Hiking the Springs Trail at Werner Boyce Salt Springs State Park
“This is amazing,” I said to my daughter as I leaned over the water’s edge from the trail to take a photo of the creek running through the salt marsh. Dark brackish water ran through the wire grass, reflecting the blue skies above and the slash pines and palm trees rising around the creek.
She gave me that teen look, you know, the one that says they think their parents are weird, but she humored me by not voicing it aloud.
“And look at this wood,” I added excitedly, pointing to a pile of dried driftwood and brambles by the water’s edge. My eyes followed the deep wood grains, the sun bleached tones and deeper hues, and the way the light caught the unusual cross-hatch pattern of the one branch.
I then realized it was the thick body of a snake, coiled among the wood like another branch.
I stepped back and poked my daughter in the arm. “It’s a snake.” I pointed out the dark body among the lighter wood, and she recoiled in fear. “Water moccasin!”
“It could be a water snake- they look similar, but I can’t see its head…”
She grabbed my arm.
“Mom, let’s go back!”
“We can’t- there’s springs out there!”
We were on the Springs Trail at Werner Boyce Salt Springs State Park, and the sign at the trailhead listed a plethora of springs, of which we had not seen yet. Snake or no snake, we couldn’t turn back now.
Werner-Boyce Salt Springs encompasses 3,999 acres of maritime hammocks, salt marshes, and marine protected areas nestled along the Gulf of Mexico. A flurry of human activity has graced the area, from the Tocobaga tribe who used the rocks to make their lithic tools to World War II pilots who used the marsh as weapons test sites, and salt miners, turpentine collectors and mullet fishers.
Hiking the Springs Trail at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park
To reach the springs trail, park at the first main parking lot (there’s only two). The trailhead is across the road on the north side. Well-marked, the trailhead sign lists the springs and distances like entrées on a menu: Cauldron Springs; Reflection Springs; Toilet Springs: Red Springs & Salt Springs. Appetizer, entrée and dessert.
Water lapped against the rocky embankment, and a turtle lounged in a ray of sunshine that cut through the leafy canopy at Cauldron Springs. Runoff trickled through a culvert pipe beneath the trail to join the dark waters and the spring run out to the creek beyond.
Unlike the turquoise springs around Florida, the springs here are murky and salty. Some are karst springs and others bubble up through the vents in the limestone bed and run out to the marshes.
The trail forked ahead, with a sign that pointed a way to “Springs Trail” on the left. Another sign, erected in the middle of the path, stated “bridge closed”. I hoped one was wrong and not the one about the springs. The dirt path led alongside the Cauldron Spring run out to the creek and views of the salt marsh and our little snake encounter.
Water Moccasins vs. Water Snakes
Water Moccasins, also called ‘cottonmouths’ are venomous snakes. Dark brown in color, their eyes are slits, bodies chunky and they have blocky heads. However, the non-venomous water snakes have round pupils, more slender bodies and no real neck. But when they are wrapped around a branch, they both look alike. Getting close enough to check which snake it may be is never ever recommended.
Water moccasins can get defensive, both snakes can bite, and one is fatal. Give snakes a wide berth when you encounter them on your hiking adventures, and always look before you step, especially around the water. Snakes are adept at blending into the environment.
The trail continued past our snake encounter overlook and came to a dead end at a broken wooden bridge. The path forward was blocked and there was no way of getting around to the other side. We had to backtrack to the beginning and take the other path in the fork, which led us immediately to a sign for Reflection Spring.
We followed the sandy trail from the right of the main path. It cut through a thicket and opened out to a little oasis beneath the trees. A crack in the earth, a karst spring, filled with water beneath the trees. Ferns crowded each other for space in the muddy shallows on one end. A huge protruded over the spring pool on the other end and tiny minnows swam in circles.
Again, not a blue spring, Reflection Spring had darkish water from the mud of the rocks surrounding the pool. A bench sat near the spring pool for, you guessed it, reflecting!
