Columbia County, Florida
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The Crown Jewel of Columbia County

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The ultimate family adventure at Ichetucknee Springs

We didn’t know exactly what the day would bring as we checked in at Paddling Adventures at Ichetucknee Springs State Park in rural Fort White, Florida. But we knew we were in for a heck of an adventure that included lots of time in and on the water at one of the state’s most iconic rivers. It was just my wife, our 15-year-old daughter, our 13-year-old son and me.

We decided to rent paddleboards instead of canoes or kayaks at the behest of the teenagers. None of us had ever been stand-up paddleboarding before, but we were assured it wouldn’t be too hard. All we had to do was balance and steer, and the gentle current would take us where we needed to go on this leg of our journey—a few hours downriver to the designated pickup spot.

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See animals both above and below the surface.

Setting out

A bit wobbly at first, we launched from the dock under big, sprawling oak trees. Within the first 10 minutes, we saw deer running along the bank through the woods. The crystal-clear water allowed us to see the radiant green hues of the grasses swaying in the current and lots of aquatic wildlife underneath us. Anhingas perched on downed trees, turtles sunned themselves on logs and a hawk flew overhead. After a while, we spotted a group of enormous gray figures under the water. As we got closer, we saw a snout breaking the surface as one of the manatees took a loud breath. It was quite an experience, being so close and watching them from the vantage point of a paddleboard. I don’t know who was more giddy—us or the kids. There was so much to see along the teal-colored river, and all of it was breathtaking.

Manatees at Ichetucknee Springs in Columbia County, Florida
Manatees are native residents at Ichetucknee Springs.
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Left to Right: River otters slip, flip, play and relax at Ichetucknee Springs; Get your paddleboarding on above crystal-clear springs.

Making a connection

With each, “Ooo, did you see that?” from my daughter and every, “Look! Look!” from my son, my wife and I nodded and smiled. Together, we saw a turtle here, a school of mullet there, and an otter scratching its back against a tree on the bank.

It was at this point on our adventure that it dawned on me: We were connecting—to each other, to nature, to something other than an electronic device. For the first time in I don’t know when, we were all fully present, in this moment. Together. Noticing each other. Making memories that I am sure will last a lifetime.

I couldn’t help but be proud of myself for finding a way to spend time together without distractions. It sounds simple, but it’s not an easy task in this day and age, especially for a family with teenagers.

Once we saw the signs for the pickup spot, we paddled over to the dock and got out of the water. Soon, the Paddling Adventures shuttle was there to take us back to the park’s main entrance, where we would finally get to peek under the surface of the shimmering blue springs.

Turtles at Ichetucknee Springs in Columbia County, Florida
A double-stack of turtles enjoy the springs’ cool water.
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Jump into turquoise springs and swim to adventure underwater.

Looking beneath the surface

We walked the half-mile through cypress forest to Blue Hole Spring, so named because of the 40-foot-deep drop and cave that is popular with scuba divers in the spring’s center, which makes the spring look like a geode. We couldn’t see much until we dipped below the surface (a bit chilly at first, but we got used to it quickly), where we were met with a grass-covered floor and clear, blue water. We swam toward the middle above the spring vent, where the sun shining down over the opening created brilliant light rays unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Towels wrapped around us, we hurried back down the trail to the main spring, Ichetucknee. Its tree-lined, bright turquoise waters beckoned and we explored the underwater landscape, which was different from Blue Hole Spring but equally beautiful. Here we found a variety of small- and medium-sized fish, plants with vivid red and green leaves and a mix of deep and shallow water with a rocky crevice on one side that we took turns diving down to see closer. There’s something about being in a cool Florida spring that makes even old guys like me feel like a kid again, especially when your own kids are cheering you on.

It wasn’t long before we all were famished, so we dried off once again, made a beeline for the picnic tables and sat down for lunch together—eating, talking about our day and taking silly photos. This was exactly the kind of quality time family vacations were made for. We’re definitely doing this again.

Ichetucknee Springs in Columbia County, Florida
At Blue Hole Spring, scuba divers swim through an opening to discover a 40-foot opening.
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Two nearby hikes include the Trestle Point Trail and the Pine Ridge Trail.

Some final tips

If you have time, you’ll want to check out the park’s other two trails: the Trestle Point Trail, a 30-minute walk that takes you along the edge of the water, and the Pine Ridge Trail, a two-mile loop that goes past open vistas and towering longleaf pines. Give yourself a little over an hour for that one.

Paddling Adventures aren’t just for daylight hours: hop onto a romantic Moon-Lit Paddle Trip, which begins at sunset as the full moon begins to illuminate the riverway.

If you want to do everything there is to do here at a leisurely pace, make this a multi-day trip. That’s easy to do, thanks to several campgrounds near the river. The park is open all year long; winter is the best time to come if you want to avoid crowds (the springs remain a constant 72 degrees all year). Weekdays are also good for this reason.

However you decide to plan your Ichetucknee trip, it’s guaranteed to be awesome. Just remember the essentials: towels, a picnic lunch (trust me, you will be hungry), reusable water bottles, snorkels, masks and sun protection.

And leave the electronics.

Make family memories in Columbia County