Was De Leon Springs the Fountain of Youth? History relates that when he sailed to Florida in 1513, he “ascended a large river, passing through two small rivers and three lakes, whence we came to a great boiling spring which the Indians call ‘Healing Waters’.”
The waters bubbling forth into Spring Garden Run have been a centerpiece of history for centuries, and are the starting point for adventure at a park best known for its pancakes. Built and maintained by volunteers of the Florida Trail Association, the Wild Persimmon Trail is a 4.5 mile wild walk along the edge – or edges – of habitats rimming the floodplain forest created by the spring, a watery swamp that ebbs and flows with the St. Johns River.
Location: De Leon Springs
Length: 4.5 miles
Lat-Long: 29.136952, -81.361309
Type: loop accessed by spur and loop
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: moderate; difficult when flooded
Restroom: Yes, near the parking area
Open 8 AM to sunset. Give yourself at least 2 hours to complete the Wild Persimmon Trail.
DeLeon Springs is just north of Deland on US 17. From US 17 in DeLeon Springs, turn west onto Ponce DeLeon Blvd. Follow it 0.8 mile. The entrance to DeLeon Springs State Recreation Area is just after the railroad crossing. After you pay your entrance fee, turn right at the T intersection to drive down to the parking area by the bathhouse. If the parking area is full, you’ll have to park on the other side of the spring and walk across the bridge.
Getting to the trailhead for the Wild Persimmon Trail means taking a hike (included in the overall mileage). The park’s paved nature trail leads into an oak hammock with statuesque live oaks where you might spot a barred owl in the canopy. A side trail – out and back – leads to “Old Methuselah,” a bald cypress estimated to be nearly 500 years old. Towering more than 150 feet above the floodplain forest, it’s a humbling sight, and a reminder—less than 200 years ago, the forests of the St. Johns River were once thick with trees like these.
Back on the nature trail, keep to the right at the fork as you pass under ancient longleaf pines. You reach the trailhead for the Wild Persimmon Trail at 0.3 mile. Slather on the mosquito spray! This hike is mostly in shade and, if not underwater, around enough of it to create a great breeding ground for mosquitoes. Like Ponce De Leon, you’re headed for adventure.
Follow the orange blazes into a thicket of cabbage palms, red bay, and Southern magnolia. The trail slips out of the park and into a corner of Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. Longleaf pines rise around you, with tall cinnamon ferns growing at their bases. After 0.5 mile, the footpath becomes difficult underfoot, with mud puddles trapped between exposed tree roots. Plank bridges may help you hop over gaps. A boardwalk carries the trail over a permanent flow of tannic water. The saw palmetto gives way to a grassy understory under the cabbage palms. At the bench, you see an open meadow off to the right, an old pasture being reclaimed by the forest, a foreshadowing of your hike’s future.
It’s time to check your balance as a series of bog bridges carry you over the lapping waters of the swamp – if you’re lucky, and they aren’t already underwater. If they are, be sure to use a hiking stick to feel your way ahead of you. This is a dark forest, deeply shaded by the palms. Continue following the orange blazes if the footpath becomes indistinct. Passing marker 7, you’ve walked a mile. Dipping in and out of the swampy landscape, the trail comes to the back side of a sign, marking the end of the loop portion of the trail. Continue straight ahead. Along this edge between oak hammock and floodplain forest, watch for colorful fungi in rotting logs, and lizards skittering across tree trunks.
At 1.8 miles, you pass a bench tucked in under the mix of live oaks and cabbage palms. Bromeliads – air plants – thrive in this humid hammock along the edge of the swamp; the cabbage palms sprout wild pine like hair. Long green plumes of goldfoot fern cascade from the soft thatch just below a cabbage palm’s fronds. The understory opens up again as you skirt along the edge of the swamp—off to the left, water covers the forest floor.
Swinging to the right, the trail meanders its way into the meadow, where a stand of wild persimmon trees grow – hence the trail name. Fruiting in fall, they’re one fruit you only want to eat if ripe. Otherwise, pucker up!
Leaving the meadow behind for an oak hammock, you pass through an old fence line and find a picnic area that makes a good spot to savor a drink or snack while you listen for wild turkey and deer. Both love the open spaces of the old meadow nearby. Beyond the picnic benches, the trail swings off to the right into the tree line, ending the loop at 3 miles. Turn left to exit, watching your footing through the bog bridges and rough roots.
When you pop back out at the paved trail, turn right to finish that loop, passing a side trail to Monkey Island. Yep, there used to be monkeys here, and a water-skiing elephant, too. The tale’s told back at the museum near the parking area, but another idea is forming in your brain—pancakes! When you get back to the spring, walk over and get your name on the list for a table at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill House before you delve into the mysteries of monkeys, elephants, and Ponce De Leon’s dreams.