Something bigger than a minnow splashed in the water and my daughter and I both looked at each other. Gator? Big fish? Snake? We weren’t sticking around to find out.
Giant Eagle’s Nest
We returned to the main path and walked until we came to a giant eagle’s nest display on the trail. There was signage explaining about the eagle’s habitat around us and a nest made of sticks for kids and curious adults to try on for size. Inside the nest were eagle eggs and skeletons of small animals- food for the birds, under a portion of plexiglass in the floor.
Eagles are top predators. They can fly up to 30 mph and dive up to 100 mph. The largest eagle’s nest in Florida was built by a nesting pair in 1963. It was 9 feet and 6 inches and 20 feet deep. It weighed 4,400 lbs. Today, there are 1,500 nesting pairs of bald eagles in the sunshine state.
Tidal Waterfall & Salt Springs
The trail forked again by the eagle’s nest with signs to a tidal waterfall to the right and Red Spring to the left. We chose the waterfall. A sunny side of the trail, we went from the woods out through a stretch of open marsh, and then back into a hammock of mangroves and palms by Salt Springs.
The namesake of the park, Salt Springs is a second magnitude spring, with a 320-foot deep spring vent. The current rushes from the springs and through a creek, cutting through the limestone and thick with overhanging mangroves. Then it cascades down the rocks into another pool and out into the marsh. True to the name, the gulf tides and springs feed these small limestone falls.
Salt Mining at Salt Springs
By the Tidal Waterfall is a display of salt mining tools that were used when salt was mined in Florida during the Civil War. Salt was an important commodity. It was used to preserve fish and meats, cure and brine. Salt Springs provided the perfect backwater cover for salt mining during the war. Union boats that targeted the salt mines along the coast were too big to travel up the narrow marsh creeks to Salt Springs, making this spring one of the successful salt mines that operated throughout the war.
To make salt, they took salt water from the springs and boiled it down to evaporate all of the liquid until all that remained were the salt crystals. Then, they placed the crystals on wooden boards and laid them out to dry under the Florida sun.
We backtracked to the giant eagle’s nest and took the fork to Red Spring and passed a group of signs about the local turpentine industry
Remains of the Turpentine Industry at Salt Springs
Turpentine was big business in the 1800’s in this area, and many trees in the state park property bear marks of pine gum collected in the past. V-shaped cuts were made in the bases of pine trees, known as box-cuts, to collect the gum. The gum was collected and transported in barrels by horse-drawn wagons and boiled to make turpentine. They would use this to make products like soap, paint, toothpaste, medicines and more.
There are still over 100 trees within the park boundaries that bear the box-cut v-mark.
Red Springs resembled a mud puddle among black mangrove roots in a swamp. It was low tide, so the surrounding swamp was a brown mud slick. It would have been a watering hole for local wading birds and critters, but for us, it was the smallest of all the springs we encountered on the trail. (We missed Toilet Bowl Spring completely but didn’t discover this until later).
The horseflies descended around us, so instead of continuing on to Fisher’s Corner, the next stop of the trail, and also where we would have reached the other side of the closed bridge, we retreated to our car with thoughts of dining in the nearby Greek waterfront town of Tarpon Springs.
Hiking the Trails
Although the Springs Trail is not a long trail, several other trails intersect with it, like Red Line Trail and Cypress Oak Pass, and if you are so inclined, your short hike may end up lasting longer.
Things to Know about Hiking at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park:
- Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park is located at 8737 U.S. Highway 19 North in Port Richey FL 34668
- Bring water to drink, bug spray, sun protection and the comfortable footwear you like to use for hiking.
- The terrain is sandy, and some can get boggy during the rainy season and in high tides. Be prepared.
- Admission: $2 per person; $4 for vehicle (up to 8)
- Payment is honor box system, so bring cash
- Contact Number: 727-816-1890
- Toilets are located in the yellow elevated building at the second parking area.
- Kayak concession stand is below in parking area, run by Salty Dog Kayak Rentals.
- Paddle launch is at the end of the boardwalk on the west end of the parking lot.