|Ponce de León Springs State Park|
IUCN category V (protected landscape/seascape)
|Location||Holmes County, Florida, USA|
|Nearest city||DeFuniak Springs, Florida|
|Governing body||Florida Department of Environmental Protection|
Ponce de Leon Springs State Recreation Area is a Florida State Park in Holmes County, Florida. It is located in the town of Ponce de Leon. The park, which was created to provide public outdoor recreation and other park-related uses, was initially acquired on September 4, 1970, using funds from the Land Acquisition Trust Fund. The park's self-proclaimed purpose is to develop, operate and maintain the property for outdoor recreation, park, historic, and related purposes, offering abundant opportunity for nature appreciation and wildlife viewing. Its primary recreational activities include swimming in the spring and hiking along the park's nature trails.
The park's significance lies in the Ponce de Leon Spring itself, its most distinctive feature. The spring was named in honor of Juan Ponce de Leon, an explorer who, in 1513, led the first Spanish expedition to Florida. Legend has it, the whole objective of Ponce de Leon's expedition was to search for a spring that, according to a Taino Indian legend, would restore youth to those who bathed in their waters.” The legend contributes to the Ponce de Leon Springs’ unofficial title, “The Fountain of Youth”.
Although named after the Spanish explorer, the springs were previously inhabited by a group of Native Americans with a rich history of activity within the area. In addition to its spring, which is fed by the powerful Floridan Aquifer, the park boasts involvement in The Civil War, unique ecology, flora, fauna, and a multitude of specific conservancy and protective efforts.
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Although named after the Spanish explorer Ponce de León, long before the Europeans arrived in Florida, the springs were previously inhabited by a group of Native Americans known as the Chatot and Chisca Indians. These indigenous people give the springs a considerable amount of rich history, hunting and living in this area long before Spanish settlers drifted into the region in 1821.
It is believed that the Chisca were once the Yuchi. Hailing from Tennessee, the Yuchi left the Appalachian Highlands due to colonial wars in the 1650s. With little record of them afterward, it is believed that the tribe split into distinct groups, those that settled near the Choctawhatchee River became the Chisca, who are now extinct.
The Chatot lived west of the Apalachicola River and Chipola River basins. Once having territory that spanned from the Chattahoochee to Choctawhatchee, the Chatot were fierce defenders of their land, they are mentioned in a 1639 letter from the governor of Florida, where he is surprised a peace agreement between the Chatot another tribe as "[the Chatot] never maintained peace with anybody."
Following the migration of Spanish settlers to Florida, the springs quickly generated considerable attraction, its clear waters popular for fishing, drinking, and taking a swim on a hot day. In 1840, a log hotel was established, drawing several families into this area. These early settlers were harassed and traumatized by the brutal activities of deserter gangs during the Civil War, however, it wasn't until September 1864 that the Union army paid the springs a visit.
On September 24, 1864, 700 Union soldiers briefly paused at the springs on their way to the Battle of Marianna. The soldiers, on a raid led by Brigadier General Alexander Asboth, destroyed the hotel and looted neighboring homes. Records indicate that, following the raid, the Union force sustained its first loss near the park and in the Ponce de León area. Also in the vicinity park, it is reported that Private Joseph Williams of Company H, the 86th U.S. Colored Infantry, was mortally wounded in an accidental shooting and left bleeding “in the lines of the enemy at Big Sandy Creek”.
Ponce De León Springs, of both Holmes and Walton County Florida, comprises 386.94 acres of land. The second-magnitude spring produces about 14 million gallons of water daily, outputting a 350 ft. spring-run stream. At the spring's head, the water is approximately 20 ft. deep, it is here where one may find the spring's vent, an opening that concentrates groundwater discharge to the Earth's surface. This water is found to be surprisingly warm during winter, despite the fact that- like other parts of the Floridan aquifer - the water remains a constant 68 °F.
The Springs’ topography ranges from sloping to level, with streams collecting their drainage from the slopes, these stream systems of the Choctawhatchee River, River Valley Province, and the Coastal Lowlands Province. The park is also home to underlying limestone, Ocala limestone, specifically.
