Back in 1513, the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon led an expedition into what became Florida, allegedly questing for the legendary “Fountain of Youth.” Ponce de Leon Springs are named for him, and when you take a dip here in the state park established around them, what’s the harm in thinking you just may be staving off a few wrinkles—maybe even tacking on a couple of years—in the process?
Florida lays claim to the world’s greatest concentration of freshwater springs—at least, the largest number of springs of any comparable area on the planet. We’re talking more than 700, the majority in the northern part of the state. At Ponce de Leons Springs, a pair of groundwater channels join and gush out of the major outlet to the tune of 14 million gallons per day, feeding a spring-run creek that empties into Sandy Creek. (That blackwater stream, in turn, flows just about due south to the Choctawhatchee River.)
The water in the pool here remains a steady 68 degrees Fahrenheit year-round: a bit chilly in the winter—though hardier souls still soak here then—but incredibly refreshing on a sweltering summer day on the Panhandle.
There’s quite a bit of interesting history woven into the roughly 400 acres of Ponce de Leon Springs State Park. American Indians and early Euro-American settlers certainly utilized the area. In the 1800s and early 1900s, the longleaf pines of the surrounding sandhills supported both significant logging and the turpentining industry: Resin extracted from the pines was used to distill turpentine, once an important ingredient in glue, paint, ink, and a host of other products. (“Catface” scars from this resin extraction can still be seen on some of the park’s pines.) A railroad line once ran through the park area as well.
The springs themselves were first developed for tourism by the Smithgall family who owned the land back in the 1920s; they even added a skating rink here, but it as well as the Smithgalls’ restaurant are long gone.
The park’s divided into two basic units separated by I-10; the smaller northern parcel contains the springs and the developed facilities, but a hiking loop and tubing access are planned for the larger southern parcel along Sandy Creek.
Especially in summer, you’ll typically find lots of folks lounging at Ponce de Leon Springs. The swimming hole includes concrete stairs and an accessible ramp, and there’s a large restroom facility that includes changing rooms. Many visitors strap on snorkeling gear for a more immersive look at the crystal-clear waters. There are three reservable picnic pavilions and numerous picnic tables on hand.
Obviously, those perennially balmy spring waters are the main attraction, but you’ll be rewarded for exploring the rest of the small park as well. Two nature trails, the Spring Run and Sandy Creek paths, loop through the shady riparian and bottomland forest under black gums, catalpas, water oaks, bald cypresses, red maples, and other trees. Bring a pair of binoculars along to more thoroughly enjoy the park’s rich birdlife: It lies along the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail and is especially renowned as a place to see wintering birds from the north on the southern fringes of their range, including golden-crowned kinglets, winter wrens, and brown creepers. Keep an eye out for the schedule of ranger-led hikes along the nature trails.
Outside designated swimming areas, you can also cast a line in Ponce de Leon Springs State Park (with a fishing license, of course); you might haul in such prizes as largemouth bass, bluegill, chain pickerel, and catfish.
The Ponce de Leon Springs State Park is far from the biggest recreation destination in Florida, and it can be on the busy side, but between cool-off dips in the pool and pleasant nature appreciation along the trails, it’s definitely worth a stop if you happen to be cruising I-10!
-As mentioned, Ponce de Leon Springs State Park can be quite crowded during the summer, and with peak visitation, you may have trouble finding a parking space if you’re driving an RV. Come early in the day if you want a bit more elbow room.
-While you’re highly unlikely to experience any trouble from them, American alligators do inhabit the park. If you’re taking to the trails along the spring run or Sandy Creek with small children, keep a watchful eye on them.
-When looking up directions or otherwise planning your visit here, don’t confuse Ponce de Leon Springs State Park with the VERY similarly named De Leon Springs State Park in central Florida.