For decades, the unspoiled rivers of this rural Panhandle region around Milton have won this town the reputation as “Florida’s canoe capitol.”
Today, you can still canoe, but the range of outdoor activities has multiplied, as kayaking and tubing have gained in popularity, and two eco-resorts have added creative accommodations and even canopy zipline tours. There’s also a terrific paved bike path, excellent hiking trails, a woodsy campground in a state park and the historic district in Milton to explore too.
Interest in this off-the-beaten-track rural area all started with the rivers, primarily Coldwater Creek and Blackwater River, both spring-fed rivers with cool tannic water and big white sandbars.
Eco-resorts Adventures Unlimited
Adventures Unlimited started almost 50 years ago as a simple canoeing outfitter. Over the years, it has expanded to include a variety of rustic cabins and interesting accommodations, a campground, paddling trips and zip line experiences.
The riverfront grounds are extensive and park-like and include several miles of trails winding through woods, over several pretty creeks and past historic structures that have been moved here to find new life as cabins. (If you stay there, walk to the “falls,” which appears to be set up for wedding ceremonies on a small island in the stream.)
We stayed in the Tupelo Cabin, a one-bedroom cabin built on stilts with both an open deck and a screened porch overlooking Coldwater Creek. We enjoyed the cozy gas fireplace (limited to use October to March) and the view through the treetops from the deck at sunset.
There is a great variety of accommodations here. In addition to several cabins on stilts, there’s a 1930s schoolhouse repurposed into the School House Inn, with eight rooms with high ceilings, hardwood floors and screen porches. You can stay in two train cars, a 1928 caboose and a former dining car, now home to three cabins with kitchens. A 1902 Cracker cabin was moved to the site in 1993 and restored for guest rentals.
Many of the cabins overlook Coldwater Creek and all are an easy walk from the stream.
Cabins range from $139 for a one bedroom to $359 for a four bedroom. Tent camping is $30 a night; RVs are $40 to $50.
The complex includes a large zip line course. The shortest option is $99 per person and takes two to three hours to complete, including zipping over Coldwater Creek as well as through the tree tops. The longer tour is $149.
8974 Tomahawk Landing Road, Milton, FL
Eco-resorts Coldwater Gardens
Coldwater Gardens in Milton is seven miles away. Coldwater Gardens does not offer kayak or tubing trips, but does have creative accommodations in a woodsy setting, ranging from cottages to a treehouse to popular glamping tents. (Tripadvisor reviews are very positive.)
There are 350 acres of land and overnight visitors can hike several miles of trails and swim or tube on several sandbars on Coldwater Creek. (Most accommodations are a mile from the creek.)
Day use is limited to self-guided tours of the gardens, which includes hydroponics, shiitake mushrooms, honey bees, vermiculture (cultivation of worms) and chickens and bunnies.
Glamping is $85-$95 a night and cottages $160 to $180. There’s a Creekside platform if you bring your own tent that goes for $40 to $50.
The family-run operation is popular for weddings and special events.
7009 Creek Stone Road, Milton, FL
Kayaking Coldwater Creek, Milton
One of the most popular tubing and paddling rivers in the Milton area, Coldwater Creek is a swift, cold, clear stream through a beautiful quiet forest, with only a few cottages and docks along its banks.
Coldwater Creek’s water is tannic orange and the bottom is largely white sand. The spring-fed river is 80 degrees year around, which means alligators don’t like it, but folks who want to cool down with tube ride in summer sure do.
Kayak, canoe, stand-up paddle board or tube trips are offered by the professionally run Adventures Unlimited operation. Vans with boats leave on the hour from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and paddlers complete their trip by pulling into the Adventures Unlimited dock area.
Adventures Unlimited offers 4-mile, 7-mile and 11-mile paddle trips. The summer tube ride is the 4-mile run.
We canoed the 7-mile trip on a cool cloudy October day and passed one another canoe in 2.5 hours. Summers, though, are the busy season and we are told the river is not nearly so empty.
On our trip, we experienced few manmade sounds. (The exception was the occasional gun shots of hunters somewhere in the distance.)
We didn’t see a lot of birds or wildlife, but enjoyed beautiful cypress trees and innumerable large white sandbars perfect for picnics and swimming.
The current is so strong that you basically have to steer rather than paddle. There are a few logs and snags to maneuver around.
River trips start at $58.30 for the 4-, 7- or 11-mile canoe trip; $42 by single kayak; $84 by tandem kayak. Tube trips start at $23.
Kayaking Blackwater River, Milton
Twenty minutes away from Adventures Unlimited, the Blackwater River is another gem. Its fame is that it is the only pristine white sand bottom river in the United States. That’s the claim, and I have no idea how to verify it.
But I will verify this: That white sand bottom is gorgeous. It has extensive sandbars and, in the shallow golden-orange water, you see a lovely wave-like ripple pattern in the sand.
This river passes through the wild and natural lands of Blackwater State Forest all the way from the Alabama state line, which is one reason it is so pure. There are no homes or docks on the river. The current is two to three miles per hour and the water is shallow, making it one of the easiest paddling trips you can take.
Blackwater River is a series of big S curves. At every curve, there’s a sandbar – a magical spot ideal for wading, swimming, building sand castles and having picnics.
