IDYLLIC GETAWAY: Wakulla Spings exists amid true old-Florida wilderness.
Living in Florida, people can be vocal in their complaints about driving-impaired seniors, snowbirds and overcrowded beaches. Few have a clue about our abundance of freshwater springs and the lovely parks surrounding them. These natural treasures can be found in less developed parts of north and central Florida — and could use loudmouthed support.
Florida’s springs and their surrounding parks are fun and affordable to visit, and are brimming with flora, fauna and wildlife. The sites include Wakulla Springs, Silver Springs, Fannie, Juniper, Ginnie and Blue Springs. They are a perfect refuge during hot summers and, tragically, may not be swimmable for long if they are not protected. Several are already closed during certain times of the year.
STAY OVERNIGHT: Wakulla Springs Lodge.
Photographer Daniel Veintimilla and I took off for Wakulla Springs last Friday, home to the deepest and largest known freshwater spring in the world, just after an ambitious bill to protect the state’s springs died on the state’s House floor. The lush retreat with bubbling cool water, a lodge and large swimming area served as the location for films like Creature from the Black Lagoon
, a Tarzan movie and Airport ’77
The House bill was not a hot topic on our arrival to Wakulla Springs. We were not greeted with impassioned pleas to get the word out to save the springs. When CL asked Wakulla riverboat guides for comment, they said that they had been instructed not to do so.
Staffers did inform us that the glass-bottom tour boats are no longer in operation. Algae overgrowth from fertilizer runoff makes it harder for the springs to filter out the tannins from the cypress tree roots, which turns the blue water brown after storms churn it all up. There’s some pollution, too. Views of empty Zephyrhills water bottles would make an ironic but depressing counterpoint to a transparent voyage. (Note: You can still take glass-bottom boat rides at Silver Springs. Highly recommended.)
On our visit, the sky was too gray for sunbathing, so we chose to take the Wakulla Lodge’s standard riverboat tour on our arrival. Patty Wilbur, our friendly and exuberant guide, shared the feeding habits of the Wakulla’s wildlife and other informative tidbits as she led us on a tranquil ride. Wilbur pointed out the red-breasted mergansers by the pretty purple pickerelweed and shared that moorhens can be aggressive — she once saw four of them peck an alligator until it retreated back into the water. Our most exciting encounter was a whitetail deer in a nearby forest clearing (too quick for our camera), and a manatee nosed up to our boat. Gray foxes, red foxes and black bears live in the woods nearby but steered clear. Wilbur jokingly referred to the turtles lined up on a log as a “shell station.”
HAPPY TRAILS: A 6-mile-long nature trail at Wakulla Springs.
Back at the Wakulla Springs Lodge, where we stayed overnight, we enjoyed antiquity and modest accommodations. The lobby has majestic arched windows and beamed ceilings with decorative frescoes, which hung over checkered marble floors. Speaking of checkers, there are oversized checker tables that put the Cracker Barrrel’s to shame, offering a mellow pastime perfect for the setting. The Ball Room Dining Room, a “Florida-Southern” restaurant, sits on one end of the lodge’s first floor and on the other, an old-fashioned ice cream counter with souvenir shop.
Philanthropist Edward Ball bought the spring and lodge site from the Christy brothers in 1931. He personally handled all facets of its design and construction. It was completed in 1937, and in the lobby is a large, preserved gator known as Old Joe, a favorite of Ball, who had him immortalized.
OLD JOE: An immortalized gator greets guests in Wakulla Springs Lodge's lobby.
When the sky cleared, we took a stroll on the park’s verdant nature trail, and bathed in the spring water at Wakulla. Sure, it was a little brown from the cypress tannins and storm that churned up the Panhandle, but the Wakulla felt clean, cool and invigorating. At night, fireflies flickered and gave us a wondrous light show, adding to Wakulla’s unique and magical charms.
Wakulla Springs Lodge and Edward Ball Wakulla Springs Park can be found at 465 Wakulla Park Drive, Wakulla Springs, Fla. 32327; 850-561-7276, wakullaspringslodge.com.
TIPS FOR ENJOYING FLORIDA’S SPRINGS
Give yourself plenty of time to visit — at least a full day. You can’t be rushed on nature trails or tubing down a river. Nearby motels and camping are quite affordable in Florida’s less populated areas. Bring bug spray.
Check the map for directions before you GPS. Signals get dropped or the navigations aren’t always up to date.
If you’re tubing, you’ll arrive at a different location than if you’re visiting a park. Make sure you figure out the right destination in advance.
For tubing, bring cash for rentals, thermoses for drinks, tow rope for tying tubes and belongings, a plastic case for cigarettes and money, and sandals you can swim in.
Avoid the Interstate and enjoy the scenic routes along Florida’s highway. U.S. 19 north of Citrus County is picturesque, quirky and has very few lights.
Find a good Southern diner for grub. Heading north on U.S. 19, you can hit the excellent Taste of Dixie Diner at 16840 S.E. U.S. 19, Cross City; 352-498-3628.
Call ahead of time to make sure you can swim the springs. A couple of weeks without a heavy storm will usually restore churned-up freshwater
from brown back to sparkling turquoise.
Summer is a good time to visit, when the cool 70-degree temps offer maximum refreshment.
Visit floridasprings.org/visit/map for a handy springs locator.
To help protect the springs, show your support for Florida’s Water and Land Legacy is a coalition of the state’s leading conservation organizations and concerned citizens, who together succeeded in gathering nearly 1 million signatures from Florida voters and placing Amendment 1: the Water and Land Conservation Amendment on the November 2014 ballot. Click here to find out more.