As news about the spread of COVID-19 became increasingly concerning, Blue Spring State Park was an excellent place to keep abreast of the latest developments (with good internet and over the air TV) while practicing social distancing by spending most of our time hiking and kayaking. At least it was a good spot, until the state park system closed all its campgrounds and sent us packing.
It’s All About the Water
The key natural feature of Blue Spring State Park is, to no one’s great surprise, a spring. The surprise? It looks more green than blue. This natural phenomenon disgorges over 100 million gallons of clear, 72 degree water every single day. The water flows down a very short run until it reaches the St. Johns River. Blue Spring State Park sees the most visitation of any inland Florida state park, with an impressive 600,000 visitors annually, in large part because of the big winter attraction: manatees! In the cold months these endangered mammals congregate in the spring run by the hundreds to enjoy the warm water, and people gather by the thousands to see them. Our visit coincided with the end of manatee season; we saw one large gathering of the herd on one of our first days in the park, but by the time we left the water temperatures were warm enough for the manatees to comfortably migrate anywhere on the river.
The park does an excellent job of making the waterfront areas of the park accessible to visitors with varying degrees of interest in the outdoors. Sturdy boardwalks line one side of the water along the entire distance from the spring to the main river, making it easy to peer down into the crystal clear water and marvel at the manatees and enormous fish. Although the area from the spring to the river is closed to swimming and boating during manatee season, the park also has excellent waterfront resources along the St. Johns River itself. Visitors are invited to explore the extremely scenic river through a guided tour on a pontoon boat, by renting kayaks or canoes, or by bringing their own boats. We of course spent several days exploring in our new kayak, which continues to impress us. Truly adventurous people with cave diving certifications can visit in the summer and scuba dive in the spring itself, while casual swimmers can swim or float on inner tubes in the pleasantly cool spring water. Even though the park is fairly small, it has a lot to offer visitors and the natural environment is the star of the show.
The park adjoins an undeveloped stretch of the St. Johns River with plenty of little side channels that make for interesting exploration and easy paddling. Our best wildlife sightings were birds, which surrounded us on our kayak adventures. A partial inventory of birds we spotted while paddling: great blue herons, little blue herons, snowy egrets, ibises, limpkins, purple gallinules, coots, moorhens, red-shouldered hawks, ospreys, bald eagles, and buzzards. We also saw plenty of turtles and good-sized alligators swimming in the river and relaxing on the banks, but of course a highlight was when a pair of manatees swam within a few feet of the boat. Getting out on the river was an excellent way to counteract the stress that enveloped us every time we looked at the increasingly worrisome news about the COVID virus.
Our site at Blue Spring State Park was typical for Florida State Parks: very private, surrounded by nice trees, and supplied with water and electricity. Cardinals, squirrels, and armadillos rooted around in the leaf litter around our site, while at night the wooded areas were decorated with the winking lights of fireflies. It was pretty darn idyllic, once we got situated. The whole campground slopes down at an awkward angle toward the nearby spring, making for some very interesting multi-dimensional leveling challenges in just about every site. In our particular site we battled a raised limestone area lifting one side of the trailer while our other side sat on extremely soft sand. It took ALL of our blocks and lot of frustration to get even close to level, but once we were in place we were happy to stay put for several weeks.
Sanford and DeLand
The closest town to Blue Spring State Park is Orange City, named in the late nineteenth century for the vast citrus fields cultivated in the surrounding area. A devastating freeze over the winter of 1894-1895 wiped out the citrus industry in the area and, in a significant thread of Florida history, prompted Julia Tuttle and Henry Flagler to negotiate the extension of the Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway to Tuttle’s tiny community of Miami, making Miami probably the largest US city built by the efforts of a woman. The main remnants of Orange City’s history are in the state park. The canoe launch sits on the site of the paddleboat landing where goods were shipped in and out by river during the community’s heyday, and the historic Thursby House in the park preserves the home of early pioneer citrus growers. Several other nearby towns on the St. Johns River date to the same historical period, and have fared a little better in the intervening time.
Just south of Orange City is the charming little town of Sanford, which was incorporated in 1877 and served as a major transportation hub in the late 19th century. Sanford was at the furthest navigable reaches of the St. Johns River and served for decades as a transfer point between ships and inland railroads. The downtown is nicely situated on the south bank of wide Lake Monroe, and lying among the palm trees and balmy breezes are several blocks of well-preserved historic buildings anchored by brick streets. The downtown boasts many small businesses, including a half dozen craft breweries and a cool folk art gallery (Gallery on First) that includes working studio space so visitors can watch artists at work while browsing a very wide selection of art. We only made a brief visit to this town, but Chris and Cherie of Technomadia spent four months in Sanford with their boat anchored at the downtown marina, and their post about the stay provides much more detail about this lovely little spot. Located just north of Orange City is the equally-historic town of DeLand. It is the home of Stetson University, so it offers many of the amenities of a college town. The downtown area has designations as both a historic district and a “Great American Main Street” but unfortunately the evolving virus situation kept us from visiting this compelling area.
