WERNER-BOYCE SALT SPRINGS STATE PARK — When you have been paddling the Nature Coast for as long as I have, it is easy to think you have seen it all. But on a warm weekday morning last month, I discovered what could be one of the best-kept secrets of Pasco County.
The locals have known about Salt Springs for decades. Legend has it that the area got its name during the Civil War, when Confederate soldiers made salt that was used to cure the beef that fed their comrades fighting the Yankees. It's a good story, but probably not true. A more likely explanation is that the springs got their name from the salt water that flows in on a high tide.
Paddle along the 4 miles of protected coastline and you'll notice a lot of movement in the water. Those shadows are mullet and redfish running for cover.
This state park is unique because it is mostly covered by water. It is shallow and difficult, if not downright impossible, to navigate at low tide. But that is fine with the kayak fishermen who for years have had this area all to themselves.
Without giving away any secret spots, let's suffice it to say that it would take an adept angler an afternoon to get the lay of the land. The inaccessibility keeps all but the most dedicated paddle fishermen away, and that is a good thing.
With roughly 8 square miles of undeveloped coastline, the hardwood hammocks, salt marshes and salt flats, and 12 tributaries feeding into the Gulf of Mexico, this state park looks much the way it did when Indians fished and hunted here 7,000 years ago.
Volunteers have documented more than 200 species of birds, including the American bald eagle and the rare black rail. The park has its share of mammals, too — otters, raccoons, opossums, bobcats and possibly a coyote or two. And just think … all that within a couple of hundred yards of busy U.S. 19.
Mysteries of the deep
Most of the water is just a few feet deep, except for the famous springs that give the park its name. The main spring looks small, just a few feet across. But certified cave divers who have explored the spring have descended to a depth of 328 feet. At that point, the spring opens into a large room, 50 feet high and 200 feet across.
Recreational scuba diving is not allowed in the spring. But certified cave divers continue to research Salt Springs and nearby Cauldron Spring (next to the culvert), which drops down to 85 feet, then links to several tunnel systems.
A small portion of the park opened in 2001. In early 2008, work began on the main entrance but was delayed because of permitting problems. But park officials expect the construction to be completed this year. When it is done, there will be a roadway leading to the water for a kayak launch, additional parking and a picnic area.
The current park entrance is located at the end of Cinema Drive along Scenic Drive. To get there, turn west off U.S. 19 onto Cinema Drive and you will see the park entrance a quarter mile down.
The park has an excellent Citizen Support Organization called the Salt Springs Alliance. It is always looking for volunteers. To help, go to saltspringsalliance.com.