March 2012: De Leon Springs State Park

DeLand, Florida

If Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon actually did discover the mythical Fountain of Youth, this may have been the place. But settlers in the early 1800s had no time for such legends - they were busy planting sugar cane and cotton. Twice the mills were sacked, once during the Second Seminole Indian War and again during the Civil War by Union troops in 1864 in Birney's Raid. By the 1880s the railroad had reached town and the springs evolved into a winter resort. In 1982 the State acquired the property, transforming De Leon Springs from a tourist attraction to a public park. 

Most visitors to De Leon Springs never walk beyond the half-mile paved Nature Trail that loops peaceably down into a flood plain hammock with attractive hardwoods, pines and cypress trees on display. Maybe they will wander onto the quarter-mile, natural surface trail that leads to Monkey Island where monkeys lived during the park's days as a tourist attraction. But few will step off the macadam onto the Wild Persimmon Hiking Trail, where the persimmons are not the only thing that is wild.

Your canine adventurer will find one of her most challenging hikes here on the 4.2-mile balloon-style trail with a long entrance string to the loop. Frequently wet, planks and low bridges help with the crossing of the flood plain. This is among the rootiest paths your dog will negotiate in Central Florida, courtesy of a forest thick with mature and emerging sable palms. The jungle-like ambiance gives way only briefly to abandoned groves and agricultural fields. When your dog re-emerges back onto the paved path she can report on a De Leon Springs experience unfamiliar to nearly all the other park guests. 

In the 1950s De Leon Springs was developed as a theme park with gardens, a jungle cruise and a water circus. The big draw was Queenie, "The World's Only Water-Skiing Elephant." Born in Thailand, Queenie was sold as a baby in a New York City pet store and grew up with the Dane family in New England where she was taught tricks, including balancing on a pair of pontoons that had been welded together. Liz Dane and Queenie performed at De Leon Springs where she was considered a pioneer for other water-skiing animal acts. The Dane family sold Queenie in 1965 and she continued to perform around the world until retiring to Wild Adventures Theme Park in Valdosta, Georgia in 2003. Queenie was one of the oldest Asian elephants in North America when she died in 2011 at the age of 58 or 59.

North of Deland. From I_4 take Exit 114 and follow US 17 north into town. Turn left on Ponce De Leon Boulevard and continue to the park across the railroad tracks.