Ormond and Daytona Beach
About 45 minutes east of Blue Spring State Park, there are several interesting towns along the Atlantic Coast with histories dating back into the 19th century. The hamlet of Ormond Beach is blessed with wide, white sand beaches that proved incredibly alluring to Gilded Age people of leisure seeking a pleasant winter climate. These wealthy visitors tried out new-fangled contraptions called “automobiles” on the hard packed sand, and several daredevils set land speed records, earning the town the nickname “The Birthplace of Speed.” The grand old hotels are gone, but at least one remnant of the Gilded Age is still open to visitors: The Casements, the winter home of John. D. Rockefeller, Sr. The ultra-wealthy titan of industry spent winters in Florida in his later years in an effort to reach 100 years of age. In addition to traveling seasonally in search of comfortable climates, Rockefeller reportedly drank lots of Orange City mineral water, ate a diet consisting of at least 75% vegetables, and only consumed dairy and meats raised on his own properties to ensure their purity. Since we follow the seasons in our rig and try to eat organic and locally sourced food, I look forward to advising people that our current lifestyle is not called “Living in a Trailer” but in actuality it is “Living Like a Rockefeller.”
The Casements property is now publicly owned and open for free public tours, at least when not closed because of a deadly global pandemic. Another nearby attraction is the small, public Ormond Memorial Art Museum and Gardens. The gallery was started by an artist who agreed to donate his own collection to any town that would build a gallery to honor veterans of World War I and World War II, and the citizens of Ormond Beach responded. Today the Ormond Memorial Art Museum serves as a community art center and hosts rotating exhibitions of interesting works. The gardens are less “botanical garden” and more “peaceful, pretty landscaping” but they are still a lovely little oasis just steps from the beach in a cute historical town.
The nearby town of Daytona Beach is exactly the sort of tacky tourist trap that we try to avoid at all costs, but given our interest in industrial engineering a behind-the-scenes tour of the world-famous Daytona International Speedway could be pretty interesting … if not closed because of a deadly global pandemic. The area is also a excellent gateway to visiting the Canaveral National Seashore, where people can enjoy all the good beaches without all the annoying crowds.
Florida State Park Closures and Other Drama
As the government recommendations of social distancing started rolling in, and we saw news about empty store shelves in many cities, we made our normal grocery visit to Publix and were pleased to see that there was plenty of food. The only things that were out of stock were toilet paper (why???), pantry items that Publix had on sale as buy-one-get-one-free (those are GREAT deals!), and regular eggs. Of course, there were still plenty of the organic, free range eggs that we buy. I guess even when facing an apocalypse normal people don’t want to live like Rockefellers by paying $8 for a dozen eggs.
Obviously the rapidly-changing COVID-19 situation significantly impacted our stay in the area, especially when Florida State Parks made the decision to close all overnight facilities like campgrounds through May 15. For the second time in 15 months we have been kicked out of a campground because of an external crisis. Our first episode was in Death Valley last winter, where the government shutdown forced the closure of national park campgrounds just before Christmas. This time it was disappointing but overall the experience was somewhat less stressful than last winter for several reasons:
1. At Death Valley the job of telling campers to leave was given to a park law enforcement officer, who came armed with a Taser and a Glock. This time the messenger was a friendly ranger armed only with an apologetic smile.
2. Being camped in the center of the third most populous state in the nation gave us plenty of alternatives to consider, as opposed to being stuck in a vast wilderness without cell service when evicted from our spot.
3. Losing my hard-won reservations at Anastasia State Park and Fort Clinch State Park stings at bit. Have I mentioned how many times I got up at 4 a.m. to get those reservations?? But since we intend to establish a winter home base in Florida we will have plenty of opportunities to visit those parks in the future.
Speaking of our future home base, we are now headed back to the Apalachicola/Eastpoint/St. George area. We were able to snag a four-week reservation at a full hook up private RV park within 10 miles of our future home, where we intend to ride out the next month before making more travel plans. We know from past experience that it is entirely possible to stay in a full private campground while having exactly zero personal interactions with other RVers, and now we have a good public health reason for our hermit-like ways.
We don’t think we will be bored, either. We can explore some of the trails and other activities we missed while house hunting during our last visit. Our new kayak will be standing ready to take us on water-based adventures. We are working with our architect to finalize plans for our new home, so we will have the chance to walk and measure our lot in person to help decide exactly where the house will be situated on the property. We look forward to supporting the local seafood industry by buying plenty of fresh seafood to cook at home. Our hope is that we can eventually catch up with our plans for 2020 and spend the summer at the Great Lakes, but like everyone else we will just have to see how the situation develops.
Stay safe out there, everyone!