If you’re looking for a beautiful place to camp in Central Florida, Wekiwa Springs State Park should definitely be on your short list.
Rent a kayak or canoe if you don’t have your own and head from the launch downriver past Wekiva Island for a beautiful paddle on the Wekiva River. (Yes, that’s right: the name of the park is Wekiwa Springs (pronounced wuhk-AYE-wa) and that leads to the Wekiva River, with a V. Wekiwa is the Creek-Seminole word for a spring, but developers used the alternate spelling shared with the river for many of the streets and subdivisions in the area.) We passed turtles and alligators of all sizes as we floated merrily downstream.
Head back upstream when you’re ready and be sure to stop at Wekiva Island for lunch at the Without a Paddle Cafe food truck. If you’re lucky, you’ll be there on a Friday which is when they have absolutely delicious fish and chips. Partner that with a cold adult beverage as you relax outside and watch the river and really, what could be better? The fish tacos were also excellent. From shrimp baskets to gator tail to burgers, you’ll find something to hit the spot for every member of your party!
When you’ve enjoyed your lunch, jump back in your kayak and head back to the launch. Maybe enjoy a little nap back at camp, a bike ride around the park, some hiking on the 13 miles of nature trails or a bit of fishing at Sand Lake. You might even try your hand at geocaching.
Then, it’s time for the highlight of this park: swim in the gorgeous spring! It’s a cool and steady 72 degrees but after the initial plunge, it’s really quite comfortable. While we did see a couple of ladies wearing mermaid tails, those aren’t required but snorkel masks should be! We regretted not having them on our first visit. You will want to peek underwater to spot the tilapia, baby gar, turtles, a variety of small fish, and many (non-native) sailfin catfish. These catfish, which can grow to 20 inches and 3 pounds, like to hang out in a wide and narrow cave opening and occasionally dart up to the surface and hurry back down. We watched one impressively talented Great Blue Heron stand at the edge of the spring and casually reach down and snatch three baby catfish out of the water in the space of probably just 45 minutes.
Not to mention you will want to explore the spring head cavern! Swim against the current from the huge output of water from this spring source to cling to the algae-covered limestone formations and propel yourself as deep into the spring head as you dare. It is about 15-20 feet deep.
Troglobites are organisms specially evolved to survive in deep cave habitats so I never really expected to ever see any myself, but I did, right here! A super cool find at Wekiwa Springs was the Orlando Cave Crayfish. I was swimming with my daughter after some tilapia one early quiet morning as my boys were diving into the spring head, when I noticed an older gentleman who had been doing laps across the entire spring area beckon them over. He said he rarely saw these creatures out of the caves because they usually are quickly eaten by predators – as they are both blind and very white, they make easy prey. Turns out these are found at only four sites in the Orlando area, and that’s it! This blind creature of the deep eats bacteria and decayed organic matter that washes into the limestone caves. Scientists study these unique and important crayfish because they live in Florida’s drinking water supply and if crayfish in such an area start dying off, that could be a sign of chemical contamination of the water.
As for wildlife elsewhere in the park, we saw turkeys, gopher tortoises, deer and, of course, squirrels and a variety of birds. There is also a nature center and we happened to be nearby when a couple of friendly and knowledgeable volunteers were taking three of their beautiful snake ambassadors out for a little grass and sunshine time to do their business. I had hoped to spot a bear in the park but no such luck. Perhaps one day!
The campground itself was quiet although we could hear some road noise. The sites were spacious and the restrooms clean. Firewood was $8 per bag. A happy surprise was that we had not only electric and water but also sewer at our site, so full hook-ups, which we don’t often find at state parks.
Beware, this park is popular – especially in the summertime. If you leave the park, even if you’re camping there, you may have to wait in line to get back in because there is a limited capacity at the springs. So plan your ventures outside the park accordingly. Having said that, it is certainly worth your while to head out to the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive just 20 minutes away. This 11-mile journey is an extraordinary wildlife habitat and restoration project gaining national attention as a huge destination for birders and wildlife enthusiasts. It’s a slow one-way drive (10 MPH max!) that’s only open from 7am – 3pm on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and federal holidays so take your time and bring your binoculars and best camera. If you’re lucky, you may be able to see alligators, otters, bobcats, a fantastic variety of birds and spectacular sunsets from Magnolia Park. Join the Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive group on Facebook to see some of the stunning photos some extremely talented photographers have managed to capture there.