December 2012: Wekiwa Springs State Park

Apoka, Florida

This area was known as Clay Springs until 1906 when the name was changed to Wekiwa, an interpretation of the Seminole word for “spring of water.” Tourists were already making their way to the springs that pour forty-two million gallons of crystal clear water into Wekiwa Springs Run every day to partake in their reputed healing powers.
Early pioneers farmed this land around the springs and it was part of an antebellum cotton plantation before the Civil War. Saw mills, grist mills and turpentine stills all operated here through the years. In the 1930s a group of young hunters began tracking game on the property. Calling themselves the Apopka Sportsmen’s Club, membership was by secret ballot and cost $50 for an initiation fee. Annual dues were $15. In 1941 members pooled their money and purchased the land from the Wilson Cypress Company with the mission of practicing conservation and preserving the natural beauty. In 1969 the club’s then 50 shareholders voted to sell the land to the state for $2.1 million, accepting a lesser dollar value to keep the property undeveloped.  

For a park that sits across from a gated golf community and gets so crowded it shuts down, you can nonetheless hike with your dog for hours here and never see another trail user. The main hiking trail covers over 13 miles and everything on the canine hiking menu in Central Florida can be found along the way. Your dog will trot through open, sparse pinelands on roomy sand trails, pick her way down jungle-like footpaths thick with sabal palms and navigate through seas of ferns and saw palmetto. There are options for shortening the canine hike at Wekiwa Springs but any outing with your dog will be a big one. Even if you stay in the campground and never venture into the wilderness you can hike with your dog on the 1.9-mile spur between Wekiwa Springs and Sand Lake which offers a sampling of the park’s wonders from shady paths to longleaf pine-studded scrub.  

The Wekiva River basin is home to more than 50 species of plants and animals listed as endangered. Your dog probably won’t see the ones that set the heart to skip a beat such as Florida black bears, American alligators or bald eagles but a more likely encounter is with the long-lived gopher tortoise. Gopher tortoises occur in upland habitats throughout the coastal plain of the southeastern United States, with most being found in north-central Florida. The tortoises live in underground burrows that can be as long as 40 feet and house a score of animals. Look for the burrows in areas where plenty of sunlight reaches the ground. They are easy to spot because of the characteristic mound of loose sand at the burrow entrance, called an “apron.” 

From I-4, take Exit 94 west onto SR 434. After one mile turn right on Wekiwa Springs Road and continue to the park entrance on the right in four miles.