At Wakulla Springs, Florida’s mysterious, primordial beauty has been preserved in a rustic, 1940s-era setting. The place has always been a tourist attraction, but commercialism is kept a minimum. Financier Edward Ball built a Spanish-style lodge and resort here in 1937, and the state took over control just a few years ago. All along, the emphasis has been on conservation.
The state park, located 12 miles south of Tallahassee, surrounds one of the world’s largest natural springs. The lodge overlooks an expansive lawn and swimming area, complete with a diving and observation platform.
The enormous spring covers three acres and fans out into a delightful garden of cypress trees that looks as though it was carefully planned at the beginning of time to serve a primarily decorative function.
The spring’s name comes from a Seminole word that most likely means, “Mysteries of Strange Water.” The place had been enjoyed by native Americans for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.
Ponce De Leon twice visited the site, perhaps hoping it would prove to be the Fountain of Youth. On his second trip, in 1521, he discovered quite the opposite. A battle with the local Indians ensued, and De Leon was hit by an arrow that would cost him his life.
Two boat tours operate daily, and both are worthwhile. The 2-mile Wakulla River tour is far more scenic than comparable rides at Silver Springs or Weeki Wachee. You’ll see an abundance of wildlife, including a host of birds and alligators. During the winter, the spring becomes a prime spot for bird watching as thousands of migrating species pass through.
Some of the scenery here will probably look familiar, since it was the backdrop for several movies. Wakulla was the other-worldly setting for “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Tarzan and the Leopard Lady” and even part of “Airport ’77.”
The glass-bottom boat tour operates when the water is clear, and offers visitors a glimpse into the 185-foot depths of the spring. Wakulla is one of the world’s largest freshwater springs, and back in 1973 it produced more than a billion gallons of water a day.
The network of caves here have been explored to depths of 300 feet and to a distance of almost a mile. Many Ice Age fossils have been found in the cavern, and mastodon bones can be seen from the glass bottom boat.
After the boat ride, the park still offers many diversions. Though the water is a chilly 70 degrees, there is an excellent swimming area. If you’d like to wander the forest on foot, there’s a 6-mile hiking trail. There are also ample picnic grounds.
The formal Azalea Dining Room in the lodge is well known for its Deep South cuisine and seafood. Meals are moderately priced, and the dining room is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.