Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park exceeded my expectations, even though I’d never heard of it before exploring the region an hour or two north of Tampa Bay. It’s loved by locals, but little known outside New Port Richey.
Even when parks are small and obscure, the award-winning Florida State Parks rarely disappoint me.
Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park is located on the Gulf Coast but doesn’t have a beach; it doesn’t get enough visitors to warrant an admission kiosk at the entrance, just an honor system. It’s an off-the-beaten-track gem.
Our favorite thing? Kayaking from the pristine mangrove-lined salt marshes in the park out into the clear shallow waters of the Gulf to get close to some of the historic stilt houses built by fishermen more than 100 years ago.
In the park, however, my husband and I also thoroughly enjoyed an early morning walk on the short hiking trails to admire several small springs.
The highlight was a cool “tidal waterfall” you can see only at low tide when Salt Spring waters tumble over a short limestone ridge toward the Gulf. Two hours later, when the tide rose, we kayaked right over that “waterfall,” unrecognizable and under water. The trails had other interesting displays too.
This is a huge park at more than 4,000 acres and it is full of wildlife, from American eagles to shore birds to dolphins and manatees occasionally seen in the estuary.
I wouldn’t drive hours just for Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park, but if I were in the area, I’d visit. It would pair well with a camping/cabin getaway at nearby Starkey Wilderness Park, described below.
Where to kayak at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park
There are a few options, all great, for where to kayak from Werner-Boyce Salt Springs.
If you stay within the park, you can explore the mangrove tunnels, small springs, salt marshes and bays opening into the Gulf. At a relaxed pace, this is likely to take an hour or two maximum. The route through the park is well marked with red buoys and can’t be done at low tide.
If it’s a calm day, you can kayak out into the Gulf and see a few of the eight stilt houses and an island on which you can stop and picnic or swim.
From the kayak launch to the coastline is perhaps a mile; from the coastline out to the stilt houses is about a mile. Rather than heading straight to the closest stilt house, clearly visible as you reach the coast, you can head a little to your left to Durney Key, a spoil island surrounded by sandy shallows and popular with boaters. You can get out of your kayak and picnic and swim here and combine it with paddling by several stilt houses that are quite close to Durney Key.
The stilt houses of Pasco County
We headed straight out from Werner-Boyce Salt Springs to stilt houses #4 and #3. It’s interesting to get close to them. This is allowed, but you are forbidden from getting out and trespassing on them. On a beautiful Thursday, we had this part of the Gulf all to ourselves.
As you approach the stilt houses, some of their romance evaporates as you smell the guano — flocks of cormorants are the real stilt house residents!
The houses we saw up close were very rustic. Nothing fancy here, and yet their stunning location and history of resilience lend them undeniable appeal.
Who built the stilt houses of Pasco County?
According to the West Pasco Historical Society, the original purpose of the stilt houses was to “store large amounts of mullet caught in nets, and to provide a shelter from thunderstorms.” The first ones were built by working fishermen in the 1920s. But recreational fishermen loved them as getaways. During the 1960s, when the number peaked, there were 24 such fish camps.
Storms, lightning and fires have eliminated all but eight survivors, which have stood through sun, salt and hurricanes, some for a hundred years. State law no longer allows the building of stilt houses in Florida.
Those that remain are cherished by their owners, despite their lacking electricity and water. (They are required to have chemical toilets.)
On our one mile open-water kayak to the stilt houses, we crossed over clear water and we could see the bottom the whole way, perhaps six or 10 feet down. We had a perfect day and paddled back with an incoming tide speeding our way.
If you plan to paddle out into the Gulf, you should wear your life preserver, check the weather and tides and be prepared with hats and sunscreen to protect you from the blazing sun.
Logistics of kayaking at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park
Salty Dog Kayak Rentals, a friendly family-owned outfitter, operates here Thursday through Sunday. You are free to use the launch for your own kayak any day. Bring your kayak cart; the launch site is a long way from the parking lot.
If you plan to rent kayaks, a few things to note: Particularly on busy weekends or spring break season, you should reserve your rental ahead online. We saw three people turned away because a large group of girls had reserved all the single kayaks on a Thursday morning.
Also, while the hours may say 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., if the tide is too low, kayaks may not be rented. On the day we went out, the earliest rental was 11 a.m. (This worked out great for us; we got to walk to the tidal waterfall when it was flowing well and the morning was cool.)
Take a photo of the map the outfitter shows you; another tool is to use the MapMyRun app to record your route and help you get back. (These are not the most challenging mangrove islands to navigate; it would be hard to get lost.)
You also can launch and rent kayaks from other locations in New Port Richey including Nauti Dog Scuba Outpost and Hurley Scuba Outpost at Gil Dawg.
Sunset cruises past the stilt houses aboard a pontoon boat are also offered on weekends at Gil Dawg.
Hiking at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park
It’s a reach to call this hiking. All the trails are short and intertwined, but they offer interesting views and information. On the morning we visited, the trails seemed particularly popular with local dog walkers.
All the trails along the Springs Trail are small, close together and none are the blue Instagram-inspiring types. Still, they are fun to spot. The tidal waterfall is modest in size, but unique. The sign for Salt Springs says it is amazingly deep – more than 300 feet.
We enjoyed the interpretive signage on the trails – about tapping the trees for turpentine, mullet boats, the role of salt making, particularly in the Civil War, eagle nests, and others.
I was surprised to learn that while the Union destroyed every salt works they could find, the salt works on what would become Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park were among few in Florida never to be dismantled. Why? They were virtually inaccessible – Union soldiers would have had to come via the Gulf and then use row boats to travel a mile inland.
Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park
- Website for state park
- 8737 U.S. 19, Port Richey.
- Port Richey FL 34668
- There is no camping at Werner-Boyce Salt Springs State Park.
When in New Port Richey, visit J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park
If you’re visiting the area, an excellent place to bike, hike, camp in tents or stay in rustic cabins is just 20 minutes east of town in the massive 12,000-acre Starkey Wilderness Park.
Part of an 18,000-acre water-management preserve, it offers unlimited hiking and a seven-mile smooth, paved bike trail through the forest, which connects to the 42-mile Suncoast Trail. Bicycling here is perfect for families, as there are no road crossings.
Hawks, turkeys, owls, deer and other birds and wildlife are often seen. The park is far enough from a metro area and big enough to provide darks skies for excellent stargazing.
The campground is perfect for tent campers; RV campers are prohibited. There are 16 shaded campsites set in mature woods with restrooms and showers and a small shelter but no hookups for electric or water. Water spigots are spotted around the campground for sharing.
There are also eight cabins available to rent with bunk beds accommodating up to eight people. Each bed has a mattress, but bring your own bed linens or sleeping bags. The cabins have a table and chairs and electricity to power an exhaust fan and a single electrical outlet. Cook outdoors on the charcoal grill or bring your own stove. There is a picnic table outside. The cabins have screen windows only, so prepare for heat or cold if that’s the weather predicted.
Although pets are allowed in day-use areas, they are not allowed in the campground or cabins.
The cabins are $50 per night. Maximum length of stay is 7 nights. Campground rates are $15 per night, and it costs $10 per night for the backpacking sites.
Reservations are accepted up to 30 days in advance online.
STARKEY WILDERNESS PARK, 10500 Wilderness Park Boulevard, New Port Richey, FL 34655. For more information, call (727) 834-3247.
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.