Summer is the perfect time to get outside and explore our beautiful St. Johns River! We asked the Riverkeeper staff to share with you their favorite places to visit, either by land or water, this summer on our watershed. We encourage everyone to get outdoors and find their own adventure! Share your river adventures with us on Instagram by using the hashtag, #summeronthestjohns.
Lisa’s Pick: Blue Cypress Lake, Indian River County, FL
Photo Credit: Nancy Wilkins
The St. Johns River offers a wide variety of natural experiences along her 310-mile journey flowing from Indian River County to the Atlantic Ocean at Mayport. Her ice-tie-colored water and crystal blue springs provide a plethora of magical escapes full of wildlife and vintage Florida vistas that take us back to the exploration days of Bartram. The St. Johns offers a full immersion of all things that I love about Florida.
To truly experience the River of Lakes, I recommend that you start at the beginning. Located just west of Vero Beach, Blue Cypress Lake is one of Florida’s undistributed natural treasures. Explore by kayak or canoe, acres of giant bald cypress towering up to 120 feet where more than 300 Osprey nests providing an exhilarating experience during the breeding season. Best viewed at sunrise, the lake is also home to Little Blue Herons, Tri-Colored Herons, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-Shoulder Hawks, and Barred Owls to name a few. Richard and Juanita Baker capture her beauty in their photography and poetry in their Reflections of Blue Cypress.
Visit Middleton’s Fish Camp for primitive camping, bait, eco-tours, or to join fishing guide, Roy Bass, for a “Real Florida” fishing experience. Blue Cypress is teeming with Large Mouth Bass, Speckled Perch, Bluegills, Shellcrakers, and Catfish and is equally as popular with anglers as photographers. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, experience Old Florida cuisine and history at Marsh Landing Restaurant located in Historic Fellsmere. Known for their homemade local favorites including frog legs, catfish, gator tail, fried green tomatoes, swamp cabbage, and some of the best desserts, this Florida dining experience is one not to miss. Make Blue Cypress Lake one of your many destinations along Florida’s longest river, the mighty St. Johns.
Gabbie’s Pick: Kelly Park – Rock Springs, Orange County, FL
Photo Credit: Florida Trippers
I love Kelly Park and Rock Springs Run in Orange County which is connected to our St. Johns River middle basin via the Wekiva River. The Rock Spring is something out of the normal topography, where the water flows out of a cave-looking rock structure and the tubing is fun. I have been visiting this park since the 1980’s. In the old days, a great pastime was looking for fossilized shark teeth. It is a refreshing getaway from the pavement of my subdivision. I have enjoyed hiking around the forested trails and jumping into the 72 degrees cool water.
Paddling the Rock Springs run to the Wekiva River is a winding journey through natural Florida. The river has a canopy almost halfway down the 8 mile run to Wekiva Springs. The river has great lunch-stopping areas and mostly sandy areas for wading and cooling off. Rock Springs has swimming, tubing with tube rentals, and no canoes or kayaks in the Kelly Park boundary area. You can only access the Rock Springs Run paddling from a private property called Kings Landing. They also have group camping, pavilions, and the nature trails are great too! You have to get there early on the weekend because the site is so popular it reaches capacity early.
Emily’s Pick: Black Creek, Clay County, FL
St. Johns Riverkeeper has hosted Save the St. Johns exploration trips beginning in 2016 with a 13-day journey of the entire 310 miles of the river. In 2017, Save the St. Johns became about getting as many people to experience the St. Johns River as possible by offering more trips on more tributaries throughout the Watershed. The goal of the tours was to raise awareness about the urgent threats facing the St. Johns and engage and activate people throughout the watershed in a collaborative campaign for the river’s protection. There is no better way to get to know the river than by getting out and enjoying it.
