Time moves at a slower pace here. Boats drift down the river for wildlife viewing, undisturbed beyond the park tours, folks enjoy drinks in the lobby or a banana split on the original 1936 soda fountain bar, while some sit springside on the beach and others lounge on the floating docks or dive off the crazy high platform.
Spanish moss drapes huge oak and cypress trees, manatees visit the swim area and gators keep their distance on the banks beyond. The one TV in the lodge, situated in the lobby, plays 1941’s Tarzan or 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, which were both filmed at Wakulla. Visiting Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park is a taste of old Florida, not just a generic throwback.
Most people seem to stop in for a day or two, but we easily spent four nights and three and half days here. It’s a great stopping point for road trippers, or as a destination unto itself. Flights to Tallahassee, the closest airport, are limited, but we managed it from Chicago with one stop in Atlanta. Cabs at the Tallahassee airport were limited but available, even with our 11:45 p.m. arrival, and it took about 25 minutes to drive to the lodge. We arrived the Thursday before Labor Day, and waited on my family to arrive on Friday, as a surprise trip for my sister’s 18th birthday.
One of the largest and deepest natural springs, Wakulla Springs feeds out of the Florida Aquaifer and forms the head of the Wakulla River.
Even during Labor Day weekend, the beach and swim area were not over crowded. Yes, there were plenty of people, but we had no trouble finding a spot for our beach chairs, or a place on the floating docks.
The beach is grassy sand, with both sun and shade available. Two large floating docks offer additional space for sun bathing or just cannon balling into the water. The two story dive platform has a lower jump, 8 feet or so, and a higher one at about 22 feet. Looking up at the 22 foot platform, it doesn’t seem so high. Once I got up there though, the jump took my breath away (and I almost lost my bikini top on impact)!
The water clarity varies on the season and rainfall, sometimes crystal clear and other times, sort of a tea-color. At a chilly 69 degrees, jumping off the dive platform may be the best way to acclimate to the temperature! Swimming is only permitted in the designated areas, which keeps the people in but not necessarily the creatures out. Don’t take this the wrong way! The alligators keep clear, although we did site one in the swim area after the park closed. They shy away from the general commotion of people jumping into the water, laughing and yelling. In addition, several different park rangers told us the gators actually learn where not to go, as the rangers will remove any that stray near the swim zone during opening hours. That said, always remember it is gator country. Don’t swim at dusk, dawn, or in the dark, and don’t swim alone!
Gators aside, other more delightful visitors enter the swim area- manatees! Evidently, they are most common during winter, but two of three days we were there several manatees visited the swim area. It was beyond awesome! The lifeguards will blow their whistles when the manatees enter and stop divers on the platforms. However, as long as you keep a respectful distance, no one seemed to mind if people swam with them. In fact, the critters seem attracted to people, curious and interested. One swam within a few feet of me, stayed there for a couple minutes and then moved on. I’m so sorry not to have had my camera ready! In the same day, one approached a snorkeler and literally went face to face with him, before swimming down the length of his body and lightly hitting him in the face with its back tail! If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t think that was real.
The river boat tours leave every hour and run about 50 minutes. They head a mile or two downstream, before turning around. The river beyond the turning point is a true animal sanctuary. No one enters that section of the river, minus a ranger trip a couple times a year to count animals and such. It is one of the last truly wild Florida rivers. Further down, there is a fence across the river, marking the end of the park.
I would have taken the tour more than once, if the rest of the family had been willing. We saw so much wildlife- countless gators, seven manatees, turtles and many different birds. It feels like another place, the Amazon maybe? Wild and undisturbed. We took the first tour of the day, 9:40 a.m., but I heard people on later trips also comment on the amount of wildlife.
There are several trails within the park. The first, right by the parking lot, takes you to a very small sinkhole, which was dry when we were there. It’s barely more than a few steps from the lodge parking.
We took one hike right after sunrise to the Sally Ward Spring Run. It was a well maintained trail, until it crossed the spring. It was a lovely quiet morning hike to the spring, where we saw lots of jumping mullet. No manatees or gators, although the rangers say they can be seen.
You needn’t go far for early morning serenity though. Each morning I grabbed my coffee and headed out to the dive platform for great views of the quiet spring. The park doesn’t open until 8am, so staying at the lodge allows you a chance to experience the peacefulness before and after it’s open and closed to day trippers.
