Tour Florida’s Panhandle on the Gulf Coast Drive

Between Panama City and Tallahassee, Florida’s Gulf Coast is sheltered by sandy barrier islands and isolated from points north by

Between Panama City and Tallahassee, Florida’s Gulf Coast is sheltered by sandy barrier islands and isolated from points north by vast forests. The Florida boom has for the most part left this stretch of coast alone—left it to migrating shorebirds that find first landfall here in spring, to drowsy alligators, and to folks who’d rather enjoy an Apalachicola oyster than a night on the town.

1. St. Andrews State Park
Reached via Thomas Drive, which turns off Rte. 98 three miles west of Panama City, St. Andrews State Park is tucked between the Gulf of Mexico and a calm saltwater lagoon, gathering the diverse flavors of Northwest Florida into a single 1,000-acre package. Campers and day-trippers can explore steep sand dunes and immaculate beaches, dense pine woods, a freshwater lake, marshes teeming with herons and alligators, and a nature trail that snakes through a fascinating variety of wildlife habitats. Anglers who come to St. Andrews, whether for surf casting or fishing from the jetty, will be rewarded with an abundance of bluefish, bonito, redfish, dorado, flounder, perch, and Spanish mackerel.

For an escape even farther into the languid life of the Gulf Coast, visitors can travel by boat to nearby Shell Island. Awash with seashells—and refreshingly free of development—this barrier island, some seven miles of white sand and scrub forest, is a serene oasis where gentle breezes rustle the tawny-topped sea oats that anchor the shifting sands of the ever-shifting sand dunes.

2. St. Joseph Peninsula State Park

Return to Panama City and then head southeast on Rte. 98 to Rte. 30E and the St. Joseph Peninsula. Civilization seems to run out as the road crooks north from Cape San Blas toward St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. Some two-thirds of this sanctuary is preserved as a wilderness area, where the brown pelicans swoop seaward and the beach belongs to horseshoe crabs and nesting sea turtles.

To the south and east of the peninsula, you’ll find St. Vincent Island (accessible by private boat), a fine place for savoring the music of windblown cabbage palms or viewing the great gangling wood storks that visit in summer.

3. Apalachicola
Returning to Rte. 98, the drive tools east into Apalachicola, where the law dictates that no building can be higher than three stories, making for a pleasantly human-scale town. The cotton business once reigned supreme here, and a pair of partially restored warehouses from that era still stand. Numerous other buildings have already been restored and now host antique shops and seafood restaurants serving the day’s catch from the bay. The town’s life today centers around its harbor, where oystermen haul in enormous harvests from the rich beds out in the bay. Along the old streets behind the waterfront, handsome Greek Revival homes eloquently recall prosperous Antebellum days. Some are now bed-and-breakfast inns, spots where visitors can stay.

Also here is the John Gorrie State Museum, where exhibits tell of a young doctor who, trying to keep yellow fever patients cool in the 1840s, invented the first mechanical icemaker and so laid the foundation for artificial cooling of the air. The air conditioner, of course, is now a Florida icon.

4. St. George Island State Park
Continue east over the Gorrie Bridge from Apalachicola to Eastpoint, then angles south onto a bridge leading to St. George Island. The easternmost 2,000 acres of this spit of dunes and marshes that separates Apalachicola Bay from the Gulf of Mexico has been set aside as a park—a boon not only to hikers, campers, anglers, and beach lovers, but to the shorebirds that depend on the undeveloped coastline as a resting place for their migration stopovers.

Willets, snowy plovers, least terns, and black skimmers are among the many kinds of birds that gather along the St. George beaches in spring and fall. The migration routes of some species extend all the way from Argentina and Brazil to the Arctic tundra of North America. The shorebirds that you see feeding on minute crustaceans and other tiny sea creatures can survive only if development-free way stations such as St. George Island survive as well.

5. Carrabelle
From its southernmost thrust into the Gulf at Apalachicola, the northwest Florida coastline arcs to the northeast. At easygoing Carrabelle, a celebrated local attraction is a telephone booth billed as the world’s smallest police station.

From Carrabelle’s impressive marina, charter boats head out into the gulf in search of tarpons, groupers, amberjacks, and red snappers. A little ferry also motors out to Dog Island, where 100 or so householders and an eight-room inn (bring your own food) share sand and serenity with a vast Nature Conservancy preserve.

6. Ochlockonee River State Park
Northeast of Carrabelle and some 10 miles inland from the Gulf on Rte. 319, you’ll arrive at the pine woods and oak thickets of Ochlockonee River State Park. The park provides a habitat for gray foxes, which, unlike their red cousins, can climb trees to get at fruit, nuts, and the occasional unlucky bird. Sharing the forests along the banks of the Ochlockonee River are bobcats, deer, alligators, and rare red-cockaded woodpeckers.

7. Apalachicola National Forest
Much of the inland sections of the region are forests dominated by longleaf pines, turkey oaks, and palmettos. In addition to woodland, the half-million-plus acres of Apalachicola National Forest contain a wealth of freshwater swamps and marshes, creating a habitat quite different from that of the coast. At the forest’s heart lie some 22,000 acres of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness, where black bears shoulder their way through azalea thickets and sweet-bay magnolia swamps, and pitcher plants lure insects to a nectary doom.