On a sunny warm November weekday, we passed one other canoe, but summer is the busy season, when the river is full of folks on tubes and kayaks. In the summer, when Gulf waters are bathwater-warm, these cool creeks an hour away make popular day trips for beach vacationers.
There are two long-time outfitters on the Blackwater River and their trips range from 4 miles to 11 miles. Tube trips are 4 miles. Rates start at $20 for tube trips; $35 for canoes and kayaks. Overnight trips are also possible.
Tubing Blackwater River and Coldwater Creek
Both rivers are considered excellent tubing rivers. Both have refreshing chilly water and few alligators.
All the oufitters who do kayaks and canoes year around also offer tubing rental and livery service in summer, generally for about a four-mile trip, which takes about two or four hours, depending on how much time you spend on sandbars.
You’ll find details on costs and hours at each website, but the area’s prices for tubing range from around $18 to $23. per person.
In addition, you’ll find a few other tubing outfitters:
Blackwater River State Park and hiking in the Milton region
Blackwater River State Park, 15 minutes off I-10, is a great place for camping, picnicking and hiking.
Along the river, a series of boardwalks connect several covered picnic shelters with riverfront views.
The appealing campground here has 30 campsites and is sheltered by tall longleaf pines. It offers spacious gravel sites with full hookup and can accommodate tents and up to 35-foot RVs.
Note: A nearby helicopter-training facility brings unwanted noise some days.
We liked the hiking in and around this park and took two outstanding hikes.
First, we hiked the varied and scenic 1.75-mile-long Chain of Lakes Nature Trail. (It was too wet on our visit to complete the portion along the cypress swamp adjoining the river, so while this is a loop trail, we did it as an out-and-back.) It starts off at Deaton Bridge Road and you park at South Bridge Parking Area.
A second great hike is the Juniper Creek Trail, which travels several miles and ends at the park. It’s part of the Florida National Scenic Trail System. The most spectacular part, however, is a few miles away, so we drove to the Red Rock Trailhead at 10090 Red Rock Road, Milton, FL, and started our hike from there.
The beautiful trail winds through a forest along Juniper Creek, with some views of the creek and changes in elevation. The highlight is an area with steep red-clay cliffs caused by the river’s erosion. You won’t see it marked on the trail, so a short distance down the trail, watch for well-trod side trails off to the right. Don’t get too close here: The tops of these cliffs are undercut and could tumble down. It’s a beautiful spot and unusual for Florida scenery.
Blackwater River State Park
7720 Deaton Bridge Road, Holt, FL
Bicycling the Blackwater Heritage State Trail in Milton
Recreation-rich Milton FL even has a very nice bicycle rail-trail.
Beginning in Milton, the Blackwater Heritage State Trail offers 8.1 miles of smooth 12-foot-wide asphalt through thick woods. At the end of the 8.1 miles of state-park-maintained trail, it connects with another 1.5 mile paved trail into Whiting Field US Naval Air Station.
This trail has all the amenities – four trailheads, each with bathrooms and picnic areas and several with bicycle pumps and benches periodically positioned along the way. It is smooth, flat and in excellent condition.
The trail passes through beautiful woods the entire way. Where the trail goes through openings in the foreste for power-line rights of way, the view widens into marshes and meadows that were full of golden fall color and yellow flowers when we bicycled in late October. There are several bridges over pretty tannic streams.
While we bicycled on an overcast day, it appears much of the trail would be shaded.
The extension of the trail into Whiting NAS is less appealing, running alongside the road.
The southern section of the trail, which passes through Milton, has a number of crossings of small city streets. If you start one mile north, where there is a trailhead at the Blackwater Heritage State Trail Visitor Center, you can minimize crossings, which would make this a great family bike ride.
One nice thing about this trail is that if you come to the region to paddle, you can rent bikes easily right at the Milton Trailhead at a bike shop called Truly Spokin Bicycle Company. They rent beach-cruiser type bikes for $7.50 an hour.
Exploring Milton while biking the trail
Milton has a number of interesting assets, but doesn’t quite gel as a destination unto itself. If you’re biking the Blackwater Heritage State Trail, however, you should consider these other stops:
The Milton Historic District has more than 100 buildings that helped it get listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Milton, one of Florida’s oldest towns, was incorporated in 1844, when Florida was still a territory. The historic district, which includes the downtown and adjoining residential neighborhood, has a few buildings from before the Civil War and many from the 19th Century. One of the best maintained and most beautiful is the 1875 Gothic Revival St. Mary’s Episcopal Church at 6842 Oak St., Milton, FL. You can pick up an excellent guide to the historic district at the Milton Visitor Center,
The West Florida Railroad Museum is the home for the town’s visitor center inside the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Depot, a 1909 building on the National Register. The free museum includes a caboose you can step inside. It’s at 5003 Henry St., Milton, FL.
The Old Spanish Trail Is not much of an attraction, but I was fascinated by its existence and sought it out after seeing it mentioned in a visitor map. The Old Spanish Trail was a road built for the new touring vehicle, the automobile, in 1921. It went from St. Augustine to San Diego.
Milton has seven miles of the original red brick road. The trail is now listed as a hiking and biking trail, but except for its historic interest, it’s not a great trail. It’s sandwiched between the train tracks and noisy Highway 90 with little scenery and no landscaping. This section of the trail is quite pretty, however.
More things to do near Milton from Florida Rambler
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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.