Many visitors drive right through the Big Bend region of Florida just south of Tallahassee. It has few well-known attractions, no good beaches and many travelers are in a hurry.
Too bad, because they are missing out on St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. For some visitors, it is their favorite place in Florida.
What do they see in it?
They see bobcats, eagles, alligators and deer. They spend hours watching birds in the marshes or admiring armies of fiddler crabs scurrying in the muddy sand or seeing the fin of a shark in the shallows.
They come in October to see hundreds, sometimes thousands, of monarch butterflies on their grand migration.
They watch spectacular sunsets and photograph or tour a beautiful historic lighthouse.
Occasionally, they spot bald eagles and even a flamingo, who has been appearing regularly since blowing in with Hurricane Michael in 2018.
Even if you can’t spend a half day relaxing and soaking up the beauty of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, it’s worth visiting, if only to enjoy the scenic road to the lighthouse and the view of Apalachee Bay.
St. Marks Refuge can also be part of a terrific drive on the Big Bend Scenic Byway, about which we have an extensive article.
Visiting St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
The entrance to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is about 15 miles off US 98 and about a half hour from the town of St. Marks, Florida. The address is 1255 Lighthouse Road, St. Marks.
Admission to the refuge is $5, but free for holders of national park passes.
Here’s the website for St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, where you should seek updates on events, including lighthouse tours.
Your first stop should be the wildlife refuge headquarters, whose deck overlooks a pretty lily-pad-filled pond. There’s a pleasant one-third-mile boardwalk trail through the forest too.
At the headquarters, you can pick up maps to guide you on extensive trails for hiking and fat-tire biking.
As you explore the refuge, watch for wildlife big and small: Friends of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge has built a list of 38 species of amphibians, 69 species of reptiles and 44 species of mammals seen in the refuge.
In winter when migratory birds fills the ponds and shore, this is heaven for birders. Some 250 species occur annually; 350 species have been recorded overall.
The refuge was founded in 1931 to protect migratory birds. It has more 80,000 acres including 43 miles of Gulf Coast shoreline.
Beyond the headquarters, the road to the 1831 lighthouse passes extensive wetlands where you’ll see fishermen trying their luck, and there are plenty of places to enjoy the views.
The road ends at the scenic St. Marks lighthouse, where you can walk along the half-mile-long Lighthouse Levee Trail admiring the grassy coastline.
At the end of the levee, we took off our shoes and waded in the sandy-bottomed Gulf waters. We found a half dozen shells occupied by hermit crabs, and watched a fisherman casting against the setting sun. It’s a beautiful spot to spend a few moments.
With a refuge this vast, there are miles of trails for hikers. Some are wooded, some run atop levees. Here’s a map of trails in St. Marks Natioal Wildlife Refuge.st-marks-NWR-hiking-map
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge celebrates the migration of the monarch butterfly on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The annual Monarch Butterfly Festival includes exhibitors and programs about Florida native plants and local and migrating birds. There will be hot dogs, hamburgers, beverages and snacks. Event details.
Monarch butterflies at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
On their 2,000-mile fall migration from North America to Central Mexico, thousands of monarch butterflies stop over in Florida’s Big Bend and Panhandle in October and November.
Monarch butterflies have experienced a dramatic decline in population in the last two decades. While monarch butterflies are found across the United States, according to the U.S. Fish Wildlife Service, their numbers have declined by 90 percent because of loss of habitat due to agricultural practices, development and cropland conversion.
The monarch butterfly migration is unique – each butterfly is on its own, not following a parent, exhibiting an inherited behavior, not a learned one. Migrating monarchs hatch during the summer and they make the round-trip only once.
Floridawildlifeviewing.org says you can see hundreds or even thousands of monarch butterflies at St. Marks refuge and the best place is around the picturesque historic St. Marks lighthouse.
The site reports: “Monarchs are reluctant to fly directly across the water, so they bunch up at the lighthouse, located on a small tip, beside the Gulf of Mexico. They tend to stay for a time because the food supply is good at this time of year.”
Exploring St. Marks Wildlife Refuge: Wakulla Beach
Another interesting stop inside St. Mark’s Widlife Refuge is Wakulla Beach. Watch for Wakulla Beach Road off of US 98, the Big Bend Coastal Scenic Byway, about three miles west of the road to St. Marks. You’ll follow a hard-packed sand road a few miles through a beautiful forest. It ends at the grassy salt flats and the coast.
Thousands of fiddler crabs cover the ground here, moving like an army when you approach them.
The picturesque ruins of an old hotel are crumbling here, gradually being overtaken by vegetation. Signage tells the story, but that’s the only facility here – no restrooms, no picnic tables. It feels like the end of the earth.
