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. Ichetucknee Springs tubing is one of my most memorable only-in-Florida experiences.
The 2,242-acre Ichetucknee Springs State Park has hiking trails, a clear spring-fed swimming hole and picnic areas, but the true highlight involves Ichetucknee Springs 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.)
Ichetucknee Springs tubing in summer
The full Ichetucknee Springs tubing operation is open from Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day.
Admission to the park is $6 per vehicle (up to 8 people), and the charge for the tubing tram is $5.50. The fee is good all day for trams to the midpoint launch site.
If you don’t bring your own tube, you can rent one, which range from $7 to $30. More information. You also can rent your tube 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 during Ichetucknee Springs tubing season. There are daily quotas for the more sensitive sections of the river.
Here are the trip options for Ichetucknee Springs tubing
- Launching tubes at the northern section, which used to give you longest tube ride, is no longer available because of damage to the sensitive river bottom and shores. (See below about paddling it via SUP or kayak.)
- Launching at the midpoint has a 3,000 person capacity. This tube ride may also max out on busy weekends in the summer. This tube run is about 90 minutes to two hours. The wristband is $5.50.
- There is no limit for the short ride from Dampier‘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 shoes.)
- Whichever segment you tube, you will enter at the park’s South Ranger Station and either walk or take a tram to whichever launch site you are using.
What makes Ichetucknee Springs so special
What I love about Ichetucknee Springs tubing is 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 it 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 Ichetucknee 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 an Ichetucknee Springs tubing trip, always check the state park website before you go.
A few tips for Ichetucknee Springs tubing:
- 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 clean.
- Don’t worry too much about gators. The water is generally too cold for them.
- Information from the park concessions: View the website, call 386-497-1500 or email [email protected]
- Ichetucknee Springs State Park website
- Tubing during the off-season: You can tube off-season, but the northern section of the river is still closed to tubes. The shuttle, wristband and tube operation is available.
Paddling a kayak or SUP on the Ichetucknee
In the summer, 100 kayaks, canoes or SUPs are allowed to launch from the north entrance. (This would be an awesome place for a SUP because of the visibility into the water.)
Those paddling kayaks or SUPs park in the south lot and are shuttled to the starting point at the north end of the park. You can paddle to Dampier’s landing, from which it is five minutes from the south parking lot.
The cost to paddlers is $8 per person for the shuttle plus $8 per boat if you bring your own. You can rent single kayaks for $22 and tandems for $40. SUPs are $35. (You still pay for the shuttle.)
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 during the “off” season.
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. In March and April, it’s alligator gar breeding season and hundreds of the long prehistoric-looking fish gather.
In winter, 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.
Here’s a Florida Rambler story on kayaking the Ichetucknee River with all the details.
What’s near Ichetucknee Springs State Park?
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. 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
Park brochure (pdf)
Other popular Florida tubing spots:
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.