FLORIDA IS MORE than Disney World and Busch Gardens, raceways and water shows. The real Florida natural Florida is where to hike, bike, camp, canoe, fish, snorkel, scuba dive, sail, bird watch, or just laze on the beach. And now this comprehensive guide covering the entire Florida State Park System will help you plan an adventure you'll never forget. Whether you're seeking underwater coral reef gardens, stunning orchid blooms, or the playgrounds of panthers, painted buntings, and manatees, you'll find them within the pages of Florida State Parks: A Complete Recreation Guide
In terms of sheer number of parks and total annual visitors, Florida has one of the nation’s top three state park systems. Abundant shoreline, lakes, rivers, swamps, and marshes host an amazing array of wildlife, including bald eagles and orchids. This guide takes visitors hiking, camping, snorkeling, scuba diving, cycling and more—from sandy beaches to pine forests to stunning coral reefs.
The Mountaineers Books, 2000 (latest edition 2004), paperback, 240 pages, black-and-white photographs, maps. ISBN 0-89886-731-2.
"As soon as I opened this book, I could see it was a keeper. I read it with equal parts outdoor enthusiasm and professional envy. With Florida State Parks at hand, readers will never be at a loss for interesting places to visit."
"Michal Strutin has a real winner here...the handiest of reference books for Florida's state parks' visitors. This book is destined to join the Florida State Park System as a national award-winner."
—E. Douglas Cifers, board member, Friends of Florida State Parks, Inc.
Publisher, Florida Media, Inc.
WAKULLA SPRINGS STATE PARK
Size/Trails: 6000 acres, 2.5-mile hiking trail, 12-mile biking/hiking trail.
Facilities: Concessioner/cafe, 27-room historical lodge and buildings, floating swim dock, observation platform, 100 picnic tables, playground, ranger station, restaurant, 2 restrooms, tour boats.
Recreation: Biking, guided boat tours (hourly, 9:45 A.M.-4:30 P.M.), hiking, picnicking, snorkeling, swimming.
Special Events: Twilight Cruise and Dinner (monthly, March-June, September-December); Wakulla Birding Festival, mid-April; New Year's Eve Gala; and many more. Contact park for an annual schedule of events.
Access: Located 14 miles south of Tallahassee on Route 267 immediately east of the intersection with Route 61.
Contact: Wakulla Springs State Park and Lodge, 550 Wakulla Park Drive, Wakulla Springs, FL 32305, 850-224-5950.
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park—the park’s official name—honors the man who preserved this site. The park also serves as the de facto flagship park of the Florida State Park System. And rightly so, with its extraordinary springs, abundant bird life, old-growth floodplain forests, refurbished historical lodge, a fleet of tour boats, and other amenities.
From the ranger station near the entrance, the park drive winds through bottomland forest, ending at a large parking lot. On one side of the lot is a broad picnic area under a canopy of tall pines and oaks. On the other side of the lot stands the historical lodge amid low-key landscaping. Beyond the lodge lie a few park buildings and, at the edge of the Wakulla River and the springs, the dock and ticket office for the tour boats.
Wakulla River: eagle nest in cypress.
Directly behind the lodge, paved pathways lined with benches cross the broad lawn that sweeps nearly to the river's edge. There a white sand beach forms an apron along the designated swimming area, where visitors may swim and snorkel. Adjacent to the swimming area, which includes a floating dock, is an observation platform. The tall platform rises just above the springhead and offers fine views downriver.
The centerpiece of the park is Wakulla Springs, which forms a 3-acre pool at the head of Wakulla River. It is one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world and, at peak flow, it can pour out 900 million gallons of water a day. The crystalline water, a constant 70 degrees F at the springhead, flows 9 miles south to meet the St. Marks River. Together they flow 4 miles farther to the Gulf of Mexico.
Wakulla's banks are protected by 700 acres of wetlands and thousands of acres of woodlands, making the whole a refuge for fish, alligators, deer, and, most especially, an extraordinary number of birds. In fact, the springs and its bird life attract visitors worldwide and have been designated a National Natural Landmark.
The springs started attracting attention in 1850, when someone reported seeing the bones of a prehistoric mastodon on the bottom of the pool. Although the river averages only 8-10 feet deep, the water in the springs below the observation platform is 125 feet deep. On a good day, it is possible to see almost to the bottom. The spring angles back under the land, becoming more than 300 feet deep.
Divers have explored more than 25,000 feet of underwater passages and have found a Grand Canyon of a cavern, sixteen stories high, beneath where the lodge stands—a few hundred feet from the shoreline. Divers have also found more mastodon skeletons, as well as the remains of saber-toothed tigers, ancient camels and other Ice Age mammals. Perhaps because of the springs’ depth as well as the remarkable creatures it entombed, Indians who frequented the area gave it the name Wakulla
—“strange land of mysterious waters.” (The park allows only approved research divers.)
The tour boats are one of the park's most popular attractions. From approximately 9:45 A.M. until 4:30 P.M., boat tours leave hourly, taking visitors partway down the Wakulla River and back on a 40-minute trip. The park also offers 25-minute glass-bottom boat tours, but only between 11 A.M. and 3 P.M., when water clarity is best. If rain or other conditions have clouded the water, the glass-bottom boats do not run.
Because the Wakulla River and its environs are so protected, visitors are guaranteed to see a rich variety of bird life, which changes with the seasons. Pied-billed grebes, moorhens, and coots float among spider lilies at the river’s edge. Depending on the season, hooded mergansers, American widgeons, lesser scaups, and other ducks form flotillas on the water. Egrets, herons, white ibis, and anhingas are common.
About fifteen active osprey nests and an active bald eagle nest fill the crotches of trees along the river. The woods are home to owls, hawks, warblers, and myriad other forest birds. Alligators bask in sunny spots along the riverbanks. And below the water swim mullet, gar, freshwater flounder, bluegill, bream, and occasionally sheepshead. The scenery along the Wakulla River is so evocative that three of Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan movies were filmed here, as well as the original Creature of the Black Lagoon.
Visitors who stay overnight may hear the cry of a rare wading bird—the limpkin—looking for a mate. And a stay in the twenty-seven-room lodge is a treat. Financier Edward Ball built the lodge in 1937 as part of the property he was preserving, property that became Wakulla Springs State Park.
Ball wanted to build an elegant lodge, and it shows. Marble surfaces, wrought iron, painted ceilings, and other decorative elements make the lodge—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—more than just a place to spend the night. At one end of the Great Lobby is a gift shop, which also has a soda fountain and sandwich counter. At the other end is the large, full-service dining room, whose dinners alone draw area residents.
From the lodge, a 2.5-mile hiking trail called Hammock Trail meanders through upland hardwoods dominated by beech and magnolia with an understory of dogwood, redbud, and holly. At its farthest end, the trail, which parallels the park road, overlooks a cypress swamp where wood ducks usually swim. A short spur leads to Sally Ward Spring, which flows as Sally Ward Creek into the Wakulla River near the main springs.
At the north end of the park, a biking/hiking trail follows an old service road 6 miles into the heart of the hammock, making a 12-mile roundtrip. Park at the small lot across from the entrance station and ask for a map to this trail. Just inside the park entry fence, a service road gated to keep vehicles out marks the trailhead. The trail parallels Route 267 through hardwood hammock, then makes a diagonal toward the northern banks of the Wakulla River.