I didn’t make it up . . . this is what a particular area of Florida’s Gulf Coast is known as–The Forgotten Coast. We were soon to find out that it was aptly named. Heading west, just as the road curves into the Panhandle, we were to discover a quieter section of coastline. No tourist attractions luring one to pull off and turn in. Indeed, seeing even a roadside billboard is rare. No high-rise condos to obscure the views. The few signs of habitation seen are not fancy or fixed up. It is Old Florida, obviously “forgotten” during the period when much of North Florida’s coastline was discovered, and then subsequently over-developed.
It is rather remote here. No interstate highway or four-lane roads lead here. U.S. 98 goes through small communities with few, if any, traffic lights. You won’t be finding fast-food places or chain motels in these towns. Instead, you find communities where life is slower and no one is a stranger.
Soon enough, we would be in those populated areas of the Panhandle. But while we were passing through, we chose to stop, linger a couple of days, and search out some of the special places tucked away in this Forgotten Coast. Rather than what had been developed, we were looking for what has been preserved.
It’s a 90-mile stretch of shoreline, from St. Marks (not found on most GPS systems) west through Apalachicola to the St. Joseph Peninsula. Populations of these little towns range from a few hundred to a couple thousand. The Gulf of Mexico is on one side of the road and lots of pine trees on the other.
Pristine bays, sugar white beaches, coastal marshlands, estuaries rich with sea life, and barrier islands with impressive dune formations . . . that is what this area has to offer . . . and that is what drew us in. Our short time would find us slowing down, enjoying the environment, and just going with the flow.
We pulled into a small private campground with no more than a couple dozen sites. The main attraction seemed to be its prime location on the banks of the Ochlockonee River. No surprise if you’ve never heard of that particular waterway. Flowing 200 miles from Georgia, it empties out into the Gulf. The river is rich in rare freshwater mussels, and the organic matter enriches the waters, helping in the production of seafood harvested in Apalachicola Bay.
Our campsite had a terrific view of the lengthy bridge spanning the river.
Wakulla Springs State Park was known to be a highlight of the area, so the following morning we were driving the 20 or so miles to get there. A 6,000-acre wildlife sanctuary, the park is tucked away in a Spanish moss-draped forest along a less-traveled byway. It isn’t a place you’d happen upon unless you were purposefully seeking it out.
The heart of the park is its freshwater springs, one of the largest and deepest in the world. It is a haven for indigenous wildlife, including alligators, turtles, deer, raccoons and armadillos, as well as many varieties of wading birds. Its main attraction, though, might be the manatees that inhabit the waters once cooler temperatures arrive in November. The springs remain a constant 70 degrees throughout the year, which suits these mammals just fine.
Next to scuba diving and snorkeling, the boat tours are perhaps the most popular activity in the park. Cruising a few miles upstream on the Wakulla River and then back again, folks are guaranteed to see a variety of birds and alligators up close. We found it to be a satisfying way to sit back and enjoy the natural setting on a mild winter day.
Of course, it was the manatees that stole the show. With no guarantee that there would be a sighting, nevertheless a few were seen the previous day. But rangers told us that with the warmer air temperatures lately they were inclined to travel downstream to cooler waters and with more vegetation to eat. But a lone manatee eventually came swimming up alongside our boat. We were able to get a pretty decent shot.
In case you aren’t familiar with these creatures, let me provide some brief information. Looking more like a floating blob of an amorphous shape, they are the gentlest of creatures–actually quite friendly and curious with people who venture in to swim with them. Manatees spend about half their day sleeping submerged, consequently they are often hapless victims of a careless boater’s propellers. Many have scars from those incidents, if not fatal injuries. The remainder of their day is mostly spent grazing in shallow waters; hence they are also known as sea cows.
Our luck continued as we cruised upstream. Our observant ranger spied a pair of manatee swimming nearby. As we drew closer it became apparent that we were seeing a mother with her offspring. Our day was made all the better.
(I will admit the photo leaves something to be desired . . . shooting through water reflections isn’t the easiest photo to take).
There is more to Wakulla Springs than just being a nature preserve. A wealthy financier and businessman, Edward Ball, purchased the area around the springs in 1934. Being the head of the St. Joe Paper Company, he had the intention of developing the land as an attraction as well as building a lodge to be used as a conference center and accommodations for St. Joe Company executives. Known to live a very frugal life himself, he spared no expense with this lodge. He imported marble and tile, hiring craftsmen and artisans who built everything needed for the lodge on-site. Blacksmiths, millwrights, masons, stone cutters, painters and artists created an elegant retreat using iron and stone and marble.
That such a beautiful spot is free of commercialism is due to Edward Ball, who oversaw his compound for a half a century, until his death in 1981. The state acquired the property 5 years later. Listed on the National Register, it now features 27 guest rooms, each with a huge marble bathroom, a walk-in closet, and antique furnishings.
And so ended a good day spent in this forgotten part of Florida.
We returned to our site on the river as the day was drawing to a close. We watched the sun sink into the river as we prepared dinner and built a campfire to keep the cool evening air at bay.
We spent the next day cruising the dusty back roads, driving in no particular direction.
Pulling into the San Marcos de Apalache State Historic Site, we found the old fort was closed for the day. The locked gates didn’t prevent us from taking the interpretative trail. We were able to glean a fair amount of background history along the way, as well as enjoying the warm breezes coming on shore from the adjacent river.
We drove through the small Carrabelle (population just over 1,000), still relying on fishing as a primary source of income for many residents. Shrimping, oystering, commercial and recreational game fishing seemed to be what the town was all about. Maybe its biggest claim to fame is having the World’s Smallest Police Station—a telephone booth.
We had lunch in St. Marks, a town that had surely seen better days. It was the terminus of a railroad that ran down from Tallahassee, 20 miles to the north. Before ships became too large to navigate the town’s harbor, the old docks were busy loading bales of cotton, timber and turpentine onto boats.
The Riverside Café had an old fishing camp-style ambiance. Fresh fish just off the boats was their specialty, and what the place lacked in looks it easily made up for with its food. Eating al fresco gave us the chance to soak up more of that riverside experience.
It was late afternoon by the time we went searching out the area’s lighthouse. Located on a lonely strand of salt marshes and tidal flats, it’s surrounded by a national wildlife refuge. With the nearly 200-year-old lighthouse towering above its natural setting, we enjoyed wandering through the 100,000-acre refuge on the shores of Apalachee Bay. In the winter it provides a resting place for thousands of migratory birds.
Tomorrow we will leave this Forgotten Coast of Florida . . . moving on to a place much more well-known. I imagine that where we were headed would be the antithesis of what we had found here. A slower pace of life, for sure. An interlude between much busier places. Definitely somewhere for us to pause and be restored. Simply the perfect place to enjoy warm days and balmy river breezes.
. . . and one last special sunset to remember this forgotten part of the state.
Chris and Melinda