By: Nancy Ferri
Just 25 miles north of Orlando lies Kelly Park and splendid Rock Springs. In order to save this natural gem, Dr. Howard Kelly purchased 200 acres of land in the 1920s and deeded it to Orange County in 1927. Orange County since has increased the park’s size to a total of 325 acres.
Kelly Park offers a beautiful, treed campground and several hiking trails worthy of exploring. Snorkeling, swimming and tubing are allowed within the park. Rock Springs Run makes it way to the Wekiva River from its namesake spring, gushing out 26,000 gallons of clear, 68-degree spring water every minute.
Florida doesn’t run dry on magical places to kayak. Rock Spring Run is one that may be a secret to many, but we’re about to let this paddle out of the bag.
There are two outstanding launch areas to access Rock Springs Run. Orange County’s Camp Joy, located next to Kelly Park, does not rent kayaks, canoes or provide a shuttle service, however, you are welcome to launch your own watercraft from here. Note, there is a portage of a few hundred feet to access the water. Call Kelly Park to provide the date and time of your arrival to Camp Joy in order for a ranger to meet you there. The launch fee is $5. Camp Joy remains open until 5:30 pm so you’re free to park your car there as well.
Kings Landing, down the road from Camp Joy, is a privately owned outfitter. They rent kayaks, canoes and provide shuttle service. You do not need to make reservations in advance, but weekends can get busy so arriving early is advised. Launching your own private kayak or canoe is also doable for a $10 launch fee.
Shuttle service is provided when renting from them, however, if you cannot work out your own shuttle, Kings Landing will arrange to pick you and your vessel up at the end of the run for an additional fee.
If paddling with friends, plan to drop your vessel at Kings Landing and take one vehicle either to Wekiva State Park or Wekiva Island which will be the end of your run.
If not renting from Kings Landing, cars must be parked outside their gate along either side of the road. It’s a dead-end road, and parking here is generally always safe.
Rock Springs Run provides a couple options for your paddle adventure. You may want to paddle its 8.5 miles directly downstream, but if you’re not a native, adding the additional 2 miles will take you through not-to-be missed Emerald Cut.
Emerald Cut is a one-mile upstream paddle through crystal-clear water coming from, at this point, nearby Rock Springs. Some may choose to do only this portion taking as much time as needed to enjoy and explore their 2 mile up and back adventure. If Rock Springs is easily accessible to you, there’s time to paddle the 8.5-mile downstream portion another day.
Others may choose to go out for an hour or two, paddle around and come back to where they parked, thereby avoiding the need for a shuttle.
Whichever you choose, you’re bound to gain an appreciation for this special spring run and the need for its preservation.
Named so for its lush subtropical foliage and emerald-green clear waters, it’s an experience you won’t want to miss. Emerald Cut is to your right (upstream) as you leave Kings Landing launch. The headwaters of Rock Springs in Kelly Park provide the thrill of an exhilarating paddle in crystal-clear waters. This one-mile paddle upstream (with its current at 3 to 5 mph) takes you through a peacefulness and beauty unmatched by many other spring runs that Florida has to offer.
When you reach the non-passable, low bridge, which designates the Kelly Park proper, you’ve ventured as far as allowed. At this point, move your vessel to the side, hop out, stretch your legs, splash a bit in the water and enjoy the scenery. On your return downstream paddle, you’ll have time to truly take in Emerald Cut’s allure.
Kayaking this Gem Worth Saving — Rock Springs Run
Be prepared to be in awe. From either launch area, Kings Landing or Camp Joy, making this 8.5-mile downstream paddle will leave you anxious to make this journey again.
Granted, if you can only paddle on the weekend, you’ll find others may have the same idea. Plan to get there early. Personally, I’d rather save my kayaking for mid-October through early May when the sun is a bit more forgiving and insects less ravenous. If you can escape the 9 to 5 and paddle on a weekday, playing hooky will be well worth it.
Central Florida’s natural lazy river enjoys a nice and pleasant current, giving you ample time to navigate any twists, turns or submerged logs you may find along the way.
A bit narrowing for the first few miles, you may come upon some downed trees left by Florida’s heavy rainstorms or hurricanes. The park does a great job of keeping obvious unnavigable trees cut, but only to the point of passage, keeping Mother Nature in charge here. At the point the Run opens up, the water becomes a tea-stained tannin color and deep pockets of water are noted.
Quickly water levels and the appearance of this Run will change again. As you paddle closer to the 7-mile point, the Run takes on a twisting, shallow, again crystal-clear appearance taking you through tall grasses, hyacinth and aquatic plants. This area is often times shallow enough as a point for getting out and stretching your legs once again.
Before you know it, you’ll reach where Rock Springs Run meets the Wekiva River. It will be obvious; almost like a dead end. You are left with a decision to paddle to the left or to the right. The answer to that decision relies on where you parked your car or where your shuttle will do its pick-up.
Paddling to your right will take you to Wekiva Springs State Park – a lovely, well-known state park with a campground and a large spring where folks frolic in the cool waters during the heat of summer. The park rents canoes/kayaks at its launch area and this can be used as a take-out point.
Paddle to your left and your take-out point will be Wekiva Island. This is the location Kings Landing uses for its shuttle service. If you’ve managed to work out your own shuttle, either Wekiva Island or the state park could be used. Both locations are just a short paddle away once you reach the point where Rock Springs Run conjoins with Wekiva River.
As with any Florida waters, you’re bound to see an alligator or two or three. There are no monsters lurking in Rock Springs Run, but we’ll say they look healthy. Not to worry, keep your distance and they will keep theirs.
Turtles, otter, raccoons and white-tailed deer can be spotted while paddling either Emerald Cut or Rock Springs Run.
This is Florida Black Bear habitat, but having camped and/or paddled this Run numerous times, I think the bear are smart enough to stay back in the woods. If camping, be smart and never leave food out or in your tent.
A wide variety of birds is a given in Florida. Owls, hawks, osprey, eagles and vultures are commonly seen. Aquatic birds will follow you along your trek squawking if they determine you to be disturbing them.
Four primitive camp spots are available for paddlers and it’s truly a blast to have the opportunity to camp here and make this Run a 2-day trip. Big Buck, Otter Camp, Indian Mound or Buffalo Tram are accessible only by canoe or kayak and are reservable by either calling Wekiva Springs State Park or Rock Springs Run State Reserve. Respect nature and the solitude it provides, pack it in, pack it out is required.
Leaving You with that Easy, Peaceful Feeling
Making a journey down Rock Springs Run not only offers up a sight for sore eyes, but a peace, appreciation and gratitude for a day well spent. Relax, slow down and truly enjoy your time on this remarkable self-paddled cruise.
Rock Springs Run, while no longer a secret, is one I’ve been paddling for the past 40 years. It lives up to its hype and, lucky for every one of us, hasn’t really changed much at all. When visiting Central Florida, enjoy its year-round allure and incredible beauty that will leave you with a memory worth saving.