Immerse yourself in Florida scenic drives and historic state parks while sleeping on a houseboat.
Not far from the brightly colored lights of theme parks, adrenaline rides, and mega-resorts lies a different kind of attraction. The St. Johns River & its nearby scenic byways offer something different than most Florida visitors have come to expect.
When northerners used to travel Highway 17 south through the Sunshine State, this area lured visitors with its cool, spring waters and alligator wrestlers. Sadly, much of that tourism was lost to major interstates and Mickey Mouse. Today, The River of Lakes Heritage Corridor will draw the visitor seeking a slower pace, natural encounters with wildlife, and an old-fashioned family vacation – rather than a timed checklist of rides and attractions!
Things to do near the St. Johns River Corridor in Central Florida
Sleep on a houseboat
We set up base outside of Deland, Florida on a houseboat rental. This wasn’t your typical houseboat rental, as we weren’t allowed to leave the marina! We found our rental on Airbnb.
The houseboat created a unique experience for our family! We watched turtles, native birds, and even a small alligator from the dock! Our rooftop deck provided a beautiful sunset view. Looking over the river allowed us to imagine a time when this was just a quiet waterway with no access by anything with horsepower!
If you’re traveling with toddlers, the houseboat might be a little frightening. I’d say ages 4+ would be best- just for the risk of falling into the water! I’m also very over-protective!
Here’s the link to our Airbnb rental and an Airbnb coupon for $40 off your first home rental.
Drive the nearby scenic byways
If you decide to stay at Holly Bluff Marina, you can’t avoid driving the River of Lakes Heritage Corridor. In fact, this is the roadway that dead-ends at Hontoon Island State Park. We enjoyed the abundance of palm trees, oaks covered in Spanish moss, and the low-lying farmland. Even though we hoped for a gator crossing (such Yankees!), our only wildlife-spotting was an abundance of squirrels.
About 20 minutes north of DeLand, one can easily find State Route 40 which runs east to west across Central Florida. From Silver Springs to Ormond Beach, this route is designated the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway. We hopped on the byway just east of Barberville and drove the Byway until we reached I-95. Unfortunately, no black bears were sighted, but we had fun looking!
Visit DeLeon Springs State Park
DeLeon Springs State Park was formally known as Ponce de Leon Springs and it served as a major Florida attraction before the big-eared mouse came to the state! Once advertised as “Nature’s Cameraland,” attractions in the park included a jungle cruise, trapeze artists, and even a water-skiing elephant! Those attractions are long gone (kinda bummed about the elephant!), but the recreational spirit lives on.
We arrived on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend at 8:45 am (the park opened at 8) and were in a line of over 20 cars just trying to get through the entrance! Oye! Admission is only $6/car and it is a very popular spot for local families.
The main draw? DeLeon Springs waters are a cool 72 degrees year-round, making it the perfect swimming hole on a hot, Florida day.
Beyond swimming, visitors can rent kayaks, take hikes, or bring in a picnic lunch. There is also a small playground.
Make your own breakfast at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill (within DeLeon Springs State Park)
The biggest draw for our attendance at DeLeon Springs were the many positive things we heard about The Old Spanish Sugar Mill. What’s the big deal? Guests of the sugar mill can make their own pancakes on a griddle that’s in the middle of their table! This is old-fashioned fun for the entire family!
Want an omelet, too? Your server will bring you an egg that you break and prepare! So yes, you’ll pay about $6/person to prepare your own food, but the good thing is, you don’t have to wash the dishes! Plus- children age 5 and under are free.
Yes, to be honest, we really went to DeLeon Springs for their pancakes! The cool spring waters were just a bonus!
Make sure you visit early in the day – we arrived at the Sugar Mill around 9:15 am and waited nearly 90 minutes! It was a holiday weekend, but we were still surprised!
Take a ferry to Hontoon Island State Park
If there was one place I wish we had more time, it was Hontoon Island State Park. Unlike DeLeon Springs State Park, this truly felt like an undiscovered part of Florida!
Unfortunately, we ran out of time during our stay (we attempted to avoid the mid-afternoon high temps). Our tardy arrival was at 6 pm! The park requires access by ferry, and the last ferry to return to the parking lot is at 6:45. What a bummer! Also, the ferry only takes six people at a time (a little annoying for a family of 5), so plan accordingly. You may have to wait. Tip: While waiting for the ferry, check around the dock for the giant grasshoppers! Our kiddos were delighted by the abundance of these bugs!
Since we arrived with only 45 minutes to spare, we spent most of the time letting the children play on the playground. An idyllic view from the picnic tables beckoned me for a rest.
We wish we would have planned better and kayaked at Hontoon Island! The kayak rentals were nearly half of the price of the rentals at DeLeon Springs! It was only $20/half of the day!
If you have more time, make sure you visit historic DeLand. We ran out of time for a visit, but drove around the quaint downtown instead! I’m sad we missed the art museum and some of the local restaurants. I guess this means we’ll have to plan another trip!
Are you ready to plan a trip to Old Florida?
We loved visiting the St. Johns River area and hope that you, too, will step away from the shiny lights of Orlando and visit what we believe was the REAL Florida!
Looking for more Florida adventures? How about taking a monster truck tour through a citrus farm? Our Disney World Budget and my ultimate Florida packing list.
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