Ichetucknee Springs State Park is in north central Florida, about 40 miles north of Gainesville (home of the University of Florida and the Gators) and five miles north of Fort White, a little town that experienced a mini-boom once Ichetucknee went from a secret natural wonder on an unpaved, unmarked road on private property to a full-fledge state park in 1970. After meandering off from the Santa Fe, the Ichetucknee River flows into the Suwanee and, eventually, into the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Department of the Interior declared the Ichetucknee River’s head spring a National Natural Landmark in 1972.
Before long, Ichetucknee’s glory was no longer a secret. It became the most popular river for tubing in the world. In the peak summer months, upwards of five thousand people per day would grab an inner tube and float down the river. And that didn’t count people who came to picnic, swim, hike, kayak, canoe, snorkel and scuba dive the caves.
Today the park limits the number of tubers on the river each day. (For example, the limit for tubers between the upper and midpoint launch areas is 750.) The park also prohibits pulling on plants and climbing on trees as part of its plan to protect the fragile ecosystem and preserve water clarity. The park allows more visitors on the river’s southern stretch as it is wider and deeper than the upper part of the river, and, therefore, less susceptible to “wear and tear.”
Ichetucknee visitors can rent tubes or rafts from the vendors lining the access roads to the park. (The charge is usually modest.)
There are three options for tubing the Ichetucknee: one hour, 1.5 hours, 2 hours, and 3 hours. The 2- and 3-hour floats originate at the north entrance of the park. The shorter floats originate at the south entrance. All options include access to a tram or shuttle bus for return to the parking areas after exiting the river. Non-swimmers and children should wear a life-saving device. The Ichetucknee River current is substantial, and occasionally tubes can get away from their occupants.
Once on the river—-ahhhhh. The crystal-clear water is 72 degrees F. (22 degrees C). Many springs, nine of which are named (including the famous “Blue Hole”), bubble over 230 million gallons of water per day into the Ichetucknee. Besides Blue Hole, springs such as Roaring, Singing, Boiling and Coffee, feed the river and its plentiful plant and animal life.
Speaking of animal life, historians believe “Ichetucknee” is a Native American name that refers to the habitat of beaver. (Beaver remains are still a common find on the Ichetucknee riverbed.) In addition to beaver, the park is full of critters such as otter, wood stork, great blue heron, egret, and kingfisher—with goldfinches adding their song to the scenery. Also there are turkey, duck, deer, raccoon and armadillo. And since this is wild Florida, and an untamed river to boot, visitors should be aware that snakes and alligator live on the Ichetucknee. Fish include bream, catfish, stumpknockers, bluegill, mullet and largemouth bass. In the winter, manatees can be seen.
The banks of the Ichetucknee River herald visitors with huge cypress trees and even some stands of wild rice. Elsewhere in the park, nature trails wind through longleaf pine forests mixed with hammocks, with spider lilies and bromeliads decorating the overhead roots.
The Ichetucknee is so beautiful—so wild, natural and untamed—that it has become a favorite subject of artists, particularly painters. Many use the river’s entrancing mix of shapes, textures and light to study the art of composition. But however you capture the Ichetucknee—whether on canvas or in your imagination—a day on the river, letting Mother Nature take you where she will while you lay back and enjoy the show, will be a day to remember.