“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien

"Everybody dies. Not everybody really lives."

The saddest sound in the world is a man saying, "I wish I'd have done that."

Monday, March 14, 2011

Trekking the Florida Panhandle

Florida’s white sand beaches, lazy rivers and Spanish moss-draped forests offer nature lovers a wide variety of places to visit and play and some 200 miles of beaches and scrubland from the Florida panhandle eastward to Crystal River are still wild and undeveloped. This stretch of Florida, which roughly parallels Highway 98 along the gulf coast, is home to a diverse array of outstanding natural areas in a part of the state best described as retro.

The condos, souvenir joints and beach homes that dominate the state’s coastline are mercifully few here. Unbroken pine forests line the highways and a chain of wildlife refuges and state parks adorns this corridor, offering beautiful natural destinations within easy driving distance of each other.

Linking these stops provides days of exceptional outdoor adventures interrupted by slow-as-molasses towns and out-of-the-way mom and pop restaurants. We took a week to trek through the area, starting at the western reaches of the panhandle near the city of Destin.

We made our first stop at Topsail Hill State Park and its three miles of beaches secluded behind the park’s claim to fame--towering 25-foot white sand dunes. The park is well visited but somehow retains a relatively untrammeled ambience. It is a nice spot for a day hike and as we lace up our boots we spy a few tourists walking the beach but on this cool March day the beach is anything but crowded. We hike between dunes down to the surf and head west along the packed sand where we see dozens of shorebirds scurrying along the beach. Following a faint trail inland through patches of wispy sea oats, we stumble on a tea-colored freshwater lake shrouded in a thick stand of pine trees. Warily tiptoeing around the edges, we keep our eyes out for hungry gators but instead we are greeted with a cacophony of birds irritated at our intrusion. We spend way too much time hiking through the trees and we have to race a gorgeous setting sun to reach our car before dark.

Topsail gets us pumped up for more discoveries and we are not disappointed at our next stop, St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. Most of the park is a wilderness preserve—no vehicles allowed—so we ditch our car and backpack into the peninsula. The park is a 7.5 mile-long finger of sugary white sand that follows a low ridge line north, the Gulf of Mexico on the ocean side, St. Joseph Bay inshore. The narrow peninsula features high dunes and pine scrub and wide beaches. We are delighted to find that the thousands of acres of beaches and scrub are virtually deserted. On our two-day backpack into the peninsula we see six people. It is hard to believe there is still a place this deserted in Florida. The isolation is refreshing and we delight in scanning the beach both ways and realizing we are the only humans as far as the eye can see.

But we aren’t alone; on our return we follow a trail along a low ridge line traversing the spine of the park and we are repeatedly interrupted by the noisy shuffling of armadillos rooting through the forest duff for tasty grubs. We see a dozen, comical looking critters that momentarily halt to shoot us quizzical looks, completely unperturbed by our presence. We hate to leave St. Joseph but the word is that St. George Island State Park is just as wild and we want to backpack there also.

Our stomachs get the best of us however, and we are delayed getting there. Highway 98 passes through Apalachicola, a quaint town famous for its succulent oysters and we take time to enjoy plates full of these local delicacies. Oyster restaurants are liberally sprinkled along the highway so we pick one with a waterfront view and suck down oysters to our heart’s content.

We linger too long, arriving at St. George Island late in the afternoon. The day turned overcast and a front has blown in and by the time we load up our packs we are fighting a blustery, cold offshore breeze that makes hiking uncomfortable. Like St. Joseph, St. George Island is an anachronism—a wild, undeveloped gem that attracts outdoorsy types. Even on this cold blustery day, we stumble on three other groups of hikers and swap stories with them as dusk settles in. We set up our tent in a light rain and a storm rages all night.

The next day brings typical Florida weather, bright and sunny, as we pull into St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. To use the old cliché, this is one of Florida’s best kept secrets. The road from the entrance shoots seven miles straight through the heart of the 68,000 acre refuge, past thick pine forests and tall palm trees and as we drive we are confronted by a veritable ark of wildlife: hundreds of birds everywhere and where there aren’t birds, there are alligators, or turtles, or otters, or snakes. We run across a ten foot gator on one trail; on another we step gingerly over a pygmy rattlesnake coiled on a wooden foot bridge.

The refuge road ends at St. Marks Lighthouse, a picturesque 19th century structure sitting on the edge of Apalachee Bay. Gunslit-like window openings at the base of the gleaming white lighthouse provide convenient sunning spots for snakes and every windowsill is occupied by a logy grey rat snake soaking up the warm March sun. Pelicans dive in front of us as we eat lunch on the water’s edge.

Final stop: Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, home to one of our most appealing wild animals, the West Indian manatee. These ponderous creatures are very susceptible to the cold so through the winter they congregate in Crystal River around a spring that pumps 600 million gallons of warm 72 degree water out daily. Snorkeling with these huge animals is a real treat and we spend the better part of the morning carefully observing them from a distance until a mother and baby approach us. These close encounters are thrilling and we are approached numerous times.

There you have it: one week, five outstanding natural areas. Easy driving, good food, lots of old Florida ambience, beaches, lakes, rivers, gators and manatees. And you thought Florida was all about Disney World.

(This article originally appeared in the Huntsville Times)

1 comment:

  1. Hi Tom,
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blog posts about St. Joseph Bay to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you :)