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Four summers ago, we took our first real family vacation.
It wasn’t the first time we’d traveled as a family. We’d been doing that since the girls were babies. But it was our first trip that didn’t involve a theme park, a water park, or a wedding – and our first without friends or extended family.
We wanted to do something different than the typical Florida family sojourn to Orlando, but we needed to go somewhere within driving distance. At the time, our girls were 5 and 7, so anything more than about a two hour drive was likely to be meltdown mayhem. We decided to go someplace: a) that was special to us, and b) where we had free lodging – and that was Gainesville, Florida. I went to college in Gainesville (at the University of Florida), and Vic and I got married there in 2003. Plus my parents had a house there at the time – hence the free place to stay.
Still, despite having spent quite a lot of time there, most of Gainesville was uncharted territory to us. We did some research and were delighted to discover that Gainesville has a ton of free/almost-free activities for families. Some of our favorites: Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo, the Florida Museum of Natural History, Devil’s Millhopper, and the University of Florida Bat Houses. You can read about these and more in my 2013 post about our trip to Gainesville.
Also, while we’re on the subject, I want to give a shout-out to one of our absolute favorite spots in Gainesville – the Sweetwater Branch Inn. It’s where we got married, and nearly 14 years later, we still try to stay there whenever we can. I did a video tour during our last stay, if you want to take a peek.
A Family Adventure: Tubing in Ichetucknee Springs State Park
Our favorite activity of the whole trip wasn’t actually in Gainesville. It was about an hour outside of town at Ichetucknee Springs State Park.
We liked it so much that just last week, Vic and I decided to spend our first solo vacation in two years there – AND we went back a few days later with the kids and some friends. We went tubing, but you can also go kayaking, canoeing, hiking, swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving in the springs.
Our two recent experiences were completely different, despite being just a few days apart – and not just because the first trip was a quiet trip for two, and the second was with a group of 10 (4 adults + 6 kids).
Our first trip was on a regular Thursday, and our second was during a long holiday weekend. We also tubed from opposite ends of the park, rented our tubes from different places, and explored different sections of the parks.
Between the two separate trips, we kind of ran the gamut. And while we’re certainly not experts on all things Ichetucknee, we’ve put together this list of tips & suggestions based on our personal experience. We hope you’ll find them useful in planning your own trip.
Park Map + Logistics
For reference, here’s a map of the entire park.
There are two entrances to the park – South and North. You can tube from the South Entrance year round; tubing from the North Entrance is only available during the summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day).
Once inside the South Entrance, you park and then take a tram to Midpoint. From there, you’ll float to Dampier’s Landing (45 minutes) or to Last Take Out (90 minutes). If you float all the way to the Last Take Out, you can ride the tram back to the parking lot.
(Summer Only) To float from the North Canoe Launch, you must first check in with the ranger at the North Entrance of the park. They only allow 750 people per day in this part of the park, and the North Entrance closes when they meet capacity or at 2:00 p.m. (whichever comes first). It takes about 3 hours to float from the North Canoe Launch to the Last Take Out.
Once you check in with the ranger at the North Entrance, you will need to drive to the South Entrance, where you will park and purchase tram tickets for your party ($7 each). Then you’ll take the shuttle (included with the tram tickets) back to the North Canoe Launch.
North vs. South
If that all sounds a little confusing – well, that’s because it is. Vic and I have always used the South Entrance. We park the car, hop on the tram, launch our tubes, and go. So when our friends planned to meet at the North Entrance, we figured the process would be similar. We figured wrong.
I don’t mean to make it seem crazy complicated – it’s certainly doable. It’s just that tubing from the North Launch involves a few extra steps, and you need to be prepared for that (we weren’t). To float from the North Launch, you have to:
- Drive to the North Entrance and check in with the ranger.
- Pay your park admission ($6/car).
- Drop your party off near the Upper Tube Launch.
- One person drives to the South Entrance and parks the car. (There may be a line of cars waiting to get into the park, so this could take a while.)
- At the South Entrance, purchase tram tickets and pay for tube rentals (more on that in a minute).
- Ride the shuttle to the North Entrance.
- Meet your party and pick up your tubes at the Upper Tube Launch.
- Launch & go.
This process took us about an hour. In comparison, when we used the South Entrance and launched from Midpoint, we were in the water 30 minutes after we arrived – maybe less.
Vic and I are big fans of the South Entrance – both because of its convenience and the shorter tubing distance. Three hours was just too long for us, especially since food isn’t allowed in the springs. By the time we pulled our tubes out of the water, all 4 of us were hungry, cranky, and sunburned. A 90 minute float is much more practical, particularly if you’re tubing with kids. That way you can tube for a while, get out to dry off and have lunch, then go back in for another 90 minute float.
