I have always been attracted to the wonders of nature. Not only the big, majestic places like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, but more modest ones like the towering spruce forests you drive through on the way from Eugene to Bend, Oregon, or the windswept beaches of Lake Michigan in February.
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lotBig Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell
No surprise that an RV journey to the land of Walt Disney World, Universal, and Miami Beach wasn’t on my bucket list. Florida seemed like too many people making too much noise, and one outlet mall away from becoming a giant parking lot? Florida. No thank you!
Imagine the look on my face when perception smacked up against reality. Until now, Florida was largely what I had seen in news headlines, movies and TV. Traveling the State in my small RV and camping off the beaten path, I came to realize that Florida is not what I expected. Instead I discovered a huge and wild place packed with incredible natural beauty both on the coasts and in the interior. I think the turning point for me was our week at Wekiwa Springs State Park and the Wekiva River.
Located about 30 minutes north of Orlando, Wekiwa Springs State Park and the Wekiva River are literally an oasis in the middle of a 2.6 million population metro area. We booked a five day stay at the park on short notice, an unusual stroke of luck since popular campgrounds in Florida often sell out months ahead of time. The park is 7000 acres in size with miles of hiking, horseback riding, and biking trails. The landscape includes everything from near tropical hammocks to scenic sandhill uplands and river swamp. Wildlife like deer, alligators, and even black bear call the park home and we especially enjoyed watching the giant gopher tortoise move slowly across the sandhill near our campsite. Of course, the main attraction in the park is the springs.
Wekiwa Springs has been drawing central Floridians to its crystal-clear waters since the 19th century. A hotel and bathhouse complex were established at the springs in the 1890s, making Wekiwa Springs the first tourist attraction in central Florida, more than seventy years before the opening of Walt Disney World. The hotel and boathouse are long gone but the springs continue to flourish, pumping out an incredible 43-million (MILLION) gallons of crystal-clear water a day at a constant 72-degrees year ‘round.
While the park and springs are named Wekiwa, the river that originates from the spring is called Wekiva. The Wekiva is Federally designated as a National Wild and Scenic River for its scenery, recreation, geology, and diverse habitats. The source of much of the water flowing into the Wekiva is the Florida aquifer, a massive series of underground rivers and caves so extensive that a whole cult of cave divers exist to explore this mysterious world.
Less than a mile downstream from the park is a place we stumbled upon by accident. Drive past several shopping malls, make a left on Miami Springs Drive, through an upscale residential community and you’ll bump right into Wekiva Island and the Without a Paddle Cafe. This place has a definite vibe. It was mid-March when we visited and not crowded, though I image it can get so. The Cafe’s bar with outdoor seating offered dozens of craft beers on draft, and the food truck served up delicious menu items like Bangin’ Shrimp Tacos, Blackened Mahi Sandwich, and Coconut Shrimp Basket. Portions were generous and everything tasted fresh. While the Cafe, outdoor volleyball court, and cabanas add to the experience, the Wekiva River flowing alongside the Cafe is clearly the main attraction.
I think we have a primordial need to stay connected with nature. No matter how citified we become, the need is always there. How else to explain the rows of young and old people reclined along the banks of the Wekiva, enjoying the sunshine and grooving to the flow of the river. All this virtually in the middle of one of the most populated areas of Florida.
The owners of this urban-resort understand the magic of the river and the central role it plays in their success. They sponsor monthly clean-up-the-river events and work to educate Island visitors about the river’s fragile existence. In addition, they have taken a number of steps to reduce the use of plastics in their operation and recently introduced the use of plant-based, biodegradable dinnerware. Small steps, to be sure, but it sends a message and helps builds awareness, reaching the thousands of people who visit the island each month.
For me, one under-appreciated benefit of travel is how it can change you. Oftentimes, what I think I know I don’t know at all. Which is one more reason to hit the road again. Cheers!
Wekiva Island and the Without a Paddle Cafe are located about two miles down river from Wekiwa Springs State Park. The Island offers a number of activities including canoe, kayak and paddleboard rental. A fun trip is to paddle up river from the Island and visit Wekiwa Springs. Check out more about the island here.
Where we stayed
Wekiwa Springs State Park, located about 16 miles north of downtown Orlando, offers 60 full hookup campsites. The sites are large and level, spaced far enough apart to offer privacy. We visited in March and a reservation is a good idea. There is much to do in the Park including 13 miles of hiking trails as well as the Springs. With Orlando just minutes away, we found the Park to be a perfect homebase for exploring the area.