Saturday, May 21, 2011

Blue Spring State Park

My wife and I decided to stay at a Florida State Park at least once a month, beginning in May, 2011. Our first choice was Blue Spring State Park in Orange City, Florida, just a few miles off busy U.S. 17. Orange City is adjacent to Deland, and just north of Sanford, a fairly densely populated area about 35 miles northeast of Orlando. The trip would be a little over 200 miles, about four and half hours travel time. Ilse had changed her yoga class schedule - she's the teacher -  to allow us to have more time at campgrounds, and this would be the first of our series of four-day camping trips.

Scuba divers gather at Blue Spring

Ilse was home from her Saturday morning class by 9:30am, and we rolled out of our driveway with our pre-loaded travel trailer, headed north at exactly 10:30 am. The dogs were quiet and well mannered, acting like old hands at this. The temperature was typically May in Florida, comfortable in the middle 80's. By 1:00 pm, however, the thermometer had climbed to 95 degrees. 

Lovebugs were everywhere! This was the end of the second week of the bi-annual lovebug infestation and by now they should have been on the wane. Nope. We stopped a a gas station to tank up, at $3.89 a gallon, and spent 10 minutes cleaning the bugs off the windshield of our GMC Jimmy. The camper was an absolute mess! Splattered lovebugs all over the front of our once- pristine camper. No way to get to the top of the camper, it would just have to wait until we got home.

We planned our trip from Port Charlotte to avoid both I-75 and I-4, the most direct route, in favor of state and county roads up through the center of the state. We decided to jaunt across southwest Florida using state roads to Avon Park and pick up U.S. 27 for the main portion of the trip, remembering the route from days-gone-by. We were immediately introduced to the 21st century where the U.S. 27 corridor is a major growth area of the state and is a major bottleneck to expeditious travel. Scratch any future travel plans with U.S. 27! The trip was mostly stop and go, and the mileage really went from bad to worse. We finally got onto State Road 44 headed for Deland, just a few miles from our destination before we actually settled down and got to drive for any extended time without hitting the brakes. It took us almost six and a half hours to make the trip to entrance to the park.

Elevated boardwalk to the spring-head
The first indication things were a little different at this campground came as we tried to turn-off the two-lane access road into the park entrance. We were stopped by a park ranger while still on the county road. She politely asked if we were registered campers before allowing us to drive up to the park entrance. A second ranger held up a group of young motorcycle riders coming toward us on the dirt segment of the road to let us go first.  I parked on the far side of the park entrance - there is room for only three RVs there - and I walked back to the gate office to confirm our reservation and pick up our vehicle pass. I left the engine running with the air-conditioning on as it was now 96 and very uncomfortable.

The rangers told me this was one of Florida's busiest parks, especially on weekends. Bicycles and motorcycles were everywhere, so I didn't doubt them for a moment. I walked back to the Jimmy, hung our pass on the mirror, and carefully pulled back out into the roadway. I braked as I made the gentle turn and the brake pedal went to the floor! No brakes! I pumped furiously, but they didn't come back. I reached down to the trailer controller and turned it up full, using the trailer brakes to slow us down. The engine temperature came down as we started moving, and after 15 seconds or so the brakes began to come back. By the time we had traveled the two hundred yards to the campground turnoff, they felt as solid as ever. The engine never overheated or gave any sign of trouble, but the heat coming out of the engine bay was intense.

As we started into the camping loop, we were struck by the scrub look of the campground, Kind of a raggedy-looking campground with sites that didn't appear to be flat or even. They weren't! Most of them seemed barely suitable for tent camping, which appeared to be the primary type of camping at the campground. Very few RVs, but tent campers everywhere. Children of all ages filled the roadway.

Blue Spring meets the St. John's River

After we passed the first few campsite, we realized we couldn't find any site markers! There were no stakes, or posts, or any kind of sign with numbers! We knew the approximate location of our assigned site, but we couldn't see any indications until we caught a glimpse of a number embedded in the asphalt in front of the site. They were badly faded and mostly covered with sand! At least we now knew where to look. When we slowly approached our site, we did a double take as there was a car parked in what we thought should have been our site. I stopped and got out and verified our site number in the roadway. Sure enough, the squatter was indeed in site 20, our reserved site.

