Wild Roads: Florida Panhandle
Illustration: Florida road trip map

Gulf Coasting

The Sunshine State, sans pastel.

Text by Jeanine Barone
Map by Joyce Pendola

There’s a long stretch of forgotten Florida coastline where pink condo towers are the exception, not the rule, and strip malls give way to cypress swamps. The largest national forest in Florida—Apalachicola—is here, covering more than half a million acres of longleaf pine groves, clear-water sinkholes, two runnable rivers, and open, grassy savannas that are more East Texas than South Beach. "When I drive home," says Rama Ben-Baruch, co-owner of kayak outfitter Expeditions in Hell, "I have to avoid snakes slithering across the road." Bike an abandoned railroad, go through Hell (actually a magnificent wetland), and scarf all the fresh shellfish you can handle in a Florida rarely seen—a Florida as it was before an anthropomorphic mouse took over and gators still ruled the swamps.

Day 1

Cruise the 16-mile Tallahassee–St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail with a bike from the Great Bicycle Shop of Tallahassee (full-day rental, $30; greatbicycle.com). Brake for wild turkeys and the occasional black bear. Then head for the pines on the Munson Hills Off Road Bicycle Trail, a sandy 20-mile singletrack loop. At twilight, drive 15 minutes south to the retro-chic (wrought iron, ceramic tile, marble) Wakulla Springs Lodge, built by a rail baron in the 1930s (doubles from $85; floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings/default.cfm).

Day 2

Local legend has it that Tate’s Hell State Forest got its name from farmer Cebe Tate, who wandered into this swampland chasing a panther that had killed his livestock. He emerged a week later, white as a sheet, and muttered, "I just came from hell." Make a less dramatic passage with a guide from Expeditions in Hell (three hours, $145; expeditionsinhell.com). Kayak through cypress swamps and slow, meandering rivers, keeping eyes peeled for bull sharks. Postpaddle, rest your weary arms at the 19th-century Old Carrabelle Hotel (doubles from $67; oldcarrabellehotel.com).

Day 3

Journeys of St. George Island has been guiding folks out on Apalachicola Bay for nearly two decades. Take a morning motorboat cruise to St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge and walk along empty, shell-covered beaches (four hours, $350; sgislandjourneys.com). The pygmy rattlers aren’t shy, so wear sturdy shoes. Then sidle up to the rickety bar at Boss Oyster for buckets of just shucked bay shellfish (apalachicolariverinn.com/boss.html). Base camp for the night is the historic Gibson Inn, overlooking the spot where the Apalachicola River meets the Gulf of Mexico (doubles from $108; gibsoninn.com).

Day 4

"There’s nothing like this in the rest of Florida," says Torreya State Park manager Steve Cutshaw. He’s right. The 13,217-acre park is hilly, the trees deciduous, and the vibe more Appalachian than Floridian. En route, wind along the Apalachee Savannahs Scenic Byway (home to rare orchids and carnivorous pitcher plants), then hike the Torreya Loop and the more intense Torreya Challenge—nearly 16 miles in all—through canyons, atop pine bluffs, and past old Confederate camps. Slumber in the park’s yurt with a private deck above a deep ravine ($32; floridastateparks.org/torreya).

email a friend iconprinter friendly icon   |   
Join the discussion

National Geographic Adventure is pleased to provide this opportunity for you to share your comments about this article. Thanks for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Recent Comments
  • No comments have been posted