Camp and Kayak the Floridian Way
How 15 Floridians Rollick in Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park
There’s a special place in the north-central part of Florida—tethered to the city of High Springs—an area well known for its spectacular freshwater springs along the Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers. The epitome of Old Florida beauty, Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park—a collection of six different natural springs in addition to Gilchrist Blue Spring—operated as a private park for many years before it was purchased by the state of Florida for $5.2 million as a safeguard to keeping it naturally sustainable and recreational. It reopened as Florida’s 175th state park in November of 2017. Teeming with tropical vegetation and cypress trees lining the crystalline headwaters surrounding, visitors can camp and rollick within its ruggedness.
For 15 of us, this spot has been dialed into the GPS and become the highlight of the year. Two years running, a group of ebullient Floridians get together for a weekend road trip in a convoy of four-wheel-drive vehicles for the three-hour drive from the Gulf Coast. Booking far enough in advance, we score three primitive campsites side-by-side to set up as one shared congregation of tents. We pack our bags and rigs with enough provisions for a three-day, two-night stay at the campground—planning to only leave for more firewood and ice.
At the wake of morning, we immediately hook up the Bluetooth speaker and trade off playing themed playlists. We toss whatever we can find into a skillet for a communal breakfast feast. Someone thankfully remembered to bring some macadamia ground coffee to French-press a few mugs for the handful of us that need our early caffeine fix. After, the buzz gives us the ardor to attempt stacking three different hammocks on top of one another between two of the tallest trees at our site. Using a 4Runner to climb on top of, we’re able to tightly secure the straps equal distance apart on the one tree. The other side is a different story. A much sketchier, unstabilized story. Balancing on the shoulders of one another, a few nervous giggles were exchanged, but we finally reach high enough to get the hammocks hanging in an epic triple-decker without anyone making the 12-foot fall to unforgiving dirt.
The rest of the morning is spent swinging and Boomerang-ing in the tiered “hang”out before suiting up and gearing up to walk over to the springs. Unbelievably clean and clear, Gilchrist is often a favorite spot to plunge amongst free divers and snorkelers who come to marvel at the startling clarity and unparalleled visibility. Dotting the maps for those in search of a refreshing oasis to beat the humid heat of Florida, these glass-like, cerulean pools of natural spring water offer a chance of reprieve as well as a chance at witnessing the biodiversity that lives beneath. Expect to come across many eco habitats of wetland wildlife species—particularly in the main spring, renowned for fish species including redbreast and spotted sunfish, largemouth bass, bluegill and channel catfish, as well as the occasional run-in with the Florida manatee, turtles and tortoises.
Seeped with history and hedonism, the springs also remain an important window into the health of Florida’s groundwater—the source of 90% of the state’s bottled drinking water. In particular, Gilchrist Blue and Naked Springs offer a magically crystal-blue glimpse of the Floridan aquifer. According to the Florida State Park site, Gilchrist’s springs produce about 44 million gallons of water each day and run into the Santa Fe River.
In addition to diving and snorkeling, take your watersport pick of kayaking, tube floating and paddleboarding along the Sante Fe River. One of our friends happens to hail from Cape Town and moved to Florida to bring his South African SUP and kayak company, Vanhunks Boarding, to the U.S. Needless to say, we have no shortage of vessels to enjoy this liquid crown jewel. After a few hours of traversing the river on our boards and testing our breath-holding limits—free diving down to deepened parts to view the wildlife and wreaths underneath the azure surface—we head back to camp blissfully beat and shivering, our nipples pointing the way down the trail.
For dinner, our designated chef of the crew cooks a beef stew from scratch in a cast iron skillet—searing beef tips with caramelized onions, campfire roasted garlic, hatchet-sliced potato and carrots, cream of mushroom soup and a can of beef stock. As the day wanes and the black sky falls, we inevitably start passing the bottle of hooch around as we desperately keep the fire alive. Enlivened by a circle of friends—some newly acquainted, some go way back, all in folded field chairs—we unravel into the night laughing loudly against the otherwise serene backcountry, playing a ‘Buzzed’ card game and belting ballads of throwback tunes.
Before we know it, midnight rolls around and someone comes up with the grand idea to head back down to the springs for a blood-curdling cold dip in the freezing [Florida] cold. Half the group stand and watch on the wooden platform holding dry towels for the other half that decide to slip into the stillness—some practicing Wim Hof breathing or performing water aerobics to stay warm. Eventually, we all retreat on foot through the forested trails and back to our little village of tented abodes to drift off under the southern stars.
Before long, it’s time to pack up camp and head home for a hot shower and extended sleep, separated from the mating sounds of locusts but already looking forward to the discomfort and debauchery of next year’s trip.