Embrace the Outdoors: 13 Incredible Experiences Await at De Leon Springs State Park

Florida is full of wildlife and raw land, and one of the best ways to experience it is via its state parks. De Leon Springs is a terrific option with plenty of history.

Explore the depths of the spring, follow the trails, have a picnic, and spot wildlife. De Leon Springs State Park is great for day visits, and there’s plenty to keep you and your family engaged. Bonus: it’s wheelchair, walker, and stroller-friendly!

I grew up visiting De Leon Springs with my parents and on school field trips. When I had my own family, I brought them here too. Over the years, we have visited many times as day visitors, on homeschool field trips, and for birthday parties.

I’ll share 13 things you can do at De Leon Springs State Park in this post.

Table of Contents

Where is De Leon Springs State Park?

De Leon Springs State Park, located at 601 Ponce De Leon Blvd., De Leon Springs, FL, is a real-life picture postcard. It is conveniently situated only 47 miles north of Orlando and 28 miles west of Daytona Beach.

This spot is famous for its incredible history. The Mayaca Indians called it “healing waters.” It was also settled by Seminole Indians and, of course, European settlers. The inviting 72°F crystal-clear waters keep visitors cool during the hot Florida summer months. 

Now let’s talk about things to do!

Jessica Meinhofer, owner of Walk and Paddle, posing in front of a building Florida landscaping and a mural of the state at De Leon Springs State Park.
Cool entrance of De Leon Springs State Park

Brief History of De Leon Springs State Park

The area we now call De Leon Springs State Parks has a long history, beginning with the Mayaca people, who lived here from 4000 BC to the 1700s. There is some overlap with the Spaniards (Pedro Menendez and crew), who first arrived in the area in 1566. By 1727, an epidemic had killed most of the Mayaca, and those who survived relocated to Lake Okeechobee. 

Legend has it that Ponce de Leon visited the area during his quest for the Fountain of Youth in the 1500s. However, no evidence of such a visit has been found. So it remains a legend and fun story. 

From the 1700s to the late 1800s, the area changed hands many times. In this period, a sugar mill was built and destroyed repeatedly. The area was called Spring Garden until the name was changed to De Leon Springs in the 1880s.

During the 1800s, the area became a tourist attraction, first with the steamboat Spring Garden and then with a small resort. 

In the 1920s, the spring was dammed up to generate electricity, and an inn and casino were built. 

By 1953, the resort had expanded with gardens, a jungle cruise, and a water circus featuring Sunshine Sally, the famous water-skiing elephant. 

In 1982, De Leon Springs became a state park. 

If you are interested in learning more about the park’s history, stop by their visitor center and purchase the booklet ($2 donation), Healing Waters: A History of DeLeon Springs State Park, by Phil Gotschall and Fred Allen.  

Timeline of De Leon Springs State Park showing the history of the area from 4000 BC to 1982.

Explore the Accessible Walkways

De Leon Springs has a variety of accessible walkways. Boardwalks lead from the parking lot to the spring, sugar mill, visitor’s center, fishing pier, and docks. Additionally, paved paths surround the swimming area and beyond. 

One of our favorite areas to linger in is the area overlooking the spring run. When the spring was converted into a pool surrounded by paved walkways, the overflow became a mini waterfall. It’s quite beautiful, and the sound is so relaxing. From this area, visitors can look out onto Spring Garden Lake. 

Accessible walkway over the waterfall/spillway at De Leon Springs State Park.
Isn’t it pretty!

Explore the Trails at De Leon Springs State Park

There are two official trails in De Leon Springs State Park. The nature trail is one of them and is accessible to everyone. It is about a 0.5-mile loop through partially shady woods. 

There are several off-shoots, but the only accessible one is the boardwalk that leads to “Old Methuselah,” a massive 500-year-old bald cypress. 

The other trail is the Wild Persimmon Trail, a 4.2-mile loop. Access the loop via the nature trail and follow it until you see the trailhead. You can’t miss it. The trail can flood, so you’ll want to visit during the dry season and check conditions before heading out. 

