Northwest Florida's Gulf Coast: Abundant Wildlife and Unspoiled Beauty
By Wendy Hammerle
The tour boat motored slowly upriver, past alligators lazing in the warm Florida sunshine, past heron, osprey and black vulture and past manatees rolling in a sleepy underwater ballet. But this was not a Wild Kingdom theme park ride. These were real animals in their natural habitat. This was the Florida that most people don’t know exists.
Strange and Mysterious Water
Our quest to find the other, quieter, unspoiled Florida took us to the northwest part of the state along the Gulf coast. Our first stop was Wakulla Springs State Park, a 6,000 acre treasure trove of flora and fauna about 30 minutes south of Tallahassee.
The park’s claim to fame is its freshwater spring, one of the largest and deepest in the world. Divers exploring caverns more than 300 feet below have found skeletons of three mastodons, an armadillo and a saber tooth cat.
Swimming in the 70-degree spring water is allowed but if that isn’t to your liking, you can explore some of the nature trails that crisscross the park or grab a fried grouper sandwich and some sweet tea at the beautiful old park lodge.
But don’t leave without taking the 40-minute cruise up the spring-fed river. The boat, captained by a park ranger, will allow you to get up close and personal with all kinds of wildlife. We rode in a regular boat but if you’re lucky and the water is really clear, they bring out the glass-bottomed boats.
Our cameras clicked as Great Blue Herons and Ibis munched on crawfish along the grassy shore. The majestic Anhinga - also called snake birds because of their long serpentine necks - stood spread eagled, warming themselves in the sunshine.
Farther along, the boat drifted over the deep spring and we could see five-foot long nosed gar swimming below. These odd pre-historic looking fish may be part of the reason that the Indians named the spring Wakulla which means “strange and mysterious water.”
The landscape along the river is mysteriously beautiful with rose-colored wild asters hanging from the exposed roots of the bald Cyprus. Two Tarzan movies were filmed here; the directors, no doubt, were drawn to this area for the same reason we were - the abundance of wildlife in its natural habitat.
The park gets quite busy in the summer, but on the October weekday we visited, the weather was perfect, there were no bugs, and we practically had the place to ourselves.
The park entrance fee is $4 per car. Boat rides are $6, $4 for kids. Open 365 days a year.
From Wakulla, we headed west on route 98 and stopped in Apalachicola, an old trading post that has retained its quiet charm. It’s also oyster heaven as more than 90 percent of Florida’s oysters are harvested from Apalachicola Bay. You’ll find them on every menu, prepared every way possible.
Farther west, in Port St. Joe, we stopped for our first night’s lodging in a rental loft at WindMark Beach, a planned beachfront community built by The St. Joe Company.
The words developer and environmental stewardship aren’t often used in the same sentence but St. Joe says it has made a concerted effort to build resort and residential communities while preserving the natural surroundings.
At WindMark, rainwater is collected in an underground vault and used for landscaping. The development also uses outdoor lights with special wave lengths so that sea loggerhead and leatherback turtles are able to follow the moon’s reflection on the water.
According to Steve Shea, one of the three wildlife biologists on staff, St. Joe relocated several tiny Choctawhatchee beach mice to protected dunes at WaterSound Beach.
“We’ve also moved gopher tortoise burrows and established new clusters of the endangered red cockaded woodpecker in an effort to protect these endangered species.”
To get a closer look at the wildlife, we hopped into kayaks and headed up Huckleberry Creek in the Box-R Wildlife Management Area. This is a kayaker’s paradise with thousands of acres of protected flood plain swamps, tidal marshes and creeks to explore.
It was exceptionally peaceful as we paddled under Cyprus dripping with Spanish moss, past Cabbage Palm and Tupelo trees. The Tupelos house bee hives that yield the distinctive Tupelo honey, a local delicacy.
The only signs of civilization were a few fishing lines that had been draped over low hanging branches by locals hoping to snag a few catfish.
I kept one eye on the brackish water, which is a habitat for alligators, otters and snakes. (You don’t want to roll your kayak in this water!)
Where the creek dumps out to the East River, bald eagles watched us from nearby branches before zooming off in search of their next meal. We also spotted deer, which along with wild turkey and feral hogs live in the pine uplands - all part of a huge ecosystem critical to keeping the Apalachicola Bay healthy.
The Big One Got Away
Northwest Florida also has some prime fishing spots, so we hit the road again, heading west through Panama City (of spring break fame) to Crooked Creek in the West Bay Preservation Area.
This shallow waterway, which empties into West Bay, is home to sharks, rays, redfish and croakers. We only caught a few little guys, but it didn’t really matter. We just sat back and enjoyed the quiet, unspoiled beauty, watching Monarch butterflies flutter over the bay before their 24-hour journey over the Gulf of Mexico.
It was easy to see why this area is part of the largest coastal conservation project in the Southeast.
Our final stop was the WaterColor Inn, in Santa Rosa Beach. The inn is part of a 500-acre beachfront community, also developed by The St. Joe Company.
We explored the area on bikes and then tried a new craze called Yolo boarding. It requires standing up on an oversized surf board and then paddling. Having never surfed, I expected to end up in the drink but surprisingly managed to get up and stay up. (Full disclosure - we stayed in calm waters!)
If you visit, you should take some time to enjoy the beach, where the white quartz sand actually squeaks when you walk on it. Or visit one of the area’s rare coastal dune lakes.
Thousands of years old, these lakes are separated from the gulf by dune systems up to 30 feet high. The salinity of the water changes constantly, attracting diverse marine life and providing fresh water for migrating birds.
From the dune lakes to the swamps to the deep springs, I came away from this trip with a whole new view of Florida. Its most famous citizen may be Mickey Mouse but if, like me, you find the endangered beach mouse more interesting, try Northwest Florida’s Gulf Coast on for size.
Where to eat:
School of Fish, Port St. Joe (850-229-1122) - The corn and shrimp chowder with Andouille sausage was out of this world as was the grilled gulf shrimp with fresh mango sauce and lime served over island rice.
Boss Oyster, Apalachicola - oysters, the local specialty, are served at least 20 different ways - our favorite: flamed broiled with spinach, smoked bacon, tomatoes and smoked Gouda.
Fish Out of Water, Santa Rosa Beach (located in the Watercolor Inn) - the “Bricked” Amish Chicken was outstanding.
Picolo’s - The Red Bar, Santa Rosa Beach - live music, funky decor, local seafood.
Where to stay:
WaterColor Inn, Santa Rosa Beach
Wendy Hammerle is a former television news reporter/anchor and TV commercial writer and producer. She now works as a Public Relations Director and is a member of the Manhan Rail Trail Committee in Easthampton, Massachusetts, where she lives with her husband and children.
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