SunWest Park Adventures: Now & Then
When you have lived in a place for practically your whole life, it can be both fascinating and distressing to look around at all the changes that three and a half decades of development can bring to an area like Florida’s Nature Coast.
I came to Spring Hill in 1986, when I was eleven. I entered sixth grade at Powell Middle School, back then an almost brand-new school. At that time, Mariner Boulevard terminated just south of Spring Hill Drive and was just a collection of dirt trails through the woods to County Line Road.
There were two high schools, Springstead and Hernando, only one Publix, on Pinehurst Drive near Spring Hill Drive and U.S. 19, the Liberty Bell restaurant on Spring Hill Drive near Mariner Boulevard was Hernando County’s only 24-hour restaurant. Barely a weekend passed that didn’t see the fountain at the entrance of Spring Hill filled to overflowing with soap bubbles courtesy of some of the local kids.
Things here have changed, as anyone who has grown old (er, middle-aged) in one place can tell you about their communities.
Among the many interesting developments here in the Nature Coast region of Florida’s west coast is the transformation of an old lime rock mine in Hudson into a bathing beach and water park.
SunWest Park’s History
What was once known to locals as Sun West Mines is now The Beaches at SunWest Park, a seventy-acre water park on Old Dixie Highway in northwestern Pasco County.
The Pasco County government acquired the land in a 2006 settlement reached with its original owner, Sun West Acquisition.
Plans to develop the abandoned mine into a water park immediately began to take shape, and in 2011, the County leased the park land to a private enterprise, SunWest Park, Inc. The county was to retain ownership of the property, while SunWest Park, Inc. would provide all maintenance and amenities in exchange for all but three percent of its annual revenue. This was to be paid to Pasco County as rent.
SunWest Park opens in 2015
It took SunWest Park, Inc. a few years to get everything up to speed and the park officially opened in July of 2015. It is true there have been some hiccups in the management of the park. Unable to afford to adequately maintain the park due to shortfalls in projected revenue, SunWest, Inc. signed an amended agreement with Pasco County in August of 2018, returning to the county the responsibility of park maintenance in exchange for all revenue generated through parking fees.
Nature, too, takes its annual toll on the park as sands that are unnatural to the perimeter of an abandoned lime rock mine erode when it rains and blow away when the wind picks up, requiring annual maintenance.
Despite the few management hiccups and Mother Nature’s relentless churning, what exists today at SunWest Park provides local families with a fun place to spend the day and features a host of water park amenities.
If you are interested in simply lounging in the sands and soaking up the Florida sun, just pay $5.00 to park and set up your beach chairs on the sandy shore of the former mine, now an enclosed lake.
A Fun Place to enjoy Water Park Amenities such as Kayaking, Paddleboarding, Wakeboarding, & even a Water Obstacle Course
It may be, though, that your adventurous spirit requires more stimulation, and that is no problem. The Lift Adventure Park manages the many water amenities available at SunWest Park.
Kayaks and paddleboards for those who want to explore the lake beyond the roped-off swimming area.
Paddleboarding has been touted as an excellent exercise that uses almost every muscle in the body and improves balance. Kayaking provides good exercise and is a great watersport for beginners. The kayaks and paddleboards at SunWest Park are available to rent for $10.00 for forty-five-minute sessions.
SunWest Park is also home to one of the largest inflatable floating obstacle courses in the world! Forty-five-minute sessions on the obstacle course are available for $15.00.
In addition to the paddleboarding, kayaks, and obstacle course, the park also offers a cable-stabilized wakeboarding course. With a system of cables designed to pull the rider across the surface of the aqua blue waters, there is no need for the waves one would find at any other beach. The course is designed to accommodate beginners and experienced alike. Two hour, four hour, and all-day sessions are available to purchase along with necessary equipment rental available at the park.
Townhouse development may be in the future
Pasco County wants to see further development of the property, building residential townhouses on a plot of land adjacent to the water park.
Hopefully, park management and Pasco County officials can continue to generate revenue, making the use of the old mines by residents and vacationers feasible.
Magical memories of Sun West Mine
While I cannot speak with certainty about the park’s future, its past, at least as it relates to me, is written in stone.
Sometime in late June of 1994, a week or so after my nineteenth birthday, I set my alarm on a Friday night for 4:30 Saturday morning and set out my fishing gear. By 5:30 a.m., I had picked up three of my closest friends, and after stopping at Dunkin’ Donuts, (at that time, Dunkin’ Donuts was in the building that now houses Greek City Café on U.S. 19) we headed south toward Hudson, racing the sunrise, and headed along the coast through Aripeka.
Along the way, we passed Norfleet’s General Store and the old Post Office building, which is not much bigger than a one room schoolhouse.
We made the turn on to Old Dixie Highway from the Aripeka Road and crept along the lime rock road in the dark, looking for the barely visible turnoff where we could park the car.
We parked out of sight from the road, knowing that the cops would run us off if they stumbled upon us. Fishing gear and coffees in hand, we climbed the ten-foot lime rock berm meant to deter trespassers from entering the old mines and laid down our fishing poles and sat and drank coffee and made each other laugh.
Fishing or Swimming?
As the sun rose, we baited our hooks, untangled the cast net none of us ever got good at using, and began our assault on the sheepshead fish which were coming to the edges of the abandoned mine to eat.
After an hour or so of fishing, my buddy Jason asked, “Hey man, do you think you could swim across this thing?” I looked out across the old mine to the other side. It was at least 600 yards from the edge where we sat to the opposite side.
I was nineteen. Immortal. “Of course I can. That’s nothing.” “OK then. Let’s do it”, he said. We jumped in and started across. The water was warm and dark blue under the morning sun. I can remember a sense of there being unknown fathoms of water beneath us as we made our way across the mine. I can also remember a feeling of triumph as we climbed out on the other side and began to walk back to where our more sensible friends waited for us.
I’m too old now to know where kids today trespass for fun here in the Nature Coast area, but surely somewhere there is a group of friends sneaking into some forbidden garden making memories.
Just as surely as they will in thirty or so years look back and remember their adventures fondly.