Ilse rolled down the window and informed the young, overweight woman who was still wearing a bathing suit, that we had reserved the site and were going to park there. The girl shrugged her shoulders and started giving us a story about her boy friend shouldn't have parked there, she didn't have the keys, blah, blah, blah, as she continued brushing her wet hair. I turned on my emergency flashers and we shut down right in the middle of the one-lane road. I told our squatter, “No problem, we'll call the rangers and they can tow you out.” Somehow, the keys magically appeared and she was in the car, a little front-wheel drive Honda, gunning the engine like mad. She dumped the clutch and the front wheels spun furiously in the sand. I watched as the little Honda sank down to the body panels in a cloud of white sand.

I walked over to her her as she sheepishly looked up over the steering wheel, a dusty cloud of sand slowly settling over the car. She looked at me without saying a word, waiting for me to react. I told her to put the car in reverse, turn the steering wheel ever so slightly, and SLOWLY try backing out of the rut she created. The little car got traction and slowly climbed back up on higher ground. After getting her to slowly drive around the ruts she created, she took off like a woman possessed.
An escape attempt from the gift store

After filling in the ruts, we finally backed into the site, but it was very difficult to unhook the trailer as the site sloped badly downhill. It was uneven to the side as well, but I corrected for it with the stabilizer jacks. Then we realized we couldn't find the water connection. The concrete post next to the electrical box was absolutely barren. The water spigot was at the front of the site, and luckily I didn't have to move the trailer to reach it and the electrical connection simultaneously.

We finished un-mounting the bicycles and leveling the trailer just as the first large drops of water started coming down. It rained hard and solid for the next several hours, so we tuned the TV antenna, broke open a bottle of wine and just relaxed. At least until the ground began to rumble and our trailer began to vibrate. The blast of a diesel train horn just hundreds of yards away was startling, to say the least. A quick check of the map noted “CSX transportation” adjacent to the park boundary. A major trunk railroad with plenty of traffic both day and night would make this stay really, really memorable.

The park itself is really nice. It is famous for its winter visitors to the spring: manatees by the hundreds. Weekends can be a test as the park is filled with children, teenagers, picnickers, kayakers, and certified scuba cave divers. There were so many waders and tubers in the shallow river on Sunday that the constantly flowing water was actually stirred up so badly you couldn't see the bottom of the spring basin. Monday was a different story, with mostly Australian, German, and other tourists taking snapshots from the boardwalk with only a handful of people in the 72 degree water. The thick foliage over the elevated boardwalk is beautiful, and the park is clean and well maintained.

Blue Spring State Park
We decided not to bring our kayaks with us this trip, and planned on renting kayaks from the park if we decided to paddle the spring. Paddling the shallow creek to the spring is out as they have a warning sign and ropes across the mouth of the spring, which is only several hundred yards in length. The kayaking is actually done on the St. John's River, and we decided we really didn't need to paddle that badly.

The two shower/toilets in the campground are old, but well taken care of. They were spotless, even after the hoards of children that parade endlessly through them on weekends. The camp hosts stay on top of the situation. The toilets, though, are hard to find by way of the primitive, unmarked footpaths through the underbrush. After walking the long way around on the paved road, we decided to try one of the paths for the return trip and only made one wrong turn.

On Sunday afternoon, a pop-up camper pulled into the site adjacent to us. The nice, middle aged couple approached us the next morning and asked us incredulously if we had known about the trains! The trains had blared their way through all night, giving only a couple of hours of respite. One night was enough for them and they headed for a different campground shortly after breakfast. One that wasn't located next to a train track, I'm sure.

The original Thursby house at Blue Spring

Dear friends drove up from Orlando to spend a very special day with us, strolling the short, paved path to the spring, and enjoying a nice, almost quiet, dinner. The park is a marvelous place to do just that.

Ilse and I spent the next day reading and writing, sitting in lawn chairs that we drug to whatever sparse shade we could find under the one oak tree at our site. We did enjoy ourselves, trying to guess which way the trains were headed by how far away we could hear the rumble.

We broke camp late on Wednesday morning and headed back down our old traditional route of FL 19 from Eustis to FL 33, then down a couple of cutoffs to bypass civilization and finally hitting U.S. 17, south back to our neck of the woods. The return trip took exactly four and a half hours, two hours less than the trip up. More lessons learned.

How do we rate Blue Spring State Park? A really nice day park, especially in the winter. We don't care much for the campground, however, as we really aren't into trains.

More information about the park can be found at:

Next: Rainbow Springs, from days past, at:

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