Wacissa River Springs
Summary of Features
- Scale - 1st magnitude in total
- Scenery - good to outstanding
- How Pristine? - some completely pristine except for exotic vegetation; some choked with exotic vegetation, others adjacent to land/docks/cleared areas, occasional trash in river
- Swimming - fair to good
- Protection - good
- Wildlife - outstanding
- Crowds - put-in can be crowded on warm weekends, airboats create loud noise
- Access - easy to headwaters, up to extremely strenuous for individual springs
- Facilities - fair
- Safety - fair to good
- Scuba - yes
- Cost - free
From Tallahassee, take U.S. 27 south and east (toward Perry). Turn right or south onto State Road 59. Drive five miles, through the village of Wacissa, and continue until the road dead-ends at the headwaters.
Nearly 20 springs form the Wacissa River and lie within the first 1.5 miles of its headwaters. The most current source of information about the springs is Springs of the Aucilla, Coastal, and Waccasassa Basins in Florida by Hornsby & Ceryak (2000, pp. 50-59). There are four springs within a few feet of the parking area and boat launch ramp:
Near Boat Launch
Just to the left of the boat ramp and slightly behind it is Aucilla Spring. The spring pool is only a few feet deep and is circular and about 35 feet in diameter. When last visited, this pool was entirely choked with exotic vegetation, and no flow was evident. Visitors periodically clear this spring (and others) of vegetation. Hornsby & Ceryak report the spring has two boils and has a third-magnitude flow (2000, p. 59).
Wacissa Spring is 15 feet south of the shore by the diving board and can be identified as a visible boil through the elodea that otherwise surrounds the area. The vent is approximately 20 feet deep and it is the largest of the springs on the river with a first-magnitude flow. Hornsby & Ceryak identified three boils for this spring (2000, p. 52).
Thomas Spring is 300 feet WNW of the boat ramp and wells up in two boils from a crack in the riverbed. Ferguson (1947) reported this vent as being eight feet in diameter and 28 feet deep. Hornsby & Ceryak measured the depth as 17 feet and recorded a second-magnitude flow from the spring (2000, p. 56).
Upstream and Behind Dive Platform
Log Spring is about 0.1 mile up Horsehead Run behind the dive platform and flows from a large crack in the riverbed. DeLoach reports the pool is up to 25 feet deep (1997, p. 123), and Hornsby & Ceryak measured its depth at 23 feet and a second-magnitude discharge (2000, p. 55).
Horsehead Spring is 0.4 mile back behind the diving board, upriver from the parking area. It is at the very back of the Wacissa, abutting land, and a rotting dock provides a view of the spring which is about 8 feet deep and issues from a small limestone vent with a mild boil. It has a second-magnitude flow.
Hornsby & Ceryak identify another small spring and run that feed the Horsehead Spring run. The authors of this publication have seen the run but not the spring. Designated as Spring JEF312991, it has a third-magnitude flow.
There are two springs downstream of the headwaters on the right or west bank:
Cassidy (or Cassida) Spring consists of two cave openings in a side channel (about 100 feet long) that is easily visible. The channel is about 2,000 feet below the boat ramp. The spring vents are large limestone openings at least 20 feet deep, and there are clear boils for both vents. The spring pool is circular and approximately 75 feet in diameter. When last visited (November 1999), this spring area was completely clear of vegetation (it has probably been cleared manually)—it was at that time the only spring on the river that was not overgrown with elodea, water hyacinth, or other aquatic vegetation.
The juncture of Blue (or Little Blue) Spring run and the Wacissa River is located less than a quarter mile downstream from Cassidy on the same side. Due to very low water (less than 12 inches), heavy exotic plant growth, and numerous fallen trees blocking the 500-foot run on the date of the visit (November 1999), this spring was not accessible. The run is 50-70 feet in width. The spring is reportedly 16 feet deep and has a circular pool 50 feet in diameter.