The water in the Ponce De León Springs emerges from the Floridan aquifer system in Florida, one of the most productive sources of groundwater in the United States and a major source of supply for agricultural, industrial, and rural uses. The Floridan Aquifer System is a part of the principal artesian aquifer, "the largest, oldest, and deepest aquifer in the southeastern U.S." This principal aquifer spans 100,000 mi², across four states in the southeast U.S.
The aquifer system contains 3,500 ft. of limestone and dolomite. Due to limestone's porous nature, its presence near the surface, along with Florida's rapid population growth, results in ground-water resources being highly susceptible to contamination.
Discovered in its namesake, Ocala, FL, Ocala limestone is defined as "soft, white, porous, and apparently very pure" when found in Florida, but can be "very fossiliferous" in other areas.
Ponce de León state park protects the habitat of four rare species of pitcher plants—the parrot, purple, red, and trumpet-leaf—specifically along the wetland areas. The park also protects the habitats of other plant species, including the flame azalea, the mountain laurel, and the longleaf pine, while simultaneously preserving 40+ acres of historic turpentine woodlands. Along the upland portions, one can expect to see plants such as rhododendron, red chokeberry, milkweed, hickory, huckleberry, blazing star, aster, oaks, pines, blueberry, and more.
Ponce De León Springs served 111.775 acres of exotic plant species from 2001 to 2011, some invasive. The gravest incidences of invasive exotic flora, including cogon grass, wisteria, Chinese tallow trees, and Chinese privet occurred around 2006 in the Northern area of the park, but continuous treatments quelled the infestation. The effects of a later infestation of the Japanese climbing fern in the Southern region of the park was minimized by swift action from park staff.
The park is home to a variety of animals, as well, including the gopher tortoise, turkey, fox, white-tailed deer, beaver, bobcat, otter, and a variety of native and migratory birds. It also boasts a multitude of fish species favorable to guests who enjoy fishing, including catfish, largemouth bass, chain pickerel, and panfish.
Some species labeled “nuisance animals” are the armadillo, feral hog, and American alligators. When rooting by armadillos or feral hogs is spotted on park property, park staff may start trapping those animals, as this rooting can damage restored flora-filled slopes. Alligators may prove to be a nuisance if they have frequent contact with park visitors. Signage in the park notifies the public of the alligators’ presence, the dangers of feeding them, and other safety concerns.
The park contains a multitude of imperiled species, defined as species that are tracked by the Florida Natural Areas Inventory as critically imperiled, or that are listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, or the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services as endangered, threatened or of special concern. For example, most of the plant species contained at the park, such as pitcher plants, orchids and, butterworts, can be considered imperiled species, as although they were not recorded prior to the restoration of this natural park community, have in many ways recovered due to recent restoration efforts. Restoration efforts are crucial to the reintroduction and/or survival of these particular species, with appropriate fire and hydrological regimes pertinent to restoration efforts.
For example, the Red Pitcher plant was reintroduced to the park in 2010 after multiple active efforts to locate it where it was previously recorded to exist, and its re-introduced vitality was only made possible through continued restoration of the seepage slope natural community. The red pitcher plant is not the only restored imperiled plant or animal within Ponce de León Springs State Park. For example, many of the bog species within the park continue to increase in population as restoration efforts have helped expand suitable habitats within the park. Continued restoration of these communities is crucial to ensuring the continuity of these species.
Ponce de León Springs State Park falls under the protection of Florida's statutes on state parks and preserves. The parks' flora & fauna are protected from disruption by Statue 258.008, which deems the following a second-degree misdemeanor if done without the permission of the Division of Recreation and Parks:
(a) Cutting, carving, injuring, mutilating, moving, displacing, or breaking off any water-bottom formation or coral.
(b) Capturing, trapping, or injuring a wild animal.
(c) Collecting plant or animal specimens.
(d) Leaving the designated public roads in a vehicle.
Access to Ponce De León Springs is from north of Interstate 10 in Ponce de León, Florida, off of Holmes County Road 181A, which is accessed by way of U.S. 90. There are two self-guided nature tours—Spring Run and Sandy Creek—available to guests, as well as seasonal park ranger-guided walks. These tours are bike accessible, as well as walkable. The Springs are open from 8 a.m. to sunset, year-round.