Ancient Oasis in Florida’s Ocala National Forest
Salt Springs is a remarkable natural spring that rises from a series of deep vertical fissures or cracks in the karst topography that underlies much of the Ocala National Forest. Now a popular National Forests in Florida recreation area, the springs are near the small resort community of Salt Springs.
The second magnitude springs produce water rich in potassium, sodium and magnesium, elements that combine to give it a distinctly saline or “salty” taste. People have esteemed such mineral springs claiming they holdmcurative properties for thousands of years.
Archaeologists from the University of Florida suggest that humans first made use of Salt Springs more than 5,800 years ago. They dug trenches into midden areas of the site and found shell deposits containing artifacts as well as animal bones and plant remains.
Prehistoric Native Americans ate thousands of meals around the springs, leaving behind squash seeds, deer bones, antlers, squash and gourd rinds, hickory nut shells and more. Archaeologists studied these remains to learn more about the people who lived here and their meals of shellfish, deer, small animals, fish and both wild and domesticated plants.
A number of elderberry seeds were found in the excavations, suggesting that the early inhabitants of Salt Springs may have used elderberries to brew a black tea similar to the ritual “Black Drink” later consumed by the Seminole, Miccosukee and Muscogee (Creek) Indians.
Made from the berries of the yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), warriors consumed this tea during the annual ritual known as the Busk or Green Corn Festival. Called the Asi in some American Indian dialects, a term which means black or dark and likely referred to the color of the tea. The warrior who called out the serving of the drink was the Asi Yahola or “Black Drink Crier.” Europeans loosely corrupted this to “Osceola,” a word best remembered today as the name of a noted Seminole leader.
The taking of the Black Drink was an important part of Seminole, Miccosukee and Creek life. The findings at Salt Springs suggest that inhabitants there consumed a similar ritual drink long before these historic tribes arrived in Florida.
The research in the middens at the springs show that by around 4,500 years ago, the people living there had trade connections with other prehistoric American Indian groups from as far away as Mississippi, South Carolina and the southern tip of Florida. Beads from Mississippi and bannerstones from South Carolina were among the artifacts found at Salt Springs. Both show the far-flung nature of the chiefdom’s trade network. Archaeologists note with interest that the inhabitants apparently never tried to make beads of their own, but were instead content with trading for them.
The Archaic era occupation of Salt Springs ended thousands of years ago, but the unique springs drew attention from other visitors well into the historic era. Perhaps the most famous visitor to stop by was the naturalist William Bartram. He described the springs in August 1774, less than one year before the start of the American Revolution:
Behold, for instance, a vast circular expanse before you, the waters of which are so extremely clear as to be diaphanous or transparent as the ether; the margin of the basin ornamented with a great variety of fruitful and floriferous trees, shrubs, and plants, the pendant golden Orange dancing on the surface of the pullicid waters, the balmy air vibrating with the melody of the merry birds, tenants of the encircling aromatic grove.
Salt Springs Recreation Area is now a stop on the remarkably well-researched Bartram Trail, a National Recreation Trail that encompasses both sides of the St. Johns River in Putnam County, Florida. Please click here to visit the trail’s outstanding website.
The description given by Bartram stands very well today, although the margins of the spring are now protected by decorative concrete walls placed to stop bank erosion.
The recreation area is a place of spectacular beauty. The water is crystal clear and it is possible to look down into the unique vents or cracks from which the water flows. A second magnitude spring, Salt Springs produces around 55 million gallons of water per day.
Salt Springs Recreation Area is one of the most popular spots in the Ocala National Forest and offers swimming, hiking, picnicking, camping and more. The spring run feeds Lake George, a natural lake along the St. Johns River, and the park area is a great site for birding, wildlife observation, paddling and more. The beautiful Bear Swamp Trail takes visitors past cypress trees so old that they were living when William Bartram visited in 1774.
Salt Springs Recreation Area is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The daily admission fee per person. Full hookup and tent campsites are available for those interested in overnight stays. We recommend reservations if you plan to stay overnight.
The recreation area is at 13851 Highway 19 North, Fort McCoy, Florida. It is on State Road 19 about one-half mile north of its intersection of County Road 314 in Salt Springs, Florida. The GPS coördinates are 29°21’25″N, 81°43’55″W.
Salt Springs Recreation Area is 31 miles northeast of Ocala, 59 miles northwest of Daytona Beach and 24 miles south of Palatka. See the map at the bottom of this page for location information.
If you want to do some boating or paddling during your visit, click here for information on Salt Springs Marina. It is on the spring run below the springs.
Here is a quick video of Salt Springs courtesy of our sister site Two Egg TV: