Wakulla Springs – State Park, River Boat Tour & Manatees (USA)

Categories: Travel reports, North America, USA, Florida

For our trip to Florida in September and October, we were looking for a place where you can see manatees. The best-known place for this is certainly Crystal River on the west coast. However, as we have already been there twice and the Three Sisters Springs are currently inaccessible due to construction work, we researched online to find out where you still have a good chance of seeing manatees in summer. And one such place is the Wakulla River in Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park south of the Floridas capital Tallahassee.

Wakulla Springs header image

Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

Since our next destination will be Panama City Beach and we came from Indian Shores in the Tampa area, a two-day stop in Wakulla Springs was the perfect choice. The drive from Indian Shores took about five hours. At the beginning of the route you drive through endless urban centers north of Tampa and Clearwater, but then it gets more and more rural and at some point you are almost completely alone on US98.

After a short lunch and refueling break, we arrived at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park at around 4 pm. There is an entrance fee of 6 USD per car. The ticket booth is located directly at the park entrance. There is only one hotel in the state park, the unique Lodge at Wakulla Springs. If you spend the night here, the national park fee is waived. All you need to do is inform the ranger at the entrance that you are an overnight guest at the lodge.

Interesting facts about the Wakulla Springs

The Wakulla Springs are nestled in the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park about 23 kilometers south of Tallahassee and 8 kilometers east of Crawfordville in Wakulla County. The source is the Wakulla River, which flows 14 kilometers to the southeast, where it flows into the St. Mark’s River and after another 8 kilometers into the Gulf of Mexico.

“One of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world”

The sapphire-blue waters of Wakulla Springs are home to one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world (110 meters). The Wakulla Cave consists of a branching network of passages, 19 kilometers of which have been surveyed and mapped. The corridors are characterized as long tubes of constant diameter and depth (91 metres deep). The largest tube runs from the entrance to the cave over 6.1 kilometers to the south. The average flow rate of the spring is 200 to 300 million US gallons (that is about 760,000 to 1,140,000 m3) of water per day.

Scientific interest in the spring began as early as 1850, when the bony remains of a mammoth were found at the bottom of the spring basin. Later, more animal fossils were discovered deeper in the spring complex, where archaeological evidence of early humans was also found, including bones and stone tools. Wakulla Springs also served as a filming location for numerous movie productions from 1938 onwards, including ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’, ‘Return of the Creature’ and some early Tarzan films.

Illustration of the underground spring, Wakulla Springs, map

Representation of the underground spring

The Lodge at Wakulla Springs

We stayed at the historic Lodge at Wakulla Springs for one night so that we were close to the Wakulla Springs and could visit them at any time. Our double room was – like the lodge – quite conservatively designed and furnished. Even though this is not normally the type of accommodation we book as a family, we think that the style of furnishings fits in very well with the surroundings and the location due to the history of the lodge.

“Historic Hotels of America”

The history of the lodge began in 1931, when businessman Edward Ball bought the land including the spring and began building the two-storey Wakulla Springs Lodge in 1935. The lodge was initially built as a guest house. After Edward Ball’s death in 1981, it was converted into a hotel by the Edward Ball Wildlife Foundation. Today, the lodge is a 27-room hotel and a member of theHistoric Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

When we entered the lodge through the entrance area, we immediately noticed the decorative paintings on the ceiling in the lobby, which show scenes from the local wildlife. Artistically, it is a combination of European folk art, Arabic scroll paintings and Indian influences. Another highlight in the lodge is the large long marble counter at the bar in the souvenir store. At over 21 meters, it is – according to the lodge itself – the “longest known marble counter in the world”.

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Wakulla Springs hiking trails

Wakulla Springs State Park has several nature trails through deciduous forests and maple-cypress habitats that offer easy to moderate hikes on a 1.5-kilometer loop trail or a nearly 10-kilometer straight trail. Directly opposite the entrance to the lodge is the start of the Sally Ward Trail, which we walked along for a short distance. Here you come across two sinkholes relatively quickly, but they were relatively unspectacular.

The spring for bathing

Of course, we didn’t miss the opportunity to take a dip in the spring water. The effort is great, as the water is only around 20 degrees. On warm summer days, however, this is the perfect refreshment. And once you’re in, you won’t want to get out so quickly.

There is a viewing tower from which you can jump directly into the opening of Wakulla Springs – the adrenaline rush is free 😉 There are also two bathing platforms that you can swim to. There is a barrier behind it so that you don’t come into contact with the wildlife. The platforms offer the perfect view and so we were able to see alligators relatively close to the platform. Totally cool! But it’s also a bit scary, because the alligators don’t really care about the barrier tape and they certainly swim closer to the shore from time to time.