There are at about a dozen springs on the left or east bank of the Wacissa, including the Little River group:
Allen is the only named spring at the headwaters of Little River, which flows for approximately a mile from at least three springs before joining the Wacissa River about 1/3 of a mile below the parking area. The water near the spring is very shallow and choked with both aquatic vegetation and fallen trees. In two attempts, the author was unable to reach the spring, which is in the most easterly of the channels as one paddles upriver. According to Hornsby & Ceryak, (2000, p. 58), the spring pool is approximately 75 feet wide. The combined flow from these springs constitutes a second-magnitude discharge. The photo below may be the overgrown springhead, or the actual spring may be further back. According to a local resident, two other fingers of Little River also terminate in springs. None was reachable due to shallow water and aquatic growth.
Minnow Spring is the first spring on the west bank of the Wacissa after its confluence with Little River. Minnow is a small vent that is about 8 feet deep and at the end of a plant-choked channel about 150 feet long and 50 feet wide.
Buzzard (or Buzzer’s) Log Spring is just downriver from Minnow on the same side and right at the mouth of a channel that leads back 1,000 feet to an unnamed spring. It is a small opening about 8 feet deep.
Garner Springs is a pair of springs just downriver from Buzzard Log Spring. A single channel connects the springs with the river. The first spring lies on the left as you paddle in. Look for the clear flow. However, the channel is blocked by trees and vegetation. The second spring is at the back end of the channel, approximately 1/6 of a mile west. It is a circular pool about 30 feet in diameter with a large (4-foot diameter) cypress trunk lying underwater across the vent. The remnant of a small dock is on the northern end of the pool. The water is clear and can be bright blue in the sunlight.
Big Blue Spring
The northern end of the Big Spring or (Big Blue Spring) run is about 300 feet downriver from Garner Springs. The ¼ mile run ends at the large spring and is strong and clear in flow and about 60 feet wide and 4 feet deep. The spring also has a southern run of about the same length, although its dimensions are smaller and it is sometimes blocked by vegetation. The spring pool is circular and over 125 feet in diameter. The bottom is not clearly visible due to aquatic vegetation. Hornsby & Ceryak record that the vent is 31 feet down (2000, p. 52), while Rosenau et al. (1977, p. 195) and DeLoach (1997, p. 125) record the depth as being 45 feet. In 2000 there were two floating platforms in the basin, but no rope swing (there had been one in the past). The spring is popular with swimmers and picnickers. Depending on the water level, season, and available sunlight, the water color varies from deep blue to green. The water is clear. During the 1990s, a larger alligator with a gaff jammed in its back was often observed in the spring.
Rosenau et al., local information, and visual evidence suggest there are additional springs just past the southern run from Big Spring. The authors’ efforts to locate them have not been successful due to fallen trees, low water levels, and heavy aquatic vegetation that blocked what appear to be spring runs on the east bank. Gainer & Ceryak have reached them and designate them as JEF64991 and JEF63992. Both are described as second magnitude springs that are choked with elodea and other aquatic vegetation (2000, pp. 57, 59). They also describe one more spring that is approximately 2.5 miles south of the Wacissa headwaters and designate this similarly plant-choked second-magnitude spring as JEF63993 (2000, p. 58).
- Most of the land around the springs and river is owned by the St. Joe Paper Company. Important tracts have been leased by the St. Joe Company to the State of Florida and managed as part of the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area. In 2001, the Nature Conservancy helped the State of Florida to purchase "8,840 acres of woodlands and swamps along the upper portion of the river" ("Crystal-Clear Wacissa . . .," 2001, p. 12), where nearly all the springs are located. The Suwannee River Water Management District also protects approximately 40,000 acres of the Wacissa River watershed.
- Except for the springs right by the dive platform and boat ramp, the springs can only be viewed by boat. River water is clear and clean, but choked with hydrilla, elodea, and other exotic vegetation. Access to springs varies based on water levels and the thickness of aquatic vegetation and fallen trees.