The wood and metal trail head sign for Wild Persimmon Hiking Trail nestled in the woods at De Leon Springs State Park.

It’s a great way to immerse yourself and your family in the park’s wild beauty. 

Visitors with mobility needs can reserve an all-terrain tracked chair. Find out more here

If you are interested in more family-friendly hikes in the area, check out this article

Spot Wildlife

From the spillway/waterfall area near the pool, you can see a variety of water-loving wildlife like:

  • Manatees
  • Alligators
  • Snake Birds
  • Turtles

Please note that the water immediately outside of the swim/spring area is dark. So, while the animals are there, you won’t be able to see them unless they breach the water. There is no visibility into the water. 

The hiking trails are other places to see wildlife.

If you opt to swim in the spring pool, you can see and swim with various fish and turtles. Remember that even if they are in the water with you, they deserve to be left alone. Never touch or chase wildlife. 

Ahingas perched on a tree on the De Leon Spring Run shore.
Anhingas (AKA Snake Birds) perched along the De Leon Spring Run.

Swim in De Leon Springs Pool

There really is nothing more refreshing than a summer swim at De Leon Springs State Park. Florida summers are notoriously hot, and a swim in the spring is one of the more popular things to do, especially for the locals.

You can access the swim area from multiple points around the 500-foot circumference pool. 

The depth of the water varies throughout the swimming areas from 18 inches to 30 feet at the spring source (aka the boil). Be prepared to tread water when not actively swimming.

You can swim from 8 am to 30 minutes before park closure. 

Although most springs are open to other waterways, how De Leon Springs has been altered effectively cuts it off from Spring Garden Lake. You will only see fish and turtles in the spring pool. You won’t find any alligators. Any that might find their way into the pool will be removed, so you don’t have to worry about them when swimming. 

A smiling girl with a thumbs up poses while swimming at De Leon Springs State Park.
My youngest swimming in the shallow area at De Leon.

Snorkel

The spring is open to snorkeling, so grab your mask, snorkel, and fins and start exploring. However, you cannot snorkel in the spring run due to the presence of motorized boats and alligators. 

Since you are limited to the spring pool, you will be snorkeling around swimmers and folks floating around in tubes. Note: You are not allowed to free-dive into the spring cave. 

Brown metal sign showing the water depth and other information at the De Leon Springs State Park pool.

Scuba Diving

The only scuba diving allowed at De Leon Springs is instructional diving with an insured and certified instructor. The instructor also needs to have a current Florida State Park dive permit. 

If you are interested in recreational diving, you will need to find another place. Free-diving into the spring cave is also not allowed. 

Go Paddling

De Leon Springs Adventures rents kayaks, canoes, pedal boats, and paddleboards. You can also bring your own vessels and launch. 

The launch point is along the spring run. You cannot get to the spring head or pool with your vessel. You also cannot swim in the spring run. So, once you are in your kayak, paddleboard, or other watercraft, you cannot get off it until you are at the launch point. 

You can paddle the spring run to Spring Garden Lake. Motorized boats and floatplanes are allowed in this area and dock here. 

We haven’t paddled here yet. It is a pretty broad area, and there are many large gators. At some point, we will do it. 

De Leon Spring Run kayak, canoe, and paddleboard launch points.

Take a Boat Tour

In addition to paddling, De Leon Springs Adventures offers a daily all-ages Fountain of Youth Boat Tour

Reservations are required for this 50-minute, narrated tour. 

On the tour, you can learn about the park’s history and also get a fantastic, up-close view of the wildlife that call these waters and land home. 

The boats are fully accessible for all mobility needs.

I’ve taken the tour twice and loved it both times. It is a unique way to experience these waterways. I loved that it was educational and entertaining. 

View of De Leon Spring Run from the boat on the Fountain of Youth Boat Tour at De Leon Springs State Park Florida.
Our fantastic view on the Fountain of Youth Boat Tour.