Nearby: Bicycling the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail
This 16-mile bike trail was Florida’s first rail-to-trail, developed in 1988, but it preserves an especially historic corridor.
The railroad itself was built in 1831 when mules pulled wagons on rails on this route. Accounts tell of a rough journey through a wild area, but it was the best way for cotton from Florida and Georgia plantations to reach docks where it could be boarded on ships to England and New England.
Today’s bicyclists will find a 12-foot-wide smooth and shady asphalt trail from Tallahassee to the little village of St. Marks, Florida.
We rode the southern section, which was entirely through shaded woods with just a few busy roads to cross. This trail has all the amenities – restrooms every few miles, benches, and at least one shaded picnic table.
The trail is very close to Wakulla Springs State Park and so there are good opportunities for wildlife sightings. For us, that consisted of a small box turtle and a brightly colored rat snake.
Nearby: The little town of St. Marks, Florida
Nearby is St. Marks, Florida, a historic town, located where the Wakulla River meets the St. Marks River, eight miles from Wakulla Springs State. Park
There’s not much to it — two restaurants, a tattoo parlor, a market and a post office.
But little St. Marks, Florida, has one of the longest histories of anyplace in Florida, and the state park located here, San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park, tells the story.
This historic fort, first built by the Spanish, changed hands among a half dozen nations so often you’ll have a hard time keeping it straight.
But you don’t have to study the history or visit the museum to enjoy visiting here.
A small trail circles the museum and takes you out to the beautiful spot where the Wakulla River joins the St. Marks River. An admission fee is not required to enjoy the grounds.
The fort’s history includes its role during the Civil War, when it was Fort Ward.
If you’re a history buff, you’ll want to pay $2 to enter the museum, where an 18-minute video gives a great overview of the many peoples and leaders who lived and died here. And talk about dying — this was a very miserable place to be for most of its history.
Today the site shares space with a busy boat ramp and there is a beautiful view of boats coming and going on the rivers from several points in this park.
Nearby: Wakulla Springs State Park
Just 20 minutes north of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is one of the hidden gems of the Florida State Park system: Wakulla Springs State Park.
Made famous by Tarzan films and the place where the Creature from the Black Lagoon calls home, this first magnitude spring has a big spring-fed swimming beach, a tall tower from which daredevil youth dive into the deep clear spring, a boat tour, trails and many places to explore nearby.
With few lodging choices near St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, one of your best choices is the Wakulla Springs Lodge. It isn’t quite as grand, but it reminds me of the historic lodges built in the national parks.
It dates to 1935 when a famous Floridian, businessman Ed Ball, had it built as a private lodge. (The park is officially named Ed Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.)
The park offers boat tours and, at $8 for adults, they’re a bargain. The boats are covered and accessible to people in wheelchairs. The ranger-led tours are 45 minutes long and cover a two-mile loop. Wildlife, from alligators to wading birds to manatees, is often seen.
Nearby: Kayaking the Wakulla River
About four miles outside Wakulla Springs State Park you can rent kayaks to paddle on the river. The outfitter, T-n-T Hideaway, is a family business in its fourth generation. It is located on the Wakulla River a few miles downstream from the springhead.
Kayakers can start here, paddle up to the boundary of Wakulla Springs State Park (no private boats are allowed inside the park) and then return. To launch your own kayak from T-N-T, there is a $5 fee.
Accommodations and camping near St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
There aren’t many hotels or campgrounds near here.
We recommend the Lodge at Wakulla Springs, described above, and we also enjoyed the historic Shell Island Fish Camp, located a mile from St. Marks “downtown” and the San Marcos de Apalache Historic State Park.
The fish camp offers clean, basic motel rooms in a busy fishing marina on the St. Marks River. We enjoyed watching the fishermen cleaning their catch and overhearing their stories. The place is friendly and inexpensive.
Beyond these two, there are two hotels on US 98 not far from the wildlife refuge.
Resources for a Wakulla Springs State Park-St. Marks, Florida trip
The entrance to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is about 15 miles off US 98 and about a half hour from the town of St. Marks, Florida. The address is 1255 Lighthouse Road, St. Marks. Admission to the refuge is $5, but free for holders of national park passes.
Florida Rambler guide to Big Bend Scenic Byway
The Lodge at Wakulla Springs Rooms range from $129 to $174 for two and include a hot breakfast from a menu served in the dining room.
T-n-T Hideaway (kayak rentals)
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The author, Bonnie Gross, travels with her husband David Blasco, discovering off-the-beaten path places to hike, kayak, bike, swim and explore. Florida Rambler was founded in 2010 by Bonnie and fellow journalist Bob Rountree, two long-time Florida residents who have spent decades exploring the Florida outdoors. Their articles have been published in the Sun Sentinel, the Miami Herald, the Orlando Sentinel, The Guardian and Visit Florida.