- Horseflies and mosquitoes can be fierce in warm weather, and there is often trash in the parking lot.
- The Wacissa, which is protected as a wildlife management area, is abundant with alligators, bobcat, herons, snakes, limkin, and occasionally otters and bears.
- A park with a rope swing and diving board attracts locals on summer days. The boat ramp is used all year round.
- The Wacissa River Canoe and Kayak Rental company offers boat rentals for this site: 290 Wacissa Springs Road, Monticello, FL 32344, (850) 997-5023, website: www.wacissarivercanoerentals.com/
- Airboats are used on the Wacissa, creating shattering noise.
The extreme infestation of the Wacissa by exotic plants makes canoeing difficult except in the middle of the river. When visitors take the initiative and clear away the plants from a spring, the difference can be startling. There appears to be no real solution in sight for the problem of exotic infestation in the Wacissa.
- Kini Spring
- Indian Springs
- McBride Slough Spring
- Natural Bridge Spring
- Newport (or Sulfur) Spring
- Panacea Mineral Springs
- Rhodes Spring
- St. Marks Springs
- Sally Ward Spring
- Shepherd Spring
- Wakulla Springs
Other Nearby Natural Features
- Slave Canal
- Econfina River State Park
- Leon County Sinks Park
- Apalachicola National Forest
- Wakulla Spring State Park
- St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
An Essay on the Wacissa River
Not 30 minutes east of Tallahassee is a timeless but also disturbed wilderness--the Wacissa River. Reached from U.S. 27 or I-10 via SR 59, the Wacissa's name is of uncertain origin, perhaps from Indians or the Spanish. By whatever name, it is one of the Big Bend's sweetest treasures.
The Wacissa is a clear, spring river--its water from numerous springs at its headwaters and along the first of its 14 miles to the Aucilla River. Cypress trees hug the swampy banks and are joined by maple, oak, magnolia, holly, sweet bay, myrtle, hickory, palmetto, and sweet gum. Snail eggs decorate the lower trunks of many trees.
In the water are bass, mullet, sunfish, bluegill, gar, bowfin, and catfish; fishing is probably the most popular activity on the river. Alligators, turtles, and snakes are also around, and the sharp-eyed observer will see all three on a quiet, sunny day.
Few places offer better opportunities to see large birds. A typical afternoon on the water will reveal egrets; great blue, little blue, tri-color, and green-backed herons; hawks; osprey; and kingfishers. The threatened limkin is fairly common, as is the bald eagle, and I heard an owl my last visit. Migratory ducks pass the winter here, hiding in the spring runs.
The only way to explore the river is by boat. A canoe is best, and the two-knot river can be "done" in two pieces. From the headwaters, there is an easy nine-mile run south to Goose Pasture. A couple of islands offer picnicking and camping spots, and the remains of an old dam provide some mild white water.
From Goose Pasture there is an extraordinary and somewhat nerve-tangling stretch through swamp via a hidden canal built by slaves. The Slave Canal is one of the most scenic and remote canoe trips in Florida. Land along the river belongs mostly to large lumber companies, and they have agreed to leave a buffer of trees along the water. The river is part of the Aucilla Wildlife Management District.
So far so great. Clear water, abundant life, springs, and the whole thing preserved. But it's not that simple. The entire Wacissa watershed was clear-cut in 1930. Logging silted the river and decimated nearly all the Wacissa's wildlife, including panther, bear, bobcat, and the now-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker.
By the 1960s, the river and its inhabitants had recovered a great deal. Then, exotic water plants were introduced. Hyacinth and elodea now choke the entire upper portion of the river. Unless controlled more effectively these invaders may eventually drive out all the native water plants and the animals that depend on them.
On weekends, the put-in is crowded. Boat motors leak fuel into the water, and airboats generate shattering noise. Poaching is common. Garbage mars the river and parking areas, and some locals resent the growing numbers of Tallahasseans on the river.