Go Boating

If you have a boat that is 20 feet or less, you can use the boat ramp and dock at De Leon Springs. However, I recommend calling first because this can change based on the water levels of Spring Garden Run. 

Anyone arriving via water does not have to pay the entrance fee, and there are no docking fees. 

The ramp and dock are only open during the park’s operating hours, 9 am to sunset. 

Brown vintage motorized boats with US flags docked at De Leon Springs State Park on a sunny day.
Look at those gorgeous boats. I was lucky to be there when they were.

Catch Some Fish

Fishing is allowed in the spring run and fishing pier! I see folks fishing every time I go to the park. To fish here, you must have a freshwater fishing license and follow applicable laws. 

Note that snatch hooks and cast nets can’t be used in the park. 

Jessica Meinhofer, owner of Walk and Paddle, with her husband Robert Meinhofer observing wildlife on the fishing pier at De Leon Springs State Park.
Robert and I spotting wildlife from the fishing pier at De Leon Springs.

Play Volleyball

De Leon Springs State Park has a volleyball court near the parking lot. It’s far from the swimming area, but you can play first and then swim after working up a sweat. There’s zero shade and nice sand for play. 

Hit the playground!

There’s a lovely playground under live oaks that are heavy with Spanish moss. There are also nearby sitting areas and a pavilion. 

It’s a distance from the swimming area, but not so far that kids can’t run from the pool to the playground, which can be a good or bad thing. During warm days, the area between the playground and the swimming area will be filled with people, so the kids can’t quickly run off. 

Unfortunately, the playground lacks swings, but there are plenty of other things to keep them busy. 

A quiet moment of the playground at De Leon Springs State Park nestled among live oaks.
The only time I have ever seen that playground empty!

Have a Picnic

There are many picnic tables and pavilions throughout De Leon Springs State Park. If these are taken, you can always bring a blanket and set up your own area. 

Many families picnic all day during the summer, alternating between swimming in the spring, hydrating, and munching on snacks. 

Visitors lounging and picnicking around the spring area at De Leon Springs State Park in Florida.
Visitors enjoying a swim and picnic by the swim area at De Leon Springs.

Skip the Picnic and visit the Sugar Mill Restaurant

Some visitors come strictly to eat at the Old Sugar Mill Pancake House, where they can make their own all-you-can-eat pancakes. Each table has a built-in griddle where hungry patrons cook up their own pancakes. It’s a 100-year-old replica of the 1830s sugar mill that was here. 

And if you don’t like pancakes, they have other items on the menu too, like: 

  • other breakfast goodies
  • sandwiches
  • paninis
  • snacks

Oh, and they offer beer, wine, and a few cocktails. Although they provide vegetarian options, vegans can probably only eat the salad.  

If the place has a super long wait time (it often does), you can opt for some simpler take-out items. 

View of the spring run and boat docks from the best table at the Old Sugar Mill Pancake House at De Leon Springs State Park in Florida.
I lucked out on this awesome table with a million-dollar view.

Check out the Visitor’s Center

Although the visitor’s center is small, there are some notable historical displays and a touch table with bones and shells. 

Remember to look at the walls. There, you’ll find various images and notes about the old hotel and resort that were here, the water-skiing elephant, and the lost tribes of Florida. 

They also have you covered if you forgot a picnic blanket or other visitor supplies. 

Map and legend of the 1953 De Leon Springs resort.
Map and legend of the De Leon Springs resort in the 50s.

Important Notes!!

De Leon Springs State Park is very popular. Park rangers close the park when it reaches capacity, so get there early. Park closures will definitely be the case this year since the next closest spring is Blue Spring State Park, and their swim area is closed until April 2025

Souvenirs

You can purchase souvenirs at the visitor center or the Old Sugar Mill Pancake House.

De Leon Dunk

Every year on January 1st, you can join others at the pool and jump in! After the swim, take a First Day Hike with park rangers. Remember, the water will be a warm 72°F. 

If you are looking for more events throughout the year:

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