Last updated on December 11th, 2019 at 10:02 am
The Ichetucknee River in northern Florida is famous as a tubing river in summer. But my favorite time to experience this exceptional slice of Florida beauty is in the winter by canoe or kayak.
In the winter, without tubers to scare them away, the river is full of birds. We saw heron, ibis, egrets, cormorants, anhingas, limpkin and wood storks during our mid-November canoe trip down the 3.5-mile-long run through Ichetucknee Springs State Park.
Instead of the squeal of exuberant tubers, the river was so quiet that other paddlers seemed to speak in reverent hushed voices.
The scenery itself is stunning any time of year. With eight major crystalline springs, the water is as clear as a swimming pool. Majestic cypress trees line the banks, often forming a canopy overhead. At places, the stream has carved into limestone bluffs, providing picturesque craggy banks.
In the water, sea grass waves in the current; schools of fish and turtles appearing to fly in water so clear it seems invisible.
The upper portion of the river is a National Natural Landmark—some say it’s the most pristine spring run in the state.
In the winter, you have a chance to spot deer in the woods or, as temperatures chill, manatees in the river. In March and April, it’s alligator gar breeding season and hundreds of the long prehistoric-looking fish gather.
The canoe and kayak concession in the park makes it easy to show up any morning and have a memorable two-hour kayak trip. At the end, an hourly shuttle takes you back to your car.
The current on the river is swift enough that you never have to paddle – just steer your kayak or canoe to avoid hitting the sides. There are almost no obstacles in the water, so this is an easy run for a beginner.
The Ichetucknee truly is a lazy river — and more spectacular than anything you’ll find in a theme park.
Renting a kayak or canoe at Ichetucknee
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.
Use of the shuttle is included in the concession’s kayak or canoe rental. It runs on the hour.
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. It’s a 9-mile trip that takes four to six hours and continues from the Ichetucknee north launch into the tannic-colored Santa Fe River and ends at William Guy Lemmon Park (U.S. Highway 129 bridge). You must 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.
Other things to do in Ichetucknee Springs State Park
- There is a tempting swimming hole at one of the spring heads at the north end of the park. On a day when the temperature was under 60 degrees, the 72-degree water felt warm and inviting and two members of our group took a dip despite the chill. (They recommend it, but not enough for me to brave it.)
- Don’t miss the boardwalk to the Blue Hole, located next to the swimming area. This first-magnitude spring is a hidden beauty in the woods at the end of a 10-minute stroll. Snorkelers and swimmers are allowed to enter this pool and those who explore below can see the entrance to the cave system.
- The park has picnic areas, playgrounds and three nature trails.
Summer tubing at Ichetucknee
Tubing the Ichetucknee River is a summer pleasure well-known to folks from the region, especially students from the University of Florida in Gainesville, about an hour away.
Tubing here on summer weekends is so popular that the park has developed a system to handle the crowds and avoid degrading the river’s beauty, so it pays to read up on what to expect.
Here’s a Florida Rambler story on tubing the Ichetucknee and what you need to know.
Camping and cabins: There is no camping in Ichetucknee, but O’Leno State Park in High Springs, 12 miles away, was ranked as one of the 100 best campgrounds by Reserve America. The park also has cabins available for rent September through April. Read more about O’Leno SP.
Just outside the park, a private campground, Ichetucknee Family Canoe and Cabins 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.
Ichetucknee Springs State Park
12087 SW U.S. Highway 27