But nature can recover if given a chance, and the river and the people manage. Except for a few cypress stumps, there is no sign of the timbering. For every jerk who throws trash in the water, someone else will usually pick it up. People clear the channels of hydrilla. There is still incredible beauty and more people who care about the river than trash it.
And when you get away from the crowds, turn off the motor, or pole your way into a spring run, you will be rewarded by serenity and natural grandeur that is so enchanting it has a kind of spiritual grace: I once saw otters cavorting on the Little River run. A bobcat crossed my path on my last visit, and a pair of limkin came within 15 feet of my canoe. And, if you find them, springs sparkle like cerulean jewels in deep forests up crystal-clear runs.
(And by the way, you'll have a much more spiritual experience in the summer if you wear insect repellent.) Go see it for yourself.
An Essay on the Wacissa Slave Canal
Named for the slaves who built it, the Wacissa Slave Canal was constructed in an attempt to connect the Wacissa to the Aucilla River so cotton barges could be floated to the Gulf. For several miles below Goose Pasture, the Wacissa diffuses into impassable swamp. It reforms just where the Aucilla River pops up after miles of roller-coastering above and below the surface. The two rivers then join and flow south like lovers who unite after playing the field a while.
In the 1830s and 1840s, African-Americans slaved in the swamp, manhandling limestone boulders out of the muck. The scheme didn’t work well. The canal was too shallow, and after the Civil War farmers gave up and left Mother Nature to restore the pieces. The hard edges are gone, and somehow the decades of rain, wind and water did not fill in the canal. It remains canoe-able, and except for some boulders on the bank you’d never suspect it was not a natural waterway.
The trick is finding it. You must know precisely where it is or you are going to have a bad scare day--and maybe night--out there with the mosquitoes, bears, moccasins, and alligators. You see the canal is unmarked. There are no billboards on the Wacissa saying, "Slave Canal exit; eat here and get gas," so get someone to show you the way. The put-in is at Goose Pasture off U.S. 98 about 45 minutes south of Tallahassee. En route, you’ll cross the Florida Trail and see one of the Aucilla’s many sinks.
Goose Pasture is a popular campground, but nearly everyone goes upriver to fish; you’ll likely have the canal to yourself. Push off, move right, and stay there. In four minutes you’ll be in Little Goose Pasture, as pretty a stretch of river as there is anywhere. The water sparkles and is full of birds, fish, and gators.
Manmade noise disappears utterly. The silence is broken only by birds, turtle splashes, and wind rustling through wild rice in the river. There is no need to paddle--just float and steer for 45 minutes and enjoy the butterflies, flowers, and hummingbirds. Then, look for a river widening ringed with cypress, a big stand of wild rice ahead, and an inviting channel on the left. Take that channel, and you’ll never be seen again.
Instead, attend to the right. In front of the rice is a ribbon of water flowing through a curtain of branches. Take it. You’ll be sure you’re in the wrong place as you pull through vegetation and around switchbacks for five minutes. But if you are right, you will then come round a bend and see the stones. Sitting as if awaiting judgment day, the boulders still line the canal where the black men placed them.
The canal is narrow, shallow, and clear; look down and you’ll see mullet, gar and other fish making their way up from the Gulf. The canal winds south, probably along the path of an old depression. It is almost entirely canopied, and the deep hardwood forest is laced with arching palmettos.
You’ll have to do some limbo to get under trees. The frequent turns--and even moreso the stones and the overarching silence--encourage concentration and a somber reflection of what men once forced other men to do here.
Finally other, dirty creeks flow in; the water deepens, widens, darkens. Sounds of a nearby quarry and of vehicles on U.S. 98 spoil the silence, and you’ll need to paddle up the Aucilla to the takeout near Nutall Rise.
So, are you game--willing to take a risk in unknown territory? If you are, and will accord the river the proper respect for its wild, inhuman, and inhumane beauty, the Wacissa Slave Canal is waiting.