Florida, one of the country’s most popular vacation spots, has never held a primary position on our wish list. Perhaps, as introverts who prefer to commune with nature we envisioned the state as a huge, loud tourist trap. However, our visit to just the northwest corner of the state has changed our minds completely! Yes, Florida can be touristy, but it’s also full to the brink with unspoiled wilderness and thriving wildlife one can explore by foot, bike, or boat. (I’m even getting over my super *extra* fear of gators…)
On our first day, we entered the state from southern Georgia making a beeline for Tallahassee, where a wonderful Boondockers Welcome host put us up for a couple of nights while we explored the area.
Despite the chill (Florida can be cold?), we headed out to first learn a bit about the history of the area at the impeccably curated (yet FREE) Museum of Florida History. The museum includes multiple exhibits about the history of this complicated state. Most interesting to me was that it went largely undeveloped until the 1930s with the increased popularity of motor vehicles.
Next, we visited two nearby quirky spots including the Grave of Elizabeth Budd-Graham, who local legend claims was a good witch based on the Edgar Allen Poe lines engraved on her headstone.
We also visited the Florida State University Sod Cemetery, where the team has been burying clods of sod from their defeated opponents for decades. They actually bury them here in tiny little coffins with headstones!
Once the weather warmed up a bit in the afternoon, we headed for the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail. This trail runs about 20 miles each way between Tallahassee and St. Marks down on the gulf. We did not have time to bike the entire trail, so we drove about halfway down to the Wakulla Playground parking lot and rode to St. Marks from there and back (about 14 miles).
In St. Marks at the end of the bike path, you can get a meal and a beer at the Riverside Cafe!
On our second day, we continued our explorations of the Tallahassee area starting with the Tallahassee Museum. On a cold weekday morning, we were the only visitors, making the place seem a little desolate at first; however, the more we explored, the more we enjoyed the park – especially the animal exhibits (especially the playful otters).
In the afternoon, we drove about 20 miles east of the city to kayak on the Wacissa River. This was just the first of many incredibly beautiful paddles we had the opportunity to enjoy in northwest Florida. The springs were clear and brimming with wildlife! We completed the paddle as a boomerang on the slow moving water – about 6 miles round trip.
On our third day, we packed up and headed south towards the gulf. First, we stopped at the Leon Sinks Geological Area for a little education about karst topography and a trail run.
We continued southward towards Wakulla Springs State Park, where the park offers pontoon boat tours. We thoroughly enjoyed this tour from a knowledgeable guide who taught us a bit about the birds we had seen the previous day on the Wacissa River. We also saw many a gator!
Next, we stopped in a a quirky roadside attraction known as Harvey’s Ford Collection, a bunch of old rusted Ford trucks lined up in chronological order.
That night, we camped at a Boondocking Site in the Apalachicola National Forest. We considered kayaking from the river access right there, but instead chose to ride our bikes on the sandy/dirt roads in the area!
On our fourth day, we drove to nearby Panacea and dropped our camper at the campground we’d be staying that night and really headed for the coast, starting with a beach run at Bald Point State Park.
After our exercise, we headed west towards Apalachicola but stopped first for a few sites in Carrabelle. The first was the world’s smallest police station (just a box!).
We also visited the incredible Carrabelle Bottle House, where a local family has built a variety of structures out of bottles in their backyard and encourage visitors to check it our any time of day or night so long as they don’t let the dogs out of the gate! These pictures don’t do it justice!
In historic Apalachicola, we started with a visit to the John Gorrie Museum, a state park dedicated to the man who invented the ice machine – not for keeping drinks cool, but for trying to cure yellow fever!
From there, we walked through town to the Orman House Historic Site, the former home of one of the town’s leading founders and merchants.
We decided we couldn’t leave Apalachicola without having some of their famous oysters, so we stopped at Up the Creek Raw Bar for some delicious oyster selections with an incredible view before heading back to Panacea for the night.
Our plan was to get to a Boondockers Welcome host in Morrison for the evening, so chose just a couple of stops, including the Forest Capital Museum State Park. This cute little honor system park had no staff, but offered a nice little history of the state’s timber industry. I had no idea how many things are made from pine trees!
We also tried to visit Manatee Springs State Park, but as we were entering the ranger at the gate suggested we turn around since the boardwalks were all closed and there was a brown out – meaning that the water was too murky to see any manatees. So, we made our way on to Morriston, where we set up camp for the next couple of days with our hosts!
On our sixth day, our host, also a kayaker and photographer, offered to take us out to Cedar Key to get a great sunrise shot and kayak on the key. However, it was too overcast for a great shot and too windy to kayak there…
But no fear – he had a backup plan! We drove out to Rainbow Springs State Park for a boomerang kayak. The water was clear and lovely – with many people out on the water enjoying the beautiful day!
That evening, our hosts were having a dinner party and invited us in for good company and delicious food. It was so nice to be a part of a social gathering and make new friends!
On our seventh day, we had intended to move on to the Ocala National Forest, but enjoyed the company of our hosts so much, we stayed another day, starting with an early kayak at the Three Sisters Spring, one of our favorite paddles of all time – MANATEES!!
In the afternoon, we had wanted to do some hiking in the nearby Goethe State Forest, but were informed the trails were all washed out with water, so chose to rest instead :).
Then, in the evening, we joined our hosts for a sunset bike ride on the Withlacoochee Canal Trail.
On our eighth day, we said goodbye to our hosts and made our way to the Ocala National Forest. While there are several free campgrounds for dispersed camping (AKA boondocking), we ultimately decided to pay to dry camp at the Juniper Springs Campground out of convenience for kayaking Juniper Run, one of the most popular paddles in the country!
From our campsite, we only had to travel a short distance to the start of the paddle and the park conveniently shuttles your car to the take out spot for a mere $12! The paddle itself was gorgeous – both relaxing and challenging with it’s narrow windy bed.
That night we contemplated going for a run on the nearby Florida Trail that traverses the park, but bears had been extra active in the region and the camp showers were calling our name. We made the right choice because a black bear wandered into our campground later that night!
On our ninth and final day, we continued south towards Orlando before heading back out to the gulf coast. Our first stop was at the Rock Springs Run State Preserve to run the Rock Springs Loop Trail. The sandy trail offered a challenging run through live oaks dirt paths.
Next, we stopped in Eatonville, where I totally geeked out as an English teacher. One of my top five favorite writers, Zora Neale Hurston, grew up here and wrote the majority of her work about the characters from this first incorporated African-American town. If you haven’t read her works – DO!
Next, we accidentally stumbled across a hidden gem at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, an organization that cares for injured raptors and educates the community on their preservation. Reuben is a huge fan of falconry, so we had to visit!
That night, we bypassed Orlando (we’re not really theme park people…or perhaps we’re not pay exorbitant amounts of money people) and stayed just on the outskirts en route to Tampa, where our next segment in southwest Florida will begin!
Stay tuned for the corresponding Youtube video for our adventures in northwest Florida!