Although Florida has a relatively short history, there is evidence of human settlement beside De Leon Springs for over 6,000 years. Looking at the tall palms, prickly shrubs, and mass of dense roots in the swampy wetland. You can appreciate the struggle that the native Indians, European settlers and their slaves had in order to tame the hostile jungle environment. The Visitor Centre at De Leon Springs State Park tells the story with excellent exhibits, old photographs, and quotes from the early settlers far better than I can possibly describe, so don’t miss a visit to this informative museum/information center overlooking the bubbling springs.
After walking past dozens of picnic tables on the short grass, the first sight to greet visitors is the large circular swimming pool that nature, with a little help from man, has created. The pool is about 60 feet across and ranges from 2-30 feet in depth. The water is incredibly clear and towards the center of the pool it gently simmers, indicating where the springs, under great force, bubble up from the giant aquifer on which Florida is built.
There is no shortage of entry points to the swimming area for would-be swimmers: steps, ladders, diving stations, and a gentle ramp are spaced at intervals around the pool, which incidentally remains at 72°F all year round. Most visitors come here to walk the trails, enjoy a picnic in this peaceful natural park or swim, snorkel, and dive in the crystal clear waters under the watchful eye of a lifeguard in the summer season. Fishing can be enjoyed from the shore or fishing pier, and judging by the shoals of fish I saw hanging out under the walkway, it should be fairly easy to hook a good catch.
The giant swimming pool empties in a gushing cascade over natural rocks into the main flow which becomes the St Johns River. This is where kayaks and paddleboats are available for hire (there are 18,000 acres of lakes, creeks, and marshes just waiting to be explored) and where the boat trips on the M/V Acuera pontoon boat start. The 50-minute eco/history tours take visitors on a peaceful journey through the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. Capt. Frank is skilled in the art of spotting turtles, manatees, alligators, otters, herons, egrets, coots, and ospreys that all call this area “home” and he provides an informative narrative during the tour. Boat trips cost $14 per person over the age of 4.
Those wanting some more strenuous exercise can hike the ½ mile paved nature trail. Take the detour along the short boardwalk to see “Old Methuselah,” a huge bald cypress tree that is over 500 years old. Returning to the main trail, head out beneath the shady live oaks on the footpath, which is liberally covered in pine needles and pine cones, to Monkey Island. There is a much longer and more arduous 4.2 mile Wild Persimmon Trail Loop through the surrounding lowlands. The area is full of red maples, sweet gums, magnolias with their fragrant white blooms in early summer, cabbage palms, water hickories, and cypress trees, their “knees” clearly visible above the still waters. Azaleas were also planted here between the 1930s and the 1960s, adding a splash of showy color in early spring.
Facing the Visitor Center and the spotless restrooms is the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant. It is in the wooden mill-style building which still has the original huge waterwheel on the side. The sensibly-priced menu includes salads, hot sandwiches such as BLT or the popular All You Can Eat Pancakes for $4.95 with honey, syrup, or molasses.
Checkout my latest collection of Favorite Days Out in Central Florida which were all suggested by residents of The Villages. Available from local bookstores, Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com and as a downloadable ebook.