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Wading Wakulla Springs

by Ursula Perano | Photography by Dave Barfield

If you’ve been feeling the need to indulge in a day away from the city, you’re in luck. Just the place rests only a 25-minute drive outside of Tallahassee’s center: Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park came into existence in 1937 when the land was purchased by local finance manager Edward Ball. His goal for the area was for it to be developed into a tourist attraction that would provide entertainment while still focusing on the preservation of the surrounding environment. The land remained privately owned by Ball and titled the Wakulla Springs Lodge until 1968, when he agreed to sell it to the Florida Parks System.

The park encompasses the Wakulla Springs, one of which is the most powerful single vent spring in the northern hemisphere and expands to depths of 180 feet below the water’s surface. The springs feed the Wakulla River, which travels several more miles from its starting point before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. Thanks to the pristine conditions of its facilities and surrounding nature, the park itself offers several options for recreation, relaxation, and a good day’s vacation for a family to share. Park admission is only $6 per car with a limit of eight people per car. The cost of admission is reduced to $4 for cars with only one passenger.

The Wakulla Springs Lodge

Upon your arrival you will park in front of the famous Wakulla Springs Lodge, otherwise referred to as North Florida’s castle. Built in Ball’s vision, the building is still reminiscent of its age and truly brings visitors to a different period of time. You’ll open your car door and emerge on a large cream building with rust colored shingles gleaming with Mediterranean Revival style.

A walkway brings you inside to an open, eclectic lobby. Above is a vast ceiling made of cypress wood, and painted with intricate patterns from corner to corner. Below, ornate leather seating is spread across a checkered floor, and a grand piano rests in the corner with the occasional player fingering a tune.

Off to your right will be a check-in desk, which can introduce you to one of the rare luxuries of this historic site: that it is one you can stay all night in. With 27 unique rooms, each equipped with a marble bathroom, antique furniture, and a view of the surrounding 6,000 acres of unspoiled nature, it would surely provide a memorable night for any family to share.

Moving past the Lodge’s foyer you will be presented with two forms of dining. First, you have the option of the Edward Ball Dining Room. As the more formal option of the two, you will be served in a sit-down fashion at decadently clothed tables, and with beautiful open windows, chandeliers, and beamed ceilings surrounding you. With a menu for each meal of the day, the restaurant offers an array of southern cuisine that is sure to satisfy.

For those looking for a quicker option for their eating, the Lodge’s second restaurant remains. Despite the fact that it is referred to as the “Soda Fountain,” one can be sure to find more than just a cup of pop on its premises. At 70 feet-six-inches long, qualifying it as the longest marble soda fountain ever constructed, the bar-style top offers a wide selection of lunch foods, ice cream treats, and sundae-esque creations such as phosphates and yips galore. Legend has it that Edward Ball himself would often come in and order a ginger yip, and then drizzle a swirl of bourbon in on the side.

While waiting for your food you can browse the Lodge’s gift shop, where plenty of unique souvenirs are available to commemorate your wondrous time. To sum up the experience, the Soda Fountain is also home to “Old Joe”—a must-see for Wakulla Springs. Think of him as the park’s mascot. Once the largest gator to inhabit the river at a whopping 11 feet long, he was shot dead during his prime in 1966. Rewards were repeatedly offered for the capture of Old Joe’s killer, but to no avail. He now rests inside a glass display, providing visitors with a truly personal view of one of nature’s most dangerous predators.

Nature Trails

When you find yourself ready to move to the great outdoors, Wakulla Springs offers several nature trails to guide your way. On the western edge of the Lodge’s parking lot you will find a kiosk to outline the routes available to you. Distances vary from one-and-a-half to six miles, and all trails are well cleared and navigable for both experienced and recreational hikers. Along the trails several displays explain the movement of the water throughout the springs, and overlooks provide views of the expansive sinkholes that have developed across the land. Addition ally, plaques follow you along the path explaining what unique forms of plants and wildlife you are experiencing.

