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Cool diversions a natural solution to Florida's heat

Ichetucknee River

Come to sunny Florida? It's hot, it's muggy, and if the mosquitoes don't get you, the sturgeon just might. But if you live here, suffering through the worst part of summer, you might still find a way out of your air-conditioned cave and into some Florida fun.

For the price of a tank of gas, you can travel to a couple of "cool" state parks: Ichetucknee Springs and Florida Caverns.

Just north of Gainesville, past a little town called Fort White, the Ichetucknee River flows at a cool 73 degrees. The narrow, spring-fed river meanders for miles under tall cypress, oak, sweetgum and maple trees, while beneath its stunningly clear water, fish hang amid strappy green river grass and the current rushes over limestone boulders. You can spend an entire day in a tube or raft, lazing and gazing, carried on the river of life.

Your reverie is apt to be punctuated by teenage screams, fallen logs and snags, mayflies landing on your arms or tube, and the occasional sighting of a (harmless) water snake, turtle, long-nosed gar or snorkeler. Don't worry about alligators — apparently the water is too cold, the banks too high, and the river too populous for them.

The Ichetucknee Springs State Park has two entrances, north and south (use either in the summer), and you can rent tubes and rafts from any of a number of venders along the roadsides as you approach the park. A small tube is $3, a larger one $5, and a raft will go for $8 or $10, depending on size. The proprietors will tie everything up on your car with twine, and when you're done with your trip, you leave the tubes at the park.

Entrance to the park is $5 per person until Labor Day and $5 a carload after that. Go down the river as many times as you like (and choose the length of your trips, from half an hour to two and a half hours), and get your receipt marked when you enter so you can drive out and go to the other entrance.

There is a concession/restroom area for changing (wear water socks or old tennis shoes, and apply sunscreen: You can't bring anything with you to the river). A $1 locker will give you a place to store your stuff. Pin the key to your clothes and board the tram (tubes in the back) that will take you through the woods to your drop-off point beside the river.

Farther north, in the Panhandle, another state park offers more chill. Explore the Florida Caverns in Marianna, west of Tallahassee, and then plunge into the numbingly cold waters of Blue Springs next door.

The caverns were formed 39-million years ago by the acidic erosion of limestone, Florida's native rock. Now, except on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, you can take an hour tour to see stalactites and stalagmites for yourself, as well as columns, a "wedding cake" formation, rim pools and drop-offs, all at a cool 68 degrees underground. A guide will flip off the lights and, no, you can't see your hand in front of your face.

You might want to go for a 10-minute hike above ground first. The Magnolia-Beech trail takes you over easy terrain in the woods with the occasional ascent and descent; if you're paying attention, you'll see the dark entrance to a cave through the limestone outcropping. There are longer trails, and there's also an interpretive museum.

Ask at the caverns' entrance ($4 per carload) whether the Blue Hole swimming area is open. This summer it has been off-limits because of turbidity. If it's a no-go, ask for directions to Blue Springs, about 9 miles away. Blue Springs is the place to be for kids. The water is a freezing 68 degrees, there are tubes for rent, a large floating dock in the middle, diving boards, slides that will hurtle you into the water, picnic areas, swings and plenty of other kids. There are also a lot of lifeguards.

"Geronimo!" "Cowabunga!" Or whatever they yell these days.

Freelance writer Melanie Hubbard is a frequent contributor to the St. Petersburg Times.


Cool springs

Check out what your state parks have to offer at www.florida Find a park, view activities, get driving directions, and consider staying in the parks — some have cabins.

Ichetucknee Springs State Park: (386) 497-4690. Directions: Take Interstate 75 north to Exit 399. Take U.S. 441 north to High Springs. Take U.S. 27 north to Fort White, then continue 4 miles to the park's south entrance. The north entrance is 2.5 miles beyond that (or follow alternate signs at Fort White).

B&Bs in High Springs and Fort White include the Grady House B&B ( or (386) 454-2206), the Rustic Inn B&B ( or (386) 454-1223), or the High Springs Country Inn ( or (386) 454-1565).

Florida Caverns State Park: (850) 482-1228. Directions: Take I-10 west to exit 142, turn right on State Road 71. Turn left on State Road 90. Follow brown park signs to entrance. $4 per carload. Tours: adults $8, children 12 and under $5, free for age 2 and under.

Marianna has some familiar chain hotels (Holiday Inn Express, Comfort Inn, Super 8), all charging about $80 for a double. You might do better ($55 to $85) at the Hinson House B&B ( or toll-free 1-800-531-4786, ext. 1500).

Melanie Hubbard

Cool diversions a natural solution to Florida's heat 08/14/08 [Last modified: Sunday, August 17, 2008 12:48pm]
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