Monday, March 14, 2011
Trekking the Florida Panhandle
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.
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.
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.