DIS­COV­ER­ING NORTH­ERN FLORIDA

Tal­la­has­see’s Wakulla Springs is end­less dis­cov­er­ies, world’s long­est soda foun­tain, about 400 miles from South­west Florida

RSWLiving - - Features - BY ANN MARIE O’PHEL AN

Tal­la­has­see’s Wakulla Springs is end­less dis­cov­er­ies, world’s long­est soda foun­tain, about 400 miles from South­west Florida

Near Tal­la­has­see, in the Ed­ward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, lies one of the world’s largest and deep­est fresh-wa­ter springs. Be­low the wa­ter’s sur­face is a se­cre­tive maze of cav­erns. “The cave en­trance is pur­ported to be 185 feet be­neath the wa­ter’s sur­face, is large enough to en­com­pass a four-lane high­way, and pours about 200,000 gal­lons of wa­ter from its mouth ev­ery minute,” says Jeff Hugo, a Park Ser­vices spe­cial­ist. “Its mys­te­ri­ous wa­ters have fu­eled hu­man imag­i­na­tion for mil­len­nia.”

The spring wa­ter in one area of the 6,000-acre park feeds a large pond, de­light­ing those div­ing into it from a 22-foot ob­ser­va­tion deck. There are also river­boat pas­sen­gers rid­ing through the pro­tected cor­ri­dor of the Wakulla River; hik­ers, bik­ers and horse­back riders ex­plor­ing the many woodsy trails; sun­bathers on the grassy beach; snorkel­ers ob­serv­ing tur­tles and fish; guests stay­ing at the his­toric lodge in its pe­riod charm, each vis­i­tor cap­ti­vated by the cool (69 de­grees) springs. “Any visit to the Tal­la­has­see area is in­com­plete with­out a visit to the iconic Ed­ward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park [and lodge],” says Martha Robin­son, com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager with Florida Park Ser­vice, which man­ages nearly 800,000 acres of trails, parks and beaches in the Sun­shine State.

The lodge at Wakulla Springs is a slice of the Na­tional Nat­u­ral Land­marks Pro­gram and is also listed on the Na­tional Regis­ter of His­toric Places. The lodge was built in 1937 by fi­nancier Ed­ward Ball, designing it to pre­serve wildlife and sur­round­ing habi­tat. Ball left an es­ti­mated $200 mil­lion estate at his death in 1981. The lodge has 27 rooms with pri­vate baths, pe­riod fur­ni­ture and no tele­vi­sions. There’s a lobby grand pi­ano (a pi­anist on Thurs­days, Fri­days and Satur­days), mar­ble checker tables and a large fire­place. Guests dine in the Ed­ward Ball Din­ing Room, which once was his pri­vate room and still has a spe­cial closet where he hid bour­bon dur­ing Pro­hi­bi­tion. The din­ing room over­looks the springs.

A fun treat is sit­ting at the world’s long­est mar­ble coun­ter­top (70 feet, 6 inches), where root beer floats, ice cream and ginger yips are served at the authen­tic soda foun­tain. And those wish­ing to pack a pic­nic or fire up a grill can do so at the “Old Joe” out­door pic­nic pavil­ions.

Daily river­boat tours of­fer pas­sen­gers 45-minute rides through the pro­tected cor­ri­dor of the Wakulla River, an 11-mile river that runs through Wakulla County. “A boat-ride tour is a na­ture pho­tog­ra­pher’s de­light,” ex­plains Hugo. Boats gen­tly float by the river’s edge of flour­ish­ing flora and fauna, by wad­ing birds like an­hin­gas, grebes and col­or­ful wood ducks, by man­a­tees dur­ing the win­ter months, even by white­tail deer, wild tur­keys and other wildlife such as al­li­ga­tors along the shore­line.

Hik­ers can par­take in nine miles of easy-to-mod­er­ate trails in the park, which are at their best in the fall, win­ter and spring months.

“A walk along the park’s trails can in­tro­duce one to the tow­er­ing lon­gleaf pine in the uplands, mag­nif­i­cent an­cient hard­woods in the old-growth beach/mag­no­lia for­est, and the long-lived bald cy­press in the red maple/cy­press swamp, ” says Hugo.

Park hik­ers can ex­pect to ob­serve mush­rooms, lichens, or­chids and beech drops, which is a small plant with tiny pink flow­ers and brown stems that con­tains no chloro­phyll, in­stead re­ceiv­ing nour­ish­ment from beech tree roots. “It is cer­tainly one of the more un­usual or­gan­isms in the woods,” says Hugo.

Visi­tors to Ed­ward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park will find ex­cit­ing dis­cov­er­ies just a few hours from South­west Florida. “[You] could stay for a week and not dis­cover all the joys of this 6,000-acre park and spring,” adds Robin­son.

—Martha Robin­son, com­mu­ni­ca­tions man­ager with Florida Park Ser­vice Any visit to the Tal­la­has­see area is in­com­plete with­out a visit to the iconic Ed­ward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park [and lodge].”

Wakulla Springs is per­fect for swim­ming and cool­ing off.

Wakulla Springs Lodge (top left) was built in 1937 by Ed­ward Ball, a wealthy fi­nancier. A div­ing plat­form (top right) is pop­u­lar with younger visi­tors. Pad­dling ad­ven­tures (bot­tom) are big fun in north Florida’s Wakulla River, a short ride from Tal­la­has­see.

Wakulla River trips are a wildlife pho­tog­ra­pher’s dream. Boat cap­tains also bring fun to the 55-minute ride.

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