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Reel Time on the Road: Wakulla Springs and Florida’s Big Bend

Reel Time on the Road: Wakulla Springs and Florida's Big Bend
Wakulla Springs Run perfectly reflects the Spanish moss-covered cypress trees that line its banks. – Rusty Chinnis | Sun

On the shore of San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park, where the Wakulla and St. Marks Rivers converge in Florida’s Big Bend, I was struck by the vast and tranquil swamp and distant hammocks. This was a Florida that, with a little imagination, could be pictured unchanged since Spanish explorer Panfilo de Narvaez arrived in the area in 1528 with 300 men. The peaceful “silence” was unbroken except for the rustling of the reeds in the wind advancing front and the occasional sound of a distant outboard motor. The serenity was even more compelling with the knowledge that so many bloody battles had been fought here over the centuries.

The definition of Florida’s “Big Bend” varies by source, but in this narrative it encompasses an area of ​​Florida’s coast from south of Perry to Apalachicola. This stretch of coast lacks the barrier islands that most commonly define the state, instead being fringed by a chain of swamps and cypress hammocks criss-crossed by headwaters. The St. Marks and Wakulla Rivers are modern day reminders of the best of wild Florida. St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge preserves a increasingly rare wild and natural shoreline on the Gulf of Florida. Of all these, Wakulla Springs, fringed with ancient cypress trees adorned with coiling Spanish moss, is the jewel in the necklace.

Having gone to college in nearby Tallahassee, I had explored this area for years, but for some reason I had never visited Wakulla Springs. It was even on the short list of places we considered when we got married. For this reason my wife Chris and I decided to visit when the ‘aftermath’ of Hurricane Ian caused us to change our fall break plans. Once again, a cancellation of plans became a blessing in disguise.

Native Americans lived on the land around the spring for thousands of years before the first explorers arrived. Wakulla Springs is one of the deepest and largest freshwater springs in the world world and was bought by financier Ed Ball in 1937. Ball had traveled the world and considered the spring and surrounding land to be the most serene place he had ever visited. He built the 1930s Spanish-style Wakulla Springs Lodge as a guest house, hiring artisans and craftsmen and importing the finest US marble from Tennessee. An elegant retreat with 27 unique guest rooms has been created with a grand lobby whose high ceiling is painted with murals depicting Florida scenes.

Beginning in 1941, filmmakers were drawn to the property’s original atmosphere, making films such as Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). In 1986 Florida bought the spring and land and it became a state park.

Today, visitors can swim with manatees where mastodons once were Roam and take guided boat tours where dugout canoes once navigated the river. During our tour we encountered alligators, numerous fish, manatees and an assortment of birds.

A visit to the lodge is a step back in time with its antique furniture, original elevator and rooms without the ubiquitous television. We found the ambiance of the historic lodge and grounds to be extremely relaxing and were grateful for the absence of the TV, although Wi-Fi is available. The restaurant food was excellent and the natural amenities surrounding the area were a bonus.

After nearly six decades in Florida, it was refreshing to return to a familiar yet new place where Florida could be experienced with “new eyes.” Go online for more information.

Rusty Chinnis is a columnist for The Sun’s Outdoors. E-mail

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