There is also a longer trail, but we didn’t look for it. The mosquitoes were terrible in the woods, after the sun came up. Surprisingly, that was the only spot they were a bother.
First off, this is a historic hotel that has maintained its old timey feel. The lobby is beautiful, with hand painted scenes on the wood beamed ceiling, chesterfield sofas and a huge granite fireplace. All the staff were very friendly and helpful!
That said, during our August 2018 visit, the restaurant was severely understaffed. They tried their best and were as nice as they could be, but breakfast took anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, coffee ran out, spoons were unavailable and items ordered were forgotten. It was so bad one morning it was almost funny. During dinner they seemed to have their act together. However, they don’t appear to have a dedicated bartender (or bar for that matter). A few nights we ordered mixed drinks- we shouldn’t have! They do have wine, and local Florida beer and cider, which was nice. More importantly, though the food is delicious! The best pancakes I’ve had, excellent shrimp and grits, very tasty grouper sandwiches, pecan pie, peanut butter ice cream and more. I hope they will hire more staff, but either way, the food is worth some delays!
The restaurant itself is true to the historic theme, with big band music in the background and formal tablecloths and place settings. One Saturday night, live music from the lobby drifted in.
The restaurant serves three meals daily, while the soda fountain serves snacks and limited lunch items, such as burgers and nachos. There is also a small outbuilding that sells beach gear and hotdogs, while the main giftshop is within the lodge. The lodge seems to try to plan special events, having had a local beer pairing before we arrived and holding a pig roast on the lawn Saturday while we were there. It was good food and I thought it was so cute how they setup chiavari chairs and white table clothed tables outside. They also hold Tacos and Trivia every Thursday night, which we sadly missed, as well as a couple ranger led presentations during the weekend. They don’t seem to publicize the events online, so I recommend calling if you need to know before arrival.
The hotel rooms don’t have TVs, but WiFi is available. We booked one of the rooms with a double bed and a twin, because those were the cheapest. These are the most basic rooms, but were very clean. We asked to switch rooms on our first morning, because we had a room with an adjoining door to the room next door. It must have been paper thin, as we could hear every move the other guests made- from whispering to each other to their baby screaming. Our second room looked just like the first, but luckily we couldn’t hear any unhappy babies or other guests in general. We first had room 36 (adjoining) and then 45.
Outside the Park
We only ventured out twice, but it was well worth it!
Cherokee Sink trail is only about a 6 minute drive from the lodge. From the parking lot, it’s a one mile hike to the 77 foot deep sink hole. While swimming is banned, it seems to be a common practice.
There is no attendant onsite, so be sure to bring cash for the $4 usage fee.
Our hike started out on a cloudy afternoon, but about ½ mile in, a typical Florida thunderstorm (deluge?) overtook us. Figuring we might as well continue, since we were at the half way point, we hiked on. My husband fished a plastic bag out of garbage can (ugh!) to protect his iPhone, although I made him thoroughly sanitize it upon return!
Seeing Cherokee Sink during the storm was a unique and memorable experience! As we circled the sink through the woods on an unclear path, the storm intensified, with the thunder so loud I could feel it! Lightning streaked overhead, and it was one of the few times I’m questioned our decision to adventure on. Nonetheless, the storm rolled past, we weren’t stuck by lightning, and I’m glad we went. You can walk the entire perimeter of the sink, and there is a small viewing platform on the far side. In addition, there is a 19th century cemetery, although completely overgrown.
On the return hike, we spotted wild turkey, a young buck and almost walked into enormous spider webs spun across the trail! The spiders were huge- I’m sure glad I didn’t survive a lightning storm to be scared to death by a gigantic spider across my face!
Spring Creek Restaurant- A Farewell
On our last night, we drove to Spring Creek Restaurant, in Crawfordville. I loved it! Sadly, the restaurant closed in 2019 following Hurricane Michael. It had been open for 41 years, and served delicious fresh fish and mouthwatering tomato pie.
If you’re looking for other options beyond the park, there are plenty. To name a few: Natural Bridge Battlefield Historic State Park, St. Marks Lighthouse (you can now climb it, after it was closed for restoration) and St. Mark’s village, numerous fishing charters, and all types and sizes of beaches.