Every year our family joins 5-6 other families for our annual trip to Ichetucknee Springs State Park to go tubing down the Ichetucknee River. This is our 4th year that we’ve taken this trip and each year we learn a few more tips to make it more fun for the kids (and adults).
Ichetucknee Springs is a State Park in North Florida near the Georgia line. It’s about a 2-3 hour drive north for us from Tampa so it’s not a bad weekend trip. You could make it a day trip depending on how early you wanted to get started in the morning but we turn it into a weekend getaway. The springs are part of the Suwannee River Valley and feed through some of the oldest and most natural parts of Florida. The temperature in the springs is an ice cold 72 degrees year-round making it a perfect adventure for those balmy Florida summer days.
Since the river is protected and managed by the Florida State Parks there are some rules (and tips) you need to be aware of before you go.
1. Tubing season runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day. There are some off-season tubing allowed but most of the river is closed during the winter months to allow the river to recover from the summer traffic.
2. Cost: Park entrance is $5 per person and kids under 5 yrs are free. You’ll also need to get tubes before you enter the park. They range from $7 and up depending on where you stop. You can bring your own if you have them, just be sure they are smaller than 5 feet in diameter.
3. No food, drinks, pets, fishing, tobacco, alcohol or disposable items on the river! Be sure to eat a good breakfast before you go because they check your bags and don’t allow you to bring any food or drinks along with you. We usually pack a picnic for after we’re done. There’s also a sign that says no sunscreen (to protect the wildlife) so don’t bring that with you either. We only use “reef safe” sunscreen and apply it before we get to the park.
4. There are 4 different places you can get on the river. The North End, Midpoint, and Dampier’s Landing. It takes about 3 hours to float from the North End to the last takeout location. For shorter floats, load at the midpoint or Dampier’s Landing which last 45 minutes and 1.5 hours. You can get off at any of the stops if you get tired and there is a tram that can take you back to your car.
5. Parking: If you plan on starting at the North End, you can drop your party off there and park at the South Entrance. The tram will take you back to the North End to meet up with your party but they will be waiting for upwards of 30-45 minutes while you park. Directions to the park and the different lots can be found on their website.
6. Get an early start! The park opens at 8am year round and on the weekends, there is a line of cars waiting to get into the park. We usually get our rafts around 7-7:30 and head over to the park to wait with the early birds. There is a limit to the number of people they allow down the river each day (to preserve the ecosystem) so you don’t really want to get a late start. This year we didn’t get to the park until around 10am (Midpoint launch) and parking was crazy! The river was already packed when we got there. I don’t think we’ll ever get a late start again.
7. Let’s talk about tubes. The water is FREEZING cold – 72 degrees! For us Floridians that’s cold!! If you have little kids who aren’t the best swimmers you may want to get a closed bottom tube or inflatable boat. Since we have kids ranging from age 2-11 yrs old in our group we have quite a few double tubes or boats to accommodate the wee ones with an adult. The older kids and some of the adults actually swim just as much as they float so the open bottom tubes are fine.
8. Things to bring along! If you have more than one tube it’s not a bad idea to bring along some bungee cords or string to tie your group together. I think our tube chain is usually about 20 tubes long (or in kind of a weird circle). A waterproof camera is fun for when your daredevils decide to climb a tree and jump into the water, or for capturing the beauty of the river. Water shoes aren’t a necessity but they can make walking down the paths to the river (and back to the car) a little more tolerable. If you take flip flops be sure to bring a small waterproof bag (I bring my retired cloth diaper wet bags) to store them in while you float. You can also store your keys in the wet bag so you don’t lose them down the river. If you want to explore underwater you may want to bring your mask and snorkel, it’s really clear and there are some cool fish. That’s really all you’ll need!! Just remember the park rangers will inspect any bags you bring so it’s best to be a minimalist for this trip.
9. Sit back, relax, and have fun. I’m ALWAYS online and I look forward to this trip every year mostly because there’s no phones, computers, or internet on the river. I get to watch my kids experience nature and talk to friends I don’t see often enough. It’s the most relaxing 1-3 hours you’ll have all year and there isn’t anything to distract you. Some of the big kids and adults like to climb overhanging trees and jump in the river!! Just remember that to preserve and protect the natural environment, try to avoid walking on the bottom of the river or breaking down branches.
10. What ages is this trip best for? That really depends on your comfort level in the water. There are no lifeguards or park rangers on the river so you’ll want to feel in control of the situation as much as possible. If you’re taking a closed bottom tube or boat, you could really bring an infant or toddler. Just remember that you have to walk for 5-15 minutes to get to the different launch spots carrying your tube and children. We’ve taken toddlers around 1.5 – 2 yrs old without much trouble. Now that most of the kids are almost 4 the trip is much more fun and less stressful. You may want to bring a life jacket for the little one’s if they don’t know how to swim; but they’ll be IN the raft 99% of the time so that’s just a precaution. As relaxing as the actual floating is, I wouldn’t recommend this for the elderly or people with health issues that can’t walk down rugged terrain for 5-15 minutes.
Have you ever been tubing with your kids? What is your favorite river to tube down? We’d love to try out some other river and streams next summer but we’ll always go to Ichetucknee with our friends. It’s become a tradition.