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Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park is one of North Florida’s many pristine natural springs. The crystal clear, 72-degree fresh water is perfect for swimming, snorkeling and paddling. And it’s the newest Florida State Park!
North Florida is known for its rivers and incredible natural springs. Springs form when clean pure water from the Floridan Aquifer bubbles up through layers of limestone. Florida springs are a constant 72 degrees year round. This makes them popular destinations to cool off during the hot summer months, and a sanctuary for manatees during winter.
The park actually has several springs on the property, but Gilchrist Blue is the largest, and only one open for swimming. It is a second-magnitude spring with a flow of 44 million gallons per day. It’s part of the group of springs that feed into the Santa Fe River.
The beautiful spring is great for swimming, snorkeling and paddling.
Swimming and Snorkeling at Blue Springs
The majority of the swimming area is shallow enough to stand in. Around the spring vent is much deeper — around 20 feet deep. This is the dark blue area you see in the pictures.
You can snorkel above the spring vent and see fish, cave openings, and water bubbling up.
If you ever visited the the park when it was privately owned (prior to 2017), you may remember a huge diving platform where you could jump off into the deep part of the spring. Sadly, the platform was removed once it became a state park, for safety and protection of the spring.
Before and after:
We recommend bringing your own tubes and floaties to relax and float around in the spring. While there are rentals available at the park, they can get very pricey and sell out quickly during the busy season.
And don’t forget to bring your snorkeling gear, dry bags, water shoes and towels! My recommendations are below:
Rentals are available at the park concession including tubes, kayaks, standup paddle boards and canoes. You can also bring your own and launch from the park for no additional charge.
You can paddle around the spring head, or follow the 1/4 mile spring run to the Santa Fe River and paddle around to the other springs in the area. This is a great way to see more springs without having to pay the entrance fee at the privately owned springs. The technical rule is that you are allowed to paddle into any other springs without paying, as long as you stay in your boat.
You can paddle upriver (right) towards Poe Springs, Lily Springs and Rum Island County Park. Or float downstream (left) towards Ginnie Springs.
Keep in mind the river does have a current so you will need to paddle upstream during some part of your trip.
You may also choose to rent a kayak/canoe from an independent company outside the park. You can start at the top of the river and float down to a pickup point, checking out all the springs along the way. We have used Rum138 multiple times and always had a good experience. (Check Groupon before your trip — they sometimes have discounts!)
Another option in the area is Santa Fe Canoe Outpost.
The Santa Fe is a tannic river, which is why it has a dark brown tea-like color. It’s not “dirty”. It occurs when tannic acid is released from vegetation including cypress tree roots. It’s really cool to see the dark brown river water mix with the bright clear spring water.
There’s a short boardwalk that runs next to the spring where you can get a view of the spring from above.
There’s also a loop nature trail that runs through a cypress forest and floodplain. The trail is just over a mile but there are several side trails you can also take. There is an enormous 350-year-old cypress tree along the trail that I think is a must-see!
There are some hidden springs along the trail. Naked Springs is the first one you’ll come across right near the trailhead. You can’t swim in them but they are well worth a quick look!
Getting to Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park
The park entrance is a dirt road that can get quite bumpy especially after heavy rains. It shouldn’t be a problem for larger vehicles, or if you’re used to driving on dirt roads. But keep this in mind if you’re driving a smaller car!
As with most Florida springs, Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park is very popular during the hot summers. You will need to arrive early to make it into the park before they reach capacity.
Currently during the pandemic the park is operating at limited capacity and does not allow any more visitors in after reaching capacity (except registered campers). Plan to arrive by 10am on a warm weekend.
Weekdays and colder weekends coming up should not be as busy. We visited on a chilly September Sunday (60s in the morning) and the park was still not at capacity at noon.
If you’re hoping to see a picture-perfect empty spring, I recommend visiting on a weekday, or camping at the park and waking up before 8am when the park opens to day visitors.
The park has 8 tent campsites and 17 campsites with RV hookups. Currently the campsite shares restroom facilites with the day visitors. The campsites did not seem to be very private, but it looked like most of the sites were occupied at the time of our visit.
There are several pavilions and picnic tables around Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park. If you get to the park early enough, you’ll be able to grab one to drop your stuff throughout the day. Grills are also located throughout the picnic area. The concession stand serves up snacks and rentals.
Hours: 8am – sundown, 365 days a year
Cost: $4 per single occupant vehicle; $6 for multi-occupant vehicle
Pets: Allowed, but not permitted near or in the water (follow signage)
Restrooms: Located near the spring, and includes changing area and showers