’t a single site available at nearby Wekiwa Springs State Park.
At Kelly Park, we didn’t have any trouble booking a full week without a reservation, but that’s not always the case, especially on weekends and during the summer months.
Campsites for non-county residents are $23, twice that for No. 17, and $17.25 for seniors. Residents of Orange County get discounts to $18, $36 and $13.50, respectively.
There are two primitive campsites out on the Kelly Loop Trail where tenters can camp for $15 per site, $11.25 for seniors.
Camp Joy lodges are $5 per bunk with a minimum of $60 per bunk room.
Reservations can be made up to 45 days in advance by sending an e-mail to KellyCamping@ocfl.net. The park is owned and maintained by Orange County, and a ranger lives on site near the campground. I found it comforting that they have a policy of providing you with the resident ranger’s cell phone number in case you have a problem any time, day or night. Orange County is still setting up its online reservation system (June 2019), and Kelly Park is not yet available to book online.
Pets are not allowed anywhere in the park or campground, and alcohol is prohibited.
Kelly Park at Rock Spring
400 East Kelly Park Rd.
Apopka, FL 32712
Scenic Rating: 9 out of 10
Family Rating: 10 out of 10
Sites: 26 for RV, tents and trailers; 2 primitive
Hookups: Water and electric (Dump station)
Reservations: 45 days in advance. Call (407) 254-1902
Just outside the campground entrance, at the intersection of Kelly Park Road and Rock Springs Road, there is a convenience store and gasoline station, but don’t bother stopping there if you are looking for camping supplies.
A limited selection of camping gear, including mantles and propane tanks, can be purchased at the Ace Hardware store in nearby Apopka. Take Rock Springs Road south and cross U.S. 441 in Apopka. The store is about a block past 441 on the right.
For groceries, there’s a Publix supermarket about 2 miles from the campground on Rock Springs Road, at the corner of Welch Road.
Firewood is available in the park, or you can buy a stack of hardwood outside the park at the Rock Springs Bar & Grill, a funky dive bar at the intersection of Kelly Park Road and Rock Springs Road.
The bar is a colorful saloon with food and beer, and a good source of local information. The food was pretty good, as well.
You can also rent tubes there.