Deleon Springs: A Hike and a Swim in ‘Old Florida’

Being an outdoorsy kind of girl who spent most of my life on lakes, rivers and trails in Arkansas, I enjoy exploring my new environment in Florida and sharing my love of nature with my son. Invariably, when I report one of our adventures to one of my Floridian friends, they’ll sigh wistfully and say something about that particular place being “a bit of ‘Old Florida.’ ” I’m not exactly sure what they mean by “Old Florida,” but I’m guessing it has a lot to do with giant, moss-covered live oaks and not so much to do with condominiums and strip malls. It’s all still fairly new to me, and I’m trying to see as much of it as I can while it’s still here. (Not condos and strip malls, but they cannot be avoided.)

Inspired by my son, who was inspired by a run of hiking- and camping-themed PBS cartoon programming the other day, I dug out one of my hiking books to see if there was a new trail to explore nearby.  “A Hiking Guide to the Trails of Florida” by Elizabeth F. Carter is a trusty old standby that I purchased when I first moved to Florida. I was intrigued by the description of the Wild Persimmon Trail, described as a moderate-difficulty, 4.4-mile trail in Deleon Springs State Park. Over the years I’d heard about the park, which features a large spring-fed swimming area and picnic tables under big live oaks. A morning hike followed by a picnic lunch and a swim in the spring sounded like the perfect day trip for Trevor and me.

Deleon Springs State Park nature trail by Laurie Sterbens

Tall oaks, palms and ferns line the nature trail at Deleon Springs State Park.

Despite the planned hike, I woke up early and went to the gym while Trevor and his dad were still sleeping. In my former life, hiking could be a vigorous workout. Hiking with a 6-year-old boy is more of an exercise in patience: Walk six feet, see a bug. Agree this is a cool bug. Repeat.

One of the highlights, for me, of our planned outing was that it provided a perfect opportunity to use our picnic backpack. I love the picnic backpack. It opens up to reveal everything you need for a lovely romantic wine-and-cheese picnic, with insulated storage and even a wine-bottle-sized pocket on the side. Trouble is, most of the places where you might go to have a picnic in Florida are run by the state and alcohol is prohibited. And of course I’m not going to head out in the early morning to chug wine with a small child anyway. But my water bottle fits in that side pocket, and the picnic backpack suited our purpose perfectly, filled with sandwiches, snacks and juice box drinks for Trevor.

There is a restaurant right next to the swimming area at Deleon Springs State Park, the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant, and I’d heard for years about the wonderful pancakes that diners can make themselves on griddles at each table. Lunch is also served there, but since I was in both money- and calorie-conserving mode, I opted to pack lunch for this trip. Also, we just wanted to have a picnic. We have the backpack.

When we arrived at the park I requested a map from the park attendant and was dismayed to find that the small map in the brochure didn’t indicate specifically where the Wild Persimmon Trail was located. A quick drive through the park revealed only entrances to the park’s shorter, paved nature trail. Since we had arrived a little later than anticipated and not seeing a choice, we decided we’d just walk the nature trail before lunch and swimming.

We eventually found an unpaved path when we attempted to avoid a large group of teenage boys from a youth group picnic who’d decided to explore the nature trail at the same time. Nothing can destroy a peaceful nature stroll like a stampeding herd of teenage boys. We ducked onto a trail beyond a sign that said it led to a place once known as “Monkey Island.” (I later learned that back in the 1950s the park had a “jungle cruise” that led past an area where several monkeys were kept. I believe this is an example of that “Old Florida” people keep talking about.)

We followed the trail to its apparent end and found, oddly, some sort of wooden table or bench, and large fallen trees blocking the road. No island, no monkeys. Disappointment. But we did enjoy the trail along the way, with its tall oaks, twisting palms and huge, brilliant green ferns. It felt like a giant Jurassic-sized dragonfly might buzz by at any moment. Trevor happily spotted large spiderwebs every 10 feet or so, and I agreed that the spiders were cool.

By this time we realized I’d forgotten a crucial step in Florida wetland hiking procedure: I’d left the bug spray in the car. Our casual stroll under the palms became an urgent speed walk back to the car before insects devoured my child. It was then that we found the entrance to the Wild Persimmon Trail. A sign posted at the trailhead stated that this hike would take about three hours, so it would have to wait for another day, and probably for a companion older than 6.

We chose a picnic table in the shade of the park’s many massive, ancient live oak trees, with a view of the swimming area, which, despite it being a weekday, was lively and noisy with group picnics and families. Beyond the swimming area, canoers paddled in the Spring Garden Run. Canoe, kayak and paddleboat rentals are available at the park for exploring the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. For us, canoe rental was also an option for another day, when two sets of adult arms would be available.

The spring-fed swimming area at Deleon Springs State Park has a year-round temperature of 72 degrees.

After lunch I chose a shady spot near the steps leading into the spring and set up a folding lounge chair, which was fortunately left in my trunk from a recent beach trip. Many visitors brought chairs or lounged on towels or blankets on the grassy area surrounding the spring. Meanwhile, Trevor grabbed his mask and quickly made his way down the steps into the crystal-clear water, which ranges from 18 to 30 inches in depth and is 72 degrees year-round. Seventy-two degrees sounds very pleasant when you’re talking about the temperature outside. Seventy-two degrees when you’re talking about water is cold. There were lots of people bobbing around above the sandy bottom of the spring during our visit. I was not one of them. Trevor, however, swam for hours and had a blast. We’d brought his snorkeling gear, but he also enjoyed playing on his boogie board, another beach-day leftover in my trunk.

Our day trip ended predictably around three in the afternoon, when the thunderstorm clouds began rolling in. But with fishing, canoeing and the famed pancake restaurant still to be experienced at Deleon Springs, we’ll be back soon.

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