As we traveled in the low season, we were really lucky that it was very quiet in the lodge and at the spring. There were really very few tourists here, which was great. We have seen on the Internet that there is another way. There are pictures of people queuing up at the diving platform and the bathing platforms are completely overcrowded.

Viewing platform for observing wildlife

There is a very nice jetty next to the boat landing stage from which you can observe nature and wildlife. We were really lucky here on the first evening and saw an alligator moving through the water. You can also see lots of birds flying around or close to the water.

Jungel Cruise – River Boat Tour

The absolute highlight of our stay at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park was the river boat tour along the Wakulla River, which departs from the boat landing directly behind the lodge. We enjoyed the boat tour so much that we booked another one for the next morning 😉 For a price of USD 8 for guests aged 13 and over and USD 5 for children aged between 3 and 12, these are also quite affordable.

The river boat tours have a long history: they have been offered here on the Wakulla River since 1875. In the beginning, glass-bottom boats were used, which offered passengers a remarkable view of the underwater world thanks to the crystal-clear water. The boat tours take place 365 days a year, depending on the weather, depart every hour and can be booked at the lodge reception. The 45- to 55-minute round trip along the river offers an insight into the life of alligators, native birds, turtles and often manatees. At the end of the tour, you even drive directly over the opening of Wakulla Springs.

We were really lucky again on the first boat tour because we had the “Singing Ranger” Collin Johnson as our guide. He welcomed us directly with his guitar and a self-composed song about the Wakulla River. WOW! We were totally thrilled. You can tell that this is his dream job not only from the way he talks about the area and communicates with the guests, but also from the way he talks about the region. Simply great 🙂

On our two boat trips, we saw plenty of untouched nature and wildlife: Alligators relaxing in the sun, snowy ibis stalking through the water and majestic bald cypress trees. If you are vigilant and keep your eyes open, you can see and observe something every few meters above and below the water.

Manatees in the Wakulla River

One of the main reasons we chose Wakulla Springs as our destination was the possibility of seeing manatees. This is not so easy in the hot summer months in Florida, because at this time of year the manatees are usually at home in the coastal waters. We found out about Wakulla Springs on another website, where you have a good chance of seeing manatees all year round. That is quite extraordinary, even if there is of course no guarantee of a sighting.

Our expectations were somewhat dampened when we checked into the lodge and booked our boat tour, and the employee there said that there were currently no manatees to be seen… BUT… we were so lucky again and were able to see some manatees (even with a small baby) very close to our boat on both boat trips. Madness! The boat hadn’t stopped, so we could only see them briefly, but we were still really happy about it.

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Incidentally, it is worth taking the boat tour in the early hours of the morning. Firstly, the light conditions are really good and secondly, the manatees are particularly active at this time.

The stop at Wakulla Springs State Park was very worthwhile for us: the overnight stay in the lodge was an experience, swimming in the spring was totally refreshing and we saw a lot on the river boat tours. We can absolutely recommend this state park for a visit – especially in the low season when there is little going on.

All travel reports from Florida (2023)

Sun, beach, palm trees, sightseeing, beautiful hotels, pools and the world of Sea World, Walt Disney & Co... We were really looking forward to this vacation in Florida. We put together a wonderful itinerary for our almost 4-week trip through the Sunshine State, with places that we were largely unfamiliar with. In the following travel reports we tell you about our experiences in Indian Shores, Clearwater Beach, Wakulla Springs, Panama City Beach, Orlando, Winter Haven and Treasure Island.
Florida round trip west coast 2023

Our travel reports
➥ (1) Indian Shores Beach > Relaxing on Florida's Gulf Coast
➥ (1) Clearwater Beach > Clearwater Marine Aquarium & Pier 60
➥ (2) Wakulla Springs > Alligators, manatees & a boat trip through the marshlands
➥ (3) Panama City Beach > Beach, activities & food
➥ (3) Panama City Beach > Shell Island & St. Andrews State Park
➥ (4) Orlando > A full day at Discovery Cove
➥ (4) Orlando > SeaWorld Thme Park
➥ (4) Orlando > The Magic Kingdom Theme Park (Disney)
➥ (5) Winter Haven > Legoland Florida - A world of colorful bricks
➥ (5) Winter Haven > A day at the Peppa Pig Theme Park
➥ (6) Treasure Island > Relaxing under the Florida sun