By Ashleigh Boice, St. Johns Riverkeeper Education Director
The St. Johns River abounds with opportunities for fun and adventure for kids. There are 310 miles of possibilities with springs, museums, hikes, boat trips, and everything in between. One of my favorite spots, however, is a place you may have never heard about: Welaka.
Welaka is a small town just south of Palatka (about 30 minutes or so). From the Timucua to William Bartram to today’s anglers and outdoor adventurers, humans have been drawn to this unique spot on the St. Johns River for centuries. Located along CR 309 in Putnam County, there are quite a few gems in this area that enthralled me when I was a little. Among them, the National Fish Hatchery public aquarium and Mud Spring Trail in the Welaka State Forest are two of my favorites that I regularly visit to this day.
Your Day in Welaka
Open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily (no entrance fee), the National Fish Hatchery aquarium is a tiny but entertaining stop at the beginning of your day. Developed in 1926, this 16-tank aquarium houses a wide variety of fish and other aquatic creatures that call the St. Johns River home. While the facility itself has not changed much in my lifetime, although they rotate out fish and other species, it is still great fun to see and learn about what swims beneath the surface of our spectacular river. As a child I was enthralled by the place, and to this day I make a point to swing by to see what the fish are up to!
Between the aquarium and Mud Springs, you can see the rest of the hatchery facility – medium sized ponds on either side of CR 309. About a mile from the aquarium you can find the “Beecher Unit”, which houses a bird observation deck and a half-mile loop trail through the nearby woods. If you have little bird watchers in your brood, this is a great place to spend some time.
Mud Springs, located south of the hatchery in the Welaka State Forest, is a fantastic place to spend an afternoon with your family in the Florida wilderness – the parking and day use fee is only $2 per person. It has something for hikers and swimmers alike – a well-maintained trail that winds its way through beautiful pine flatwoods and oak hammocks and a small glistening spring at the end for swimming. The small spring pumps out nearly 14,000 gallons per hour of clear spring water into a half-mile spring run that flows into the St. Johns River. In my childhood, the spring was closed to swimmers for ecosystem restoration, but today it’s a popular local spot to cool off in the summer on the weekends. Deer, gopher tortoises, snakes, and birds of all shapes and sizes can be seen along the Mud Springs trail (a flat 1.75-mile loop), as well as Florida’s typical vast array of flowers and trees. (I recommend getting to the park early in the day during the weekends – while it doesn’t get “crowded” per se, the small spring itself is a big draw for locals in the summertime.)
A full day of low-cost, high-adventure fun can be had within a mile along CR 309 in Welaka, FL. Families of all sizes and ages will find something they love about these places; the little sightseers, hikers, swimmers, and explorers in your life will be able to experience the beautiful places along the St. Johns River not many people know about!
Welaka National Fish Hatchery Public Aquarium
726 County Road 309, Welaka, FL 32193
Open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily
No entrance fee
Plan to spend at least 15-30 minutes there.
Visit the Welaka National Fish Hatchery’s website.
Mud Springs Trail
Approx. 1 mile south of the National Fish Hatchery Public Aquarium, on the right
Day use fee: $2 per person
Trail: 1.75 mile loop to spring and back
Swimming is allowed
Plan for at least 2 hours if you are just doing the trail loop, more for swimming
Camp restrooms available at the spring itself