Right where Florida curves around in its Big Bend under Tallahassee, you’ll find Wakulla County, a great place to explore if you like natural beauty and Old Florida ambiance.
There are only 30,000 residents and no cities, but within an hour’s drive, you can kayak one of Florida’s most beautiful rivers, swim in one of its biggest springs, bicycle one of its best bike trails and stay in an atmospheric grand lodge or at a classic fish camp. You can admire a lighthouse, hike trails in a vast wildlife refuge and explore places where fascinating Florida history happened.
Because it lacks good beaches, many drive through this area on their way to the perfect sands of the Panhandle, and, perhaps as a result, there aren’t many hotels or campgrounds.
But if you find a place to stay, you’ll discover there’s so much outdoor recreation and history to enjoy. And it’s all unspoiled and authentic.
Wakulla Springs State Park and the Lodge at Wakulla Springs
Just 15 minutes south of Tallahassee, Wakulla Springs State Park feels like a well-preserved heirloom.
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.
We stayed in the lodge two decades ago and were thrilled to see about the only thing that has changed since then is it now has wifi.
The Lodge at Wakulla Springs 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 elegant but rustic hotel was built in the Mediterranean Revival style and its most special feature is a spectacular painted beamed ceiling, recently restored, in its huge lobby. There’s a beautiful dining room and an old fashioned marble soda fountain counter in the snack shop that is said to be the longest marble counter in the country. (Where do they get these records?) It all overlooks the first magnitude Wakulla Spring.
The guest rooms are spacious for hotel rooms of that era, each with its own vintage marble bathroom. The rooms are all on the second floor, reachable by an antique elevator that we recommend you try out. (It functions in an unexpected way, but we’ll let you discover it.)
The dining room is lovely and we liked the reasonably priced food and service. A hearty breakfast is included in the room price. We loved the fried chicken and Jessie Ball DuPont salad (blue cheese, candied pecans and green apples over greens)
Tip: If you don’t book a room at the lodge, you can experience the place by having a meal in the dining room.
The beauty of staying in a park lodge, though, is that you can awaken early and take a morning hike in the woods or just gaze out at the spring before swimmers arrive. A beautiful trail leaves from the lodge parking lot and takes you to a little spring-fed stream in one direction or a splendid cypress hammock in the other.
The spring itself has clear water in a natural setting, with cypress trees and vegetation surrounding the spring head and wading birds fishing nearby. Years ago, several mastodon bones were found in the spring. (You can see some preserved in the lobby.)
The water temperature is a chilly 70 degrees year round, but in the summer that is perfect for 90 degree days. Just wading in the spring cools you off.
There is a diving platform and, if you watch for a while, you will see that the kids – and it is almost all kids – spend a lot of time standing there building up courage to jump into the cold water.
Even if you’re not going to jump in, do climb up to the top of the diving tower because here you can look down into the spring. From here, the view of the spring, with its depth and clarity, and the river it forms, is the best. Just be careful with your electronics when kids cannonball into the water!
Like a lot of springs, however, it is not all that healthy today. Algae and vegetation have turned much of the springhead green instead of its former white-sand bottom. It no longer has the kind of visibility where you could peer through 70 feet of water. (Alas, the park used to operate glass bottom boat tours but, the water is seldom clear enough to warrant that now.)
The park still offers boat tours, though usually not glass-bottom, 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.
Kayaking the Wakulla River
About four miles outside the 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 a few miles downstream from the springhead.
Kayakers can start here, paddle up to the park boundary (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.
We signed up for a tour that made our trip one way downstream. Our kayaks were delivered to the park boundary and we paddled leisurely downstream with the flow back to the outfitters.
It is gorgeous scenery, with ancient cypress trees lining the banks and occasionally emerging from the water to form little islands.
We saw several small gators and a few birds, including an osprey nest with everyone home — mom, dad and chick. On our late May morning, the banks were lined with wild flowers.
We didn’t spot the manatees that frequent the river from spring through early winter. (When it gets cold, these manatees head south, so here you see manatees in the summer rather than the winter.)
One of the most appealing spots along the river was a little sulfur spring in its own little cove beside the river.
Note: While we had a leisurely paddle downstream, the current is not so strong that you would have trouble paddling upstream and back.
The little town of St. Marks
Just 20 minutes away, St. Marks is a historic town, located where the Wakulla River meets the St. Marks River, eight miles from Wakulla Spring.
There’s not much to it — two restaurants, a tattoo parlor, a market and a post office. It’s the end of the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail, a terrific bike trail we detail below, and it’s adjacent to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, which also deserves exploration.
But this little town 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.
Before leaving St. Marks, be sure to stop at Bo Lynn’s Grocery Market and perhaps buy a cold beverage or candy bar. This classic general store has been in continuous operation since the 1930s and it’s on the National Register of Historic Places. Owner Miss Joy bought the place from the widow of pioneer Bo Lynn 53 years ago and she has changed it as little as possible. People from around the world have signed Miss Joy’s guestbook – and so can you.
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. It’s worth exploring, if only to enjoy the scenic road to the historic lighthouse and the view of Apalachee Bay.
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 hiking and fat-tire biking trails. St. Marks is a top birding site in the winter and, in fall, thousands of monarch butterflies stop here on their migration.
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 stop and enjoy the views. The road ends at the scenic lighthouse, where you can walk along the half-mile-long Lighthouse Levee Trail admiring the grassy coastline. (You can’t climb the lighthouse.)
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.
Another interesting stop inside St. Mark’s Widlife Refuge is Wakullah Beach. Watch for Wakullah 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.
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.
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 good opportunities for wildlife sightings. For us that consisted of a small box turtle and a brightly colored rat snake.
St. Marks makes a pleasant destination for a bicyclist because you can stop in Bo Lynn’s market for a cold drink (except on Sundays.)
We were traveling the Big Bend area without our bikes so we rented them from an outfitter located right off the trail, the Wilderness Way, 3152 Shadeville Road, Crowfordsville. (850-877-7200) They rent single speed, coaster-brake bicycles without baskets. They’re pretty basic, but we were happy to take a bicycle break on a road trip, and we love seeing outfitters at rail trails to facilitate this for travelers.
This quiet scenic spot along the Saint Marks River is interesting for its geology: the St. Marks disappears into a sinkhole cavern and travels underground and reemerges as the spring.
If you are a Civil War buff, it’s an interesting stop because it is one of the few Civil War battles fought in Florida. It wasn’t a particularly famous or important battle, but the Confederacy was proud to claim they won it. The Union disputed this. The Confederacy claimed the victory because the Union never took Tallahassee, the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi that was not captured. The Union said: “Hey we didn’t want Tallahassee.“
There’s not much to see here besides a beautiful section of riverfront end and trees, but it makes a nice destination for wandering the countryside.
Accommodations and camping in the Wakulla and St. Marks area
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.
St. Marks offers only one other place to stay, The Sweet Magnolia Inn, a bed and breakfast in a building with a storied history.
Camping is available at nearby county-run Newport Park. A bit further away, you can camp at Holiday Campground on the water south of Panacea. (The campground at Ochlockonee State Park would be a good choice, but it is closed for the rest of 2017.)
Resources for planning your Wakulla-St. Marks trip:
The Lodge at Wakulla Springs Rooms range from $129 to $169 for two and include a hot breakfast from a menu served in the dining room.
T-n-T Hideaway (kayak rentals)
The Wilderness Way (bike rentals)