I first paddled Black Creek with my Dad during 2017 Save the St. Johns in partnership with North Florida Land Trust to discuss the economic value of preserving lands. I was just hired as Education Director and was still getting familiar with the organization and the river issues. Paddling Black Creek was a great introduction to accessible tributaries of the St. Johns River, discussing the issues impacting the area, and what can and is being done to offset the damage. Six months prior to the paddle, Hurricane Matthew devastated the state and questions were being raised about resiliency and climate change policies at the local and state level. The water levels in the creek had receded but the damage to the houses along its banks was very apparent by all the For Sale signs. This is a beautiful creek but no one was wanting to live there. It astounded me but also was a living example of how keeping the area natural could mitigate the potential damage of rising waters.
I love my experience on this creek due to how much educational value it offers from housing development, land preservation, public access, and ecosystem health. Any chance I get, I try to provide opportunities for others to experience Black Creek. I paddled the creek in 2018 with JU’s Marine Science Camp and work with Camp Chowenwaw where the creek meets the St. Johns River.
Jimmy’s Pick: DeLand, West Volusia County, FL
Photo Credit: Highland Park Fish Camp
When considering my getaway options, I look for locations that offer a diversity of unique places to explore and the opportunity to experience the essence of the St. Johns River. Well, one of my favorite destinations that checks these boxes is in West Volusia County. Within a radius of 30 miles or so from DeLand, you can explore springs, national forests, state parks, conservation areas, archeological sites, and of course, one of the most beautiful sections of the St. Johns River. For those who prefer a base camp that provides a boutique hotel experience with great restaurants and a local brewery nearby, I would recommend the Historic Artisan Hotel in DeLand. From here you can enjoy the award-winning “America’s Main Street”, while also venturing out to explore the numerous natural wonders that surround this quaint college town.
If you are looking for a more rustic river experience, consider the numerous campgrounds, primitive cabins on Hontoon Island along the St. Johns, or the cabins at Highland Park Fish Camp, a 30-acre gem located on the Norris Dead River, a portion of the St. Johns River situated on the boundaries of Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. The more adventurous may want to consider renting a houseboat from Tiny Houseboat Adventures or Holly Bluff Marina. Another personal favorite is the Tropical Resort & Marina located on Lake Beresford. Regardless of your preferred accommodations, you will not be far from Blue Springs, Hontoon Island, or DeLeon Springs State Parks; or Silver Glen, Alexander Springs, Juniper Springs, or Salt Springs Recreation Areas in the Ocala National Forest. You will have numerous options for hiking, biking, paddling, swimming, snorkeling, fishing, and wildlife watching. You can rent a boat, charter a fishing guide, book an eco-tour (check out Blue Heron Boat Tours), or just hang out along the banks of the river enjoying your favorite book or beverage. Whether you are looking for a day trip, weekend getaway, or a longer vacation, this section of the Middle Basin of the St. Johns offers boundless opportunities for river exploration and the “Old Florida” experience.
Sara’s Pick: Walter Jones Historical Park, Duval County, FL
One of my family’s favorite parks in the Jacksonville area is Walter Jones Historical Park located in Mandarin. Not only is this park beautiful but it is full of history! In 1994, the city of Jacksonville acquired 10 acres of the original property to make this the first historical park in the city. On the property, you will find the Mandarin Museum, the St. Joseph’s Mission Schoolhouse for African-American Children, and other historical structures, including the 1875 Webb Farmhouse, the 1876 barn, the Losco Winery, and the Wheeler Sawmill. If you visit the museum (check for open days/times), you can pick up one of the famous Mandarin frogs (the only place you can get them), these concrete frogs can be found beautifully painted all over the park and all over the Mandarin area. My kids always like to make it a competition to see who can find the most frogs!
In addition to the historical structures, you can explore the park’s various nature trails, where we love to walk our dogs, and my daughters like to ride their scooters and take in the Oak tree laden landscape (we love to go at sunset and see the sun filter through all of the Spanish moss), take a stroll out on the riverfront boardwalk (which has been rebuilt following its destruction by Hurricane Matthew in 2016) where you can enjoy lovely views of the St. Johns River where we see many people fishing, as well as several picnic areas and restrooms. If you prefer to be in the water, there is a boat ramp adjacent to the park where you can put in boats, kayaks, etc.