Florida Travel

Florida discoveries: Caverns and mastodon bones at Wakulla Springs

There are a dock and a diving platform near the spring at Wakulla Springs State Park.
There are a dock and a diving platform near the spring at Wakulla Springs State Park. Miami Herald Staff

Wakulla Springs State Park, 14 miles south of Tallahassee, has star quality. It has one of the world’s deepest natural springs — about 185 feet below the surface of the water — and an extensive network of underground caverns. It has the only lodge in the state park system, was the location for the filming of several early Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller and has mastodon bones from the last ice age on the river bottom.

The water is a constant 69 degrees. In winter, it draws manatees, who don’t like the temperature fluctuations in colder waters. In North Florida’s sticky-hot summer, the shock of cold is a relief for visitors who jump into the water from a 22-foot high dive tower.

When the water is clear, the park offers glass-bottom boat tours from which you may be able to see the mastodon bones. But the water is losing its clarity, colored by natural tannins from tributary streams, and it’s been two years since the last glass-bottom boat tour.

“It was very clear here today,” Peter Scalco, park manager, said on Wednesday. “Visibility is about 40 feet.” But to see the bones on an underwater ledge near the spring, he said, visibility has to be about 75 feet down.

People have been taking boat rides to see the springs since the first half of the 19th century. The mastodon bones were spotted in the 1850s. In 1934, Edward Ball, a financier, purchased the property as a wildlife sanctuary and built the Wakulla Springs Lodge. The state bought the land in 1986 and established Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park. The park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is designated as a National Natural Landmark.

Although some activities are seasonal. there’s plenty to see and do year-round. Last year, it had about 250,000 visitors, 60 percent of them in March to September, Scalco said. The 6,000-acre park has nature trails, a picnic pavilion, swimming and boat tours — although these boats don’t have glass bottoms.

By this time of year, downstream waters have warmed, and most manatees — its regular winter inhabitants have numbered 40 to 65 in recent years, Scalco said — have left the park. Migratory birds have departed for their summer homes.

River tour boats run 365 days a year, weather permitting, a three-mile loop downstream and back through bald cypress bearded with Spanish moss, hydrilla, bulrush, pickerel weed and more.

When I visited in March a couple years ago, we saw one manatee from the boat, gliding slowly just below the surface, the sun slicing through the water illuminating its gray skin so it looked almost white. We saw plenty of alligators, one of which swam near the boat and hissed loudly at us. “I don’t want to get bit by that,” said the boy sitting next to me, who looked about 12. The gator eventually turned and headed away from us.

Mullet were jumping. Suwannee cooter turtles sunned themselves on logs. An anhinga that had been diving for fish stood on a snag and spread its wings to dry. Two osprey nested in a treetop many stories above the water. Our guide pointed out wood duck, great egret, cormorant, blue heron, pied-billed grebe and gallinule.

We disembarked at the dock near the spring, where there’s a small beach, a couple of floating docks for swimmers and the diving platform, all crowded with families and a sense of simpler times.

Tip: If you want to see Wakulla’s mastodon bones, visit the Florida Museum of History in Tallahassee (www.museumoffloridahistory.com, currently closed for construction but reopening in July), where an almost complete mastodon skeleton from Wakulla Springs is on display.

If you go

Information: www.floridastateparks.org/park/Wakulla-Springs, http://wakullasprings.org.

Wakulla Springs Lodge (850-421-2000, www.wakullaspringslodge.com) has 27 guest rooms, each with private bath but no televisions. Rooms from $95.