Tubing the Ichetucknee River in northern Florida is a summer pleasure well-known to folks from the region, especially students from the University of Florida in Gainesville, about an hour away.
But others looking for a cool outing in sultry weather will find it worth a drive too. It is one of my most memorable only-in-Florida experiences.
The 2,242-acre Ichetucknee Springs State ParkÂ has hiking trails, a clear spring-fed swimming hole and picnic areas, but the true highlight involves tubing. (Kayaking, canoeing, snorkeling and scuba diving are all wonderful here too.)
Tubing here on summer weekends is so popular that one park staff members described it as “floating down the river shoulder to shoulder.” Your best bet is to visit on a weekday or be in line at the gates when they open at 8 a.m. (Sometimes, to avoid traffic backups, they open the gates earlier on weekends, a staff members told us.)
Tubing the Ichetucknee in summer
The full Ichetucknee tubing operation is open from the Saturday of Memorial Day (May 26, 2018) to Labor Day (Sept. 3, 2018.)
Admission to the park is $6 per vehicle and each person using the tubing shuttle system must pay for a wristband ($5.50 or $7.50, depending on length of trip), which is good all day forÂ trams to the midpoint launch site.
If you don’t bring your own tube, you also have to pay to rent one, which ranges from $5 for a regular tube to $20 for large three-person tube.Â Here’s information. You also can rent your tube from one of the businesses just outside the park. (Tubes must be smaller than five feet in diameter to float freely down the river.)
The park has a fairly complicated system to manage and limit wear and tear on the river. There are daily quotas for the more sensitive sections of the river.
Here are the trip options:
- Launching at the northern section, which gives you longest tube ride, isÂ limited to 750 people a day and it maxes out almost every day in the summer. Tubing theÂ 3.5 mile length of the river through the park takes about three or four hours and the wristband is $7.50. (Kids 5 and under are free.)
- Launching at the midpoint has a 2,250 person capacity and this mid-length tube ride may also max out on the busiest weekends in the summer. This tube run is about 90 minutes to two hours. The wristband is $5.50.
- But donâ€™t worry. There is no limit for the short ride from Dampierâ€˜s Landing to the tube take-out point. You can do this run over and over again if you like, riding the tube for about an hour and then shuttling back. (You can walk a path for about 25 minutes back to the launch site, but you will need to have shoes, so few do this.)
Whichever segment you tube, you will enter at the park’s South Ranger Station and take a shuttle to whichever launch site you are using.
What I loved about tubing the Ichetucknee was the bracingly cold (72 degrees year round) 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 flying.
The Ichetucknee is unusual in that for its whole six-mile length, it remains as clear as at the headspring. It gathers water from nine named springs (and several unnamed ones) as itÂ passes through pure nature in this park — no cabins, no roads, no signs of man. (The strict rules about no disposables on the river may be responsible for the fact that there is no litter.)
The river’s scenery is spectacular, starting in the northern section, where tall seagrass waves in the current, and continuing through a cypress forest where the white sandy bottom reflects the light in a magical way and the shore is lined with lumpy cypress knees. The river has carved its way through limestone, so at points there are picturesque bluffs — so unlike many Florida rivers.
Before planning a trip, alwaysÂ check the park website before you go.
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. This is what keeps the river so clean.
- Don’t worry about gators. The water is too cold for them.
- Here’s a map of the Ichetucknee tubing experience.
- Information from the park concessions: View the website, call 386-497-1500 or emailÂ firstname.lastname@example.org
- Ichetucknee Springs State Park website
- Tubing during the off-season: You can tube off-season, but the northern section of the river is closed to tubes. The shuttle, wristband and tube operation is available.
Kayaking or tubing the Ichetucknee River in fall, winter and spring
For a quieter and less people-intensive experience, visit the Ichetucknee any time BUT summer. The best way to experience the Ichetucknee may be kayaking or canoeing it during the “off” season. (During the summer, canoes and kayaks fall into 750 person limit.)
When there aren’t thousands of visitors, you can see a lot of wildlife along the river from a kayak.
Mostly what you will see are turtles — dozens and dozens of them; this is turtle paradise. Every branch near the water gets filled with large freshwater turtles of many varieties, who shyly slip into the water when spooked. Then, thanks to clear water, you can watch them gracefully swim away.
With water this clear, schools of fish are visible. And there are seasonal treats too.
In winter, if the water level is high, 10 or 15 manatees have been known to frequent the Ichetucknee.Â Â In March and April, it’s alligator gar breeding season and hundreds of the long prehistoric-looking fish gather.
Logistics for paddlers:Â
Kayakers can enter at the northern end of the park, park their cars and rent kayaks, canoes or SUPs to do the 3.5 mile run. It takes about two hours, and with the swift current, it’s the laziest paddling ever.
Use of the shuttle is included in the concession’s kayak or canoe rental. If you bring your own kayak, there is $7.50 livery fee.
Rentals start at $20 for a single kayak; $35 for a double or canoe and $30 for a stand up paddle board. Here are details.
There is a longer kayak or canoe trip available, and next time, I’ll make time to paddle it. It’s a 9-mile trip that takes four to six hours and continues from the Ichetucknee north launch site into the Santa Fe River and ends atÂ William Guy Lemmon Park (U.S. Highway 129 bridge). You will have to make reservations in advance with the park concession to arrange this trip: 386-497-1113.
There are also outfitters outside the park you might consider. Ichetucknee Family Canoe and Cabins rents similar gear and also offers camping sites and rustic cabins.
Adventure Outpost also runs kayak trips on a periodic basis.
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.Â Here’s a story about O’Leno.Â Here’s a link to the park site. The park also has cabins available for rent September through April.
Just outside the park, a private campground,Â Ichetucknee Family Canoe and CabinsÂ offers camping sites and rustic cabins.
A half hour from the Ichetucknee is White Springs and the launch site for another gorgeous spring-fed kayaking spot. Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to the Santa Fe River.
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.Â