The best route through the Apalachicola hinterlands is by water: the 67-mile canoe trail that follows the lazy curves of the Ochlockonee and Sopchoppy rivers, where paddlers glide along in the blissfully cool shade of bald cypresses and water oaks.

8. St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
After reconnecting with Rte. 98 and continuing east, the drive noses south on Rte. 59 to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. From observation decks overlooking dense woods and swampland, visitors can view the plumage and listen to the voices of bright yellow prothonotary warblers, Acadian flycatchers, eastern meadowlarks, and some 200 other kinds of birds.

Nearby, at the head of Apalachee Bay, stands the 80-foot St. Marks Lighthouse, fashioned of limestone blocks taken from the ruins of a 17th-century fort. The light has cast its beam into the night skies above the Gulf of Mexico since the early 1830s.

Tunnels of Tallahassee
Radiating from the center of Tallahassee to its rural outskirts are five delightful, officially designated Canopy Roads. The routes are so named because they are lined on both sides with live oaks whose branches, garlanded with Spanish moss, meet overhead to form virtual tunnels of foliage. The five Canopy Roads (Old Bainbridge, Centerville, Meridian, Miccousukee, and Old St. Augustine) wind by old plantations, Indian mounds, manicured picnic areas, tranquil lakes, and resplendent flower gardens.

9. Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
Hollywood filmed its early Tarzan movies at Wakulla Springs (on Rte. 267), a pristine riverbank environment preserved by the farsighted efforts of financier Edward Ball. You can enjoy this watery realm—vibrant with snakes, alligators, and waterfowl—from the safety of a riverboat or hike the hospitable trails of the park’s magnificent virgin upland hardwood forest.

The spring itself was discovered long ago by Indians, and according to legend it was also visited by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon, seeker of the Fountain of Youth, who is said to have wintered here. The crystal-clear pool, nearly 125 feet deep, is fed by an underground river that discharges some 600,000 gallons per minute into the spring’s basin and then into the Wakulla River. With the aid of a glass-bottomed excursion boat, visitors to the spring can look down to the entrance of a cave where mastodon bones are lodged—and from which a complete skeleton of one of the prehistoric creatures was retrieved by paleontologists in 1935.

10. Leon Sinks Geological Area
Just off Rte. 319, not far from Tallahassee, a corner of the Apalachicola National Forest harbors another unusual aspect of the region’s geology. The Leon Sinks are a collection of five enormous holes in the forest floor, places where the bottom seems to have dropped out of terra firma. They were created when rainwater percolating through sandy soil dissolved segments of the weak, porous limestone below, causing the substructure to collapse. At Big Dismal Sink, the largest of the holes, the rim above the void measures 200 feet across. Seventy-five feet below—beneath steep walls overgrown with magnolias, laurel oaks, and more than 70 other kinds of plants—lies the surface of a deep, placid pool.

11. Tallahassee
Courtly by nature and modest in size, this panhandle city has more in common with its Deep South sisters, Savannah and Charleston, than with the metropolises of the Florida Peninsula. Tallahassee has been the state capital since 1824, when its promoters pointed to its “central” location—halfway between Pensacola and St. Augustine (back then, folks discounted the hot, malarial reaches to the south).
Tallahassee nestles amid gentle green hills, the southernmost outriders of the Appalachians. The view from the observation deck atop the 22-story New State Capitol makes the city seem a virtual island in a piney gulf, with the real Gulf, marked by the just-visible St. Marks Lighthouse, a scant 25 miles distant.

Nearby is the majestically domed Old Capitol, built in 1845 and now beautifully restored inside and out. White columns and resplendent red-and-white-striped awnings greet visitors, who can step inside to view exhibits on Florida’s past.

Another way to experience the past is to take a stroll through one of Tallahassee’s historic districts. Adams Street Commons occupies one city block of restored 19th-century buildings and exudes an old-fashioned, southern town-square ambience. The Calhoun Street and Park Avenue historic districts show off elaborate homes (the Bloxham, Cobb, Randall-Lewis, Knott, Murphy, Bowen, and Shine-Chittenden houses, for example) built by Tallahassee’s well-to-do in the 1800s.

Located just north of town on Thomasville Road (Rte. 319) is the Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park, Tallahassee’s most glorious outdoor attraction. Legions of azaleas, redbuds, dogwoods, magnolias, amaryllises, and other native flora grace the landscape here, along with the specialty of onetime owner Alfred Maclay: 150 varieties of fall- and winter-blooming red, white, and pink camellias.

12. Lake Talquin State Park
In 1927 the newly built Jackson Bluff Dam harnessed the powerful Ochlockonee River, forming sinuous Lake Talquin in its river valley. The lake meanders along the borders of the Apalachicola National Forest to the west of Tallahassee. Here anglers compete with bald eagles and ospreys for speckled perch and largemouth bass, while hikers wind along pine-scented trails in a dense woodland that seems almost a world apart from the panhandle’s salty, windswept coast.

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