The Picnic Backpack: Blue Spring State Park

For the first five summers of my son’s life, summer wasn’t much different from the rest of the year. He was dropped off by his father or me at daycare, preschool and then kindergarten for most of the year, and in the summer he was dropped off someplace else; a day camp or daycare.

This year was different. Mommy got downsized. So, while pondering options for a future outside of the downsizing-prone newspaper business, I decided to take full advantage of what could be a one-time opportunity for a summer at home with my son, now 6.

Except we’re not home a lot. As often as possible, we like to fill up the picnic backpack and head out for an “adventure.” Last week we decided to have our picnic lunch at Blue Spring State Park near Orange City, Fla. I’d been to the park twice before, but both times were to see the manatees that spend the winter in the 72-degree spring run. I’d never been to the park in the summer, and snorkeling in the crystal-clear water with some of the fish I’d seen there previously sounded like fun. Trevor had recently learned how to use his new mask, snorkel and fins, so I hoped he’d join me.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

I snapped this view of the spring run at Blue Spring State Park during our recent summer visit.

We arrived at the park just before lunchtime and it was already filled with families picnicing, swimming, canoeing and floating. We managed to find a picnic table, at Trevor’s request, near the playground, and unpacked our lunch. Trevor devoured his peanut butter and jelly sandwich as quickly as possible and made a new friend on the swings, giving me an opportunity to enjoy my salad slowly and study the map of the park to come up with a plan.

I ruled out canoeing since I’d be doing all the paddling, and Trevor isn’t a kayaker yet. Scenic boat tours on the St. John’s River were available, but we were in budget mode. Though the park’s website listed the short, boarded nature walk as the park’s hiking option, there is also a 4-mile half loop that begins at the main parking lot and ends at a primitive campsite. Hikers have to return by the same route, meaning I could end up having to carry a 50-pound kid for 6 to 8 miles. If that primitive campsite had a real fountain of youth, maybe. Otherwise, we’d pass on the hiking trail. (Incidentally, this trail isn’t mentioned on the park website but is on the map provided by the ranger station.)

Trevor was ready to swim, but a walk-through of the swimming area revealed that the water was over his head and there was no shallow area near the bank where he could play. Our solution: We rented a small inner tube ($5 the first hour) and I donned a mask, snorkel and fins and pulled him up the spring run. The area in front of the swimming platform was noisy and crowded with people jumping into the water and kicking up sand, but we crossed to the other side and soon I was able to point out a couple of gar and a few smaller fish as we made our way toward the mouth of the spring.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

A boarded nature walk runs alongside the spring run, from the mouth of Blue Spring to the St. Johns River. This photo was taken during the winter manatee season. In the summer, the boardwalk is filled with swimmers carrying inner tubes.

Fortunately for me, we only made it halfway to the mouth of the spring before Trevor decided it was time to turn around. Floating downstream, as you can imagine, was much easier than going up and the only difficulty was navigating around the other inner tubes and swimmers as we made our way back to the platform. When we got out, Trevor said he wanted to try to get in with his mask and snorkel, but the stairs leading into the water were so crowded with people going in and out that it was impossible for a little guy to get into the water at his own speed, so we gave up and decided to follow the boarded nature walk to the mouth of the spring.

During my winter visits, Blue Spring was peaceful and pristine, with only manatees in the spring run or a couple of scuba divers exploring the bottom of the spring. This time we passed two pairs of divers on the boardwalk, and they were not looking overly cheerful. This could have been partly due to the fact that scuba tanks are heavy and it was a long walk back to the parking lot. But when we got to the spring I could see another reason they may have been dismayed — it was wall-to-wall screaming, splashing swimmers.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

A manatee makes its way down the spring run at Blue Spring State Park.

On the way back to the car, we decided to explore the Thursby House, a two-story home built in 1872 by settler Louis Thursby. The house is filled with artifacts and displays that describe the life of the Thursby family, who grew vegetables, raised hogs and caught fish, alligators and other animals in the wilderness surrounding their home. This was about the extent of the information I was able to absorb between answering calls of “Mom! Mom! Look at this!” from every other room in the house, but I was fascinated, imagining what it must have been like to live in such spectacular natural beauty when it was still undiscovered and private.

You have to hand it to Florida State Parks. They’ve done a wonderful job of keeping Blue Spring in a mostly natural and fully beautiful state despite herds of trampling visitors year after year.

Blue Spring State Park by Laurie Sterbens

From Nov. 15 to March 1, Blue Spring is closed to swimmers to provide a haven for the West Indian manatee. Park visitors can get a close-up view of the creatures from the steps of the swimming platforms.

I’ll probably visit again in the summer, and maybe will be able to get Trevor all the way up the spring run next time. But if it’s your first visit to Blue Spring, I’d suggest going during the manatee season, Nov. 15 through March 1. Blue Spring is a designated refuge for the West Indian manatee, and swimming, diving and snorkeling aren’t allowed while the manatees are there. This provides a peaceful setting to view the manatees, turtles, numerous fish and even an occasional alligator napping in the Florida sun.

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