The outstanding feature of this 625 acre park is the spring, overlooking beautiful Spring Garden Run, producing 19 million gallons of water a day at 72 degrees year-round. A paddling trail provides access to the 22,000 acre Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge, with lakes, creeks and marshes to explore.
Visitors may notice an abundance of white or gray snail shells in the ground as they walk the nature trails. This is evidence of centuries of occupation by Native American groups who came to the spring to gather food. They would cook the snails and discard piles of shells. Two dugout canoes found in the spring are among the oldest canoes in America (5,000 and 6,000 years old).
Native people known as the Mayaca lived here for at least 6,000 years. The Mayacas occupied an area in the upper St. Johns River valley just to the south of Lake George. According to Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, the Mayaca language was related to that of the Ais, a tribe living along the Atlantic coast of Florida to the southeast of the Mayacas. They were hunter-fisher-gatherers, and were not known to practice agriculture to any significant extent, unlike their neighbors to the north, the Utina or Agua Dulce (Freshwater) Timucua. (In general, agriculture had not been adopted by tribes living south of the Timucua at the time of first contact with European people.) The Mayaca shared a ceramics tradition (the St. Johns culture) with the Freshwater Timucua, rather than the Ais (the Indian River culture).
England took possession of Florida from 1763 to 1783, but did not occupy this area. Spain regained control in 1783 and land grants were given to U.S. citizens, starting with William Williams, who had 2020 acres here, along with the first enslaved Africans. He named his property Spring Garden Plantation. Subsequent owners further developed the plantation, planting cotton and sugarcane. John James Audubon visited the plantation in 1832, exploring the waterways and painting the limpkin.
The first water-powered sugar mill in Florida was built here in 1832. (Some of the brickwork and machinery is preserved behind the on-site restaurant.) In 1835, Seminoles attacked the plantation, destroying the mill and stealing slaves and cattle. Troops under the command of General Zachary Taylor finally drove the Seminoles out two years later. The mill was rebuilt in 1849 and continued to produce cotton and sugar, with up to 100 slaves performing the work. During the Civil War, in April, 1864, Union troops, upon hearing the owner was providing supplies to the Confederate Army, destroyed the plantation. This was known as Birney's Raid.
By the late 1800s, Spring Garden became a tourist destination with a steamboat and the railroad providing transportation to the area. To attract tourists, local residents changed the name from Spring Garden to Ponce de Leon Springs and referred to the spring as the Fountain of Youth. The Ponce de Leon Springs Hotel and Casino was built in 1925 ("casino" refers to a large room for events and dining, not gambling). With only 14 rooms, it catered to the wealthier northern visitors. The property became one of over one hundred roadside attractions in the state when it opened as Ponce de Leon Springs in 1953. It featured tropical gardens, a jungle cruise, tram tour, and a water skiing elephant! Interstate highways and air travel combined to cause the attraction to close after about 16 years. The property was then operated as a private recreational park until 1982, when the State of Florida and Volusia County purchased 55 acres that became De Leon Springs State Park. Additional land purchased to protect the spring resulted in the park's current size of 625 acres.
Visitors can hike the 4.2 mile Wild Persimmon Hiking Trail or take a leisurely stroll on the one-half mile paved Nature Trail to see the 600 year-old cypress tree. A Butterfly Garden has about 500 plants for the benefit of resident and migrating butterflies and hummingbirds. Interpretation of cultural and natural history is provided via kiosks and signs throughout the park and by exhibits in the Visitor Center. Park Ranger programs, covering a variety of topics, are offered during the Fall and Winter months.
PLAN YOUR VISIT
601 Ponce de Leon Blvd. De Leon Springs, FL 32130
PHONE: (386) 985-4212
HOURS: The park is open every day from 8:00am to sunset.
page information credit: Florida State Parks, Florida Hikes (floridahikes.com) Viera Voice, John C Karjanis
photos from the sources listed above, as well as publicly posted online sites with thanks to the contributors