Of course, the North Canoe Launch is beautiful, and this end of the park also gives you access to the Head Spring (a popular swimming spot for kids) and Blue Hole (for more experienced swimmers and divers). Tip: unless you are a very strong swimmer, you may want to wear a life jacket in Blue Hole. The water here is very deep, and the current is strong. Diving fins are also helpful.
There are restrooms and picnic tables near both entrances, but the concession stand is located at the South Entrance. Vic & I bought lunch there – the food was decent and the prices weren’t too ridiculous. You can get a hamburger with fries or a grilled chicken salad for about $8. Kids meals are $5. They also have typical concession stand fare (pretzels, nachos, slushies) and some healthier options (fresh fruit and salads). Of course, your best bet is packing your own lunch and leaving your cooler in the car until you’re ready to eat.
When to Arrive
This is tricky. The park opens at 8:00 a.m., and you are encouraged to get there early. Vic & I got to the park at about 8:30 on a Thursday morning, and we had no trouble getting in. In fact, the parking lot was virtually empty and didn’t start to fill up until about 10:00 a.m.
However, I suspect this is not the case for holidays and weekends, especially during the summer. Since everyone (regardless of launch spot) needs to use the South Entrance to park and purchase tram tickets, the line just to get in the park can be quite lengthy. I would recommend getting there at 8:00 a.m. or earlier – especially if you plan to tube from the North Canoe Launch (since it may reach capacity quickly).
When we visited 4 years ago, we had to rent our tubes outside of the park, attach them to the car, and bring them in with us. But fortunately they’ve made things a lot easier now. You can still rent your tube outside of the park, but you can rent it in the park too. And instead of strapping it to your car, they just give you a receipt and you pick your tube up near the tram station (South) or tube launch (North).
Tube rentals range from $5 for a regular inner tube to $20 for a deluxe raft. If you plan to swim in the springs, an inner tube might be your best choice – you can get in & out of it by swimming underneath it and coming up through the hole. If you plan to stay in your tube, I’d suggest getting one with a bottom (for your bottom). It’s more comfortable for sitting. You can also bring your own tubes into the springs. Just make sure they’re sturdy and well-inflated.
If you’re so inclined, you can also rent canoes for about $35/day. Bring your own snorkel equipment if you have it, or rent some starting at about $12. You can also rent a life vest for $5.
If you are a tubing newbie, these tips are for you. And if you’re an experienced tuber, please feel free to leave your own tips in the comments – both for visiting Ichetucknee Springs and for tubing in general.
1. Bring a dry bag, and take it with you when you tube. Vic uses something like this:
This is where you’ll want to keep your phone, your car keys, and anything else you can’t live without for 3 hours. It’s a good idea to throw some sunscreen in there.
I like to keep my phone handy for taking pictures, so I carry something like this:
I got mine as a freebie at an event, but you can get them for about $10 online. Both this and the larger dry bag (about $20 online) are well worth the investment.
2. Bring lots of rope. We use it to connect our tubes – that way, our party stays together and no one gets lost. It also makes it easier for Vic to haul me out of the brush when I get stuck, which happens a lot. (I’m a terrible paddler. No one ever wants to kayak with me.)
We (and by we, I mean Vic) also use rope to attach our belongings to the tubes: the dry bag, a water bottle, even our flip flops. It’s great – we can float and/or swim without worrying about our stuff.
3. Bring a non-disposable water bottle, preferably one with a hook or a handle (see above). Disposable water bottles are not allowed in the springs. Neither are food or drinks, pets, fishing, tobacco, alcohol, or any other disposable items.
4. Some areas of the park are rocky or slippery or both. Water shoes are best, but flip flops will do. Don’t attempt to walk around the park barefoot. The bottoms of your feet will thank you.
5. If you have non-swimmers or small children in your party, please make sure they wear life jackets. Don’t rely on water wings. Water wings can fall off or deflate, and if your child gets in trouble out on the water, it will be difficult for you to swim against the current to rescue them.
6. Let’s talk about alligators. This is important, especially if you are visiting from another state or country. In Florida, there is always a chance that there is an alligator in every body of fresh water. This includes ponds, lakes, rivers, and – yes – springs.
But don’t freak out. As a general rule, alligators won’t bother you as long as you keep your distance. Don’t mess with them, and they won’t mess with you. One exception: alligators may become more aggressive during mating season, but this shouldn’t be a problem for tubers as long as you leave them alone. Rest assured that park officials will prohibit people from swimming in an area where a large or aggressive alligator has taken up residence.
Florida Springs – A Must-See
Did you know that there are over 900 freshwater springs in Florida? The State of Florida purchased a number of them and turned them into State Parks. According to the Florida State Parks website, five parks currently allow tubing in their springs. We’ve only been tubing in Ichetucknee Springs, but we’re hoping to visit & tube in a different state park later this summer. I’m curious to see how they compare – and of course we’ll let you know!