I love manatees. There’s something about the gentle giants that really speaks to me. Growing up in Florida I always heard about how they would get killed by speeding boats (and they still do) so, as a kid, I always wanted to see them up close in case they went into extinction.
Where I live now, I periodically will get to see a manatee in the wild during the winter which was fine. Then I heard about Blue Spring State Park – I found out about this park by following Save the Manatees on Instagram. In January they were posting daily about seeing 300-400 manatees at Blue Spring State Park. I was determined to visit and see all those manatees!
Blue Spring State Park is a Florida State Park located in Orange City, FL which is right outside of DeLand. Located in Volusia County and not far from Daytona and Orlando, it’s an easy trip from many locations. We chose to spend the night since it ends up being almost a 3 hour trip from the Tampa/Clearwater area.
Located on the St. John’s River, during the summer months Blue Spring is a place to go swimming, canoeing and diving. However during the winter months any water activities in the spring itself are prohibited to protect the manatees. You can still canoe in the St. John’s River during the winter and there’s a pontoon trip you can take (more on that in a minute). You can also observe the manatees gathering in the spring from the walkway located over it.
I scheduled a trip for February as that was the only time we had available as a family that might be a little chilly. I knew I had taken a risk by waiting until February because the manatees only congregate in the spring waters when the weather is cold. It is a bit of a gamble but one I was willing to take.
Unfortunately my manatee gamble didn’t pay off. The weather that February day was closer to the weather in our area in May. There wasn’t a manatee to be seen. Did it ruin our trip though? Not at all!
Inside The Park
I had booked a tour on a pontoon boat with St. Johns River Cruises. Their dock is located inside the park and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to see the manatees up close. If you book be sure to get inside the park with plenty of time to spare because once the park is filled to capacity (which seems to happen quite a bit), you won’t be allowed to drive in. When we got to entrance of the park, we saw a chalkboard with a spot for how many manatees had been spotted that day in the springs. On our day there was a sad face : ( The park ranger said they hadn’t observed any at all that morning. While disappointed we were already there and headed towards the docks. Little did I know that the 2 hour tour would be so filled with wildlife even without seeing manatees.
The St. John’s River is 310 miles long and the cruise takes you through the in’s and out’s of the river in the immediate area. The captain gives a great synopsis of the history and the animals on the river. Along with the mate steering the pontoon, they spot things you would never see traveling the river by yourself. On our trip we saw multiple alligators, about 15 species of birds, lots of turtles, fish and flora and fauna native to the area. The flip side of not seeing manatees is that the weather was just perfect at about 79 degrees and no humidity – one of those times when the weather is amazing and makes you excited to live in Florida.
After our boat tour we visited the historic Thursby house which is located onsite at the park. It’s a self-guided tour of a house that is original to the location. I enjoy history so it was a fun, quick thing to do.
In addition to walking trails, a small store, picnic areas and a playground, Blue Spring State Park also has camp grounds. While we have camped before, getting a camp site at a Florida State park can be hard less than 6 months out, so we chose to stay offsite at an Airbnb.
I’ve been using Airbnb since I went to Cuba and have always have a great host.* We picked a place that is literally 5 minutes from the gates of the park. Located in the back of their home, this little apartment was a perfect choice for us. Our host Kathy was very helpful and stocked the small apartment with coffee, individual cereals, sodas and condiments. Usually I try to pack some items so we don’t get hungry but my days before our trip were busy and I never got a chance. Thankfully I didn’t need to because Kathy was such a gracious host!
One thing we try to do on all our trips is seek out a local brewery. Florida has really blown up with the craft beer business and we like to try something new. First we headed to Odd Elixir Meadworks. Located in downtown DeLand it was a cute establishment but they had run out of their own mead and only had visiting breweries on tap. Since we live in the state, we had already tasted most of the ones they had that day so decided we’d hang out at Odd Elixir on another visit. So off we went to Persimmon Hollow Brewing Co. Located on a side street off the main drag, Persimmon had 8 beers on tap, not including the limited addition brews they had. Across the alleyway was Neighbors Artisan Taqueria so we got some tasty tacos (shrimp tacos with spicy aioli sauce anyone?) to enjoy while we had a flight of beers inside Persimmons. Their beer was really refreshing and the atmosphere was very family friendly. On the way out we grabbed a growler, which is always a great reusable souvenir when you travel.
I would highly recommend everyone take a trip to Blue Spring State Park at some point during the year. Manatee season would be ideal but you could really visit whenever you can and still have a great time. We plan on returning soon. And I’m booking my trip for next January very soon – because I still need to see my manatees.
*If you’ve never stayed with Airbnb and would like to give it a try, click on my reference link and you’ll get a $40 credit on your first adventure! Airbnb terms and conditions apply.