Ponce de Leon Springs State Park
By Phil Tatman
That’s what the locals in Holmes County in Northwest Florida call Ponce de Leon Springs State Park. Its aquifer-fed spring is a huge swimming pool that attracts carloads of teenagers and lots of families with smaller children who seek to enjoy the always 68-degree water on humid Florida days.
The park is open from 8 a.m. to dusk year-round and the 41-space parking lot fills up quickly on weekends.
Even on a partly cloudy Friday, the lot showed license plates from North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Alabama, New York, Mississippi, Minnesota and California.
"This park is a gem '' said Minneapolis resident Scott James who drove down from the Midwest with his family to visit more family in DeFuniak Springs. “Ponce is better than the beach because there is no saltwater and no jellyfish. At most state park lakes you would not want to swim in that water. But this is tremendous.''
There are no lifeguards but the spring swimming area is mostly three feet deep. It drops off to 25 feet just past the cypress tree which is where snorkeling is allowed.
Park crowds have been steady.
Two small trails -- Sandy Creek and Spring Run -- meander around the spring. There actually is a Sandy Creek going through the entire park where visitors can fish from the bank for bluegill bass and catfish.
Officially there is no camping. But three sites are available through the Florida Park Service.
Ponce de Leon Springs occupies 386 acres but two thirds of it is in the ''south end '' which is not open to the public. The most southern part a 155-acre rectangle is in Walton County.
Miller provided a one-hour mobile tour of the park’s fire roads to display Ponce's "real Florida.''
The Smithgall family owned the land in the 1920s and leased it to the logging and turpentine industries. The Smithgalls opened the spring to the public after they constructed a wooden retaining wall around it to prevent erosion.
"The area was clear cut of timber in the late 1930s and long-leaf pine trees were replanted in the 1940s '' said Miller 38 a lifelong Holmes County resident who lives in a house on park property with his wife and two teenage children. "There was also a railroad spur through here.''
One can still see metal pans used to collect sap from pine trees which had their bark torn off in a pattern that looks like the face of a cat.
"I gave a tour of the area to 300 kids from Ponce de Leon Elementary School on May 17 '' Miller said. "I really enjoy showing off the plants and animals we have here and how we do controlled burns.''
Gopher tortoise nests are marked with green-tipped sticks. There are an estimated 2 000 in the park.
Several poisonous and non-poisonous snakes also make their home here.
The Atlanta Botanical Gardens and AmeriCorps helped reintroduce carnivorous pitcher plants to Ponce in 2010 and 2012. Now the purple red and parrot pitcher plants are thriving. They attract insects and ingest them.
"I hope to get some trails in the south end so we can open it to the public '' Miller said. “I’m working on our 10-year master plan. I would like to have kayaking and tubing on Sandy Creek. I paddled a kayak down the creek last summer and it was incredible. But everything takes funding and that is not easy to obtain.''
IF YOU GO
What: Ponce de Leon Springs State Park
Where: 2860 Ponce de Leon Springs Road Ponce de Leon
Contact: Call 850-836-4281 or visit floridastateparks.org/poncedeleonsprings/