As a recommendation though, be sure to bring bug spray to ensure that your hike is a comfortable one. With the density of the forest surrounding you it is likely that you’ll bump into a mosquito or two along the way.

The Waterfront

If you’re looking for an adventure that requires a little less foot-work, then you can simply find a spot on the Wakulla Springs Waterfront. With a large grass lawn
leading up to sandy shores, it is the perfect spot to bring a towel or blanket and lay out. If you’re looking to soak in some sun, you won’t be alone. Weather permitting, the skyline is open and provides a luxurious space to bask in. Alternatively, if you’re looking for sanctuary from the heat, trees offer pleasant, shady spots for enjoyment.

As you venture to the edge of the shore you will find the water that has even more to explore. At a frigid 70 degrees year round, a swim in this oasis is certainly chilling, but still not something you’d want to miss out on. The water expands to treading depths before a rope blocks you from swimming further, which serves to separate humans from the wildlife that inhabits the Wakulla River.

Two platforms are structured at the edge of the swimming area where children and adults alike congregate to stand for a better view of the nature surrounding them, as well as to gain leverage for some rippling cannonballs. To add an edgier twist to the experience of the day, the waterfront also offers a dive tower that is sure to give any adrenaline junkie a rush. Stationed at the very left end of the shore, a winding staircase brings individuals up to flattened terraces with nothing but the open water surrounding them. A lifeguard resides on the tower to ensure that all jumps are being made safely, and that no divers are set to fall on top of another. Nevertheless, with jumps as high as 22 feet, those brave enough to venture up will find themselves shrieking with excitement as they plummet to the bottom.

Boat Tours

As a final feature for the park, Wakulla Springs offers 45-minute narrated boat tours that are a favorite amongst locals and visitors alike. For a small fee ($8 for adults, $5 for children ages 3-12, free for children under 3) you can float away down the Wakulla River on a classic skiff, captained by one of the park’s many knowledgeable guides. For the best luck at wildlife spotting, shoot for the 9:40 a.m. tour to where you are waking up the river. Likewise, for the best photography lighting, try for the 5 p.m. tour. As the last trip out you’re catching the sun as it just begins to dip, giving the landscape a gorgeous glow.

Steering away from the traffic of the shoreline, you will head downriver to encounter magnificent views of all of the plant and animal life that exists. Some creatures you can be sure to see include birdlife such as Anhinga, Common Gallinules, and different breeds of herons, and species of reptiles such as the Suwannee Cooter Turtle and the American Alligator. The Wakulla Spring river boats are the only vessels allowed to navigate through this section of the river, meaning that the species they encounter are otherwise undisturbed and have adapted to the boats’ presence. As a result, the animals do not cower or flee upon encounter, and provide boat passengers with up-close views of a purely wild section of Florida.

Every guide has individually crafted their narration, and feature different moments, anecdotes, and maneuvers. Some as a part of their tour will ask for a moment of silence, where they will turn off the engine so that passengers can listen to the nature surrounding them. Isolated from any resemblance of civilization, it is a moment filled with nothing but blissful birdcalls, tussling winds blowing through the trees and the washing sounds of the water beneath you.

Along the route, narration offers you information on the river’s history, spanning from the area’s first human inhabitants, now known as Paleo Indians, to some of the river’s more recent endeavors. Several sites of archaeological digs can be pointed out along the way, which have uncovered treasures ranging from Native American artifacts to mastodon bones. Additionally, for movie buffs this guide is certainly a treat, as the path back to shore passes through the sets of several classic films such as Creature from the Black Lagoon, Airport ’77, and Tarzan’s Secret Treasure.

At the close of the tour, the boat will turn around directly over one of the two springs that gives the park its name. You’ll be able to look below and be amazed that
beneath the seemingly still surface 3,000 gallons of water are being pumped every second. You will see the water rise from the Earth that we in Tallahassee drink, shower in, cook and brush our teeth with. Serving as a powerful and memorable reminder to take home of the sanctity of nature and the need to preserve it properly.

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