Not all the 1,200-mile Florida coastline is lined with white, sandy beaches. In some regions—North Central Florida happens to be one of them—the coast is different than the typical Florida postcard.
In the Big Bend and Nature Coast regions along the Gulf of Mexico, the shoreline is wild and beautiful, with palm islands and salt marshes. Fishing and kayaking here are world class; bring your gear and be ready for the trip of a lifetime.
There are, however, a couple of places that are great for typical beach activities.The Great Florida Birding Trail is now complete statewide, including the rich, varied avian habitats of North Central Florida. It isn’t one contiguous trail, so plan your trip with the help of the website.
Naturalist John Muir trekked through this region to end his famous Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf at Cedar Key, noting many previously unrecorded species of birds and plants. Look for them in the region’s state and national forests, preserves and parks. Stretches of the Great Florida Birding Trail thread through the region, offering sightings of upland and coastal species. Hiking trails abound.
Beachgoers speed past this area, lured to the snow-white sands of the Emerald Coast or eastward to the Atlantic beaches. That’s good news for locals, who know that the flow of major rivers such as the Suwannee, Ichetucknee and Santa Fe throws up banks of pure white sand, where hikers and paddlers pause for a swim. More than a dozen hidden springs that feed the rivers are popular swimming holes. Keaton Beach, a fishing village south of Perry, has a sandy beach on the Gulf of Mexico.
Tubing the area’s unique springs provides an intimate look at a tangled wilderness—float through tunnels of vegetation too small for canoes. Entry points include Blue Spring State Park in High Springs and Fort White’s Ichetucknee Springs State Park. Cedar Key has a small public beach, and Bald Point State Park near Panacea (about an hour from Tallahassee) has a couple of beautiful natural sand beaches as well.
The Suwannee River can be paddled for its entire length, from north of Jacksonville to the Gulf of Mexico. Primitive camps are provided for overnight stays. Overnight lodgings, supplies and restaurants are found in White Springs and Dowling Park.
An exceptional network of hiking, biking and equestrian trails is well maintained and mapped, thanks to the Florida Trail Association. Gainesville’s Loblolly Woods is a serene hideaway in the heart of the city. The two-mile-long Hogtown Creek Greenway loop trail rewards all with views of woods, waters and wildlife seemingly untouched by urban sprawl.
The Osceola National Forest’s most popular spot is Ocean Pond, a two-mile-wide swimming hole with a sandy beach. The 200,000-acre forest has hiking, birding, ATV, motorcycle and equestrian trails.
Tallahassee and Gainesville are both bicycle-friendly communities. As a result, country roads, some of them designated cycling trails, are popular with cyclists and motorcycle riders. A favorite bike route is a 20.5-mile paved trail from Tallahassee to St. Marks, with two optional unpaved links. Another is the mostly paved Big Shoals trail near White Springs. The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail travels through lands made famous by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in her book The Yearling.
In the luxury outdoors category is Bienville Plantation near White Springs. It’s one of the South’s prestigious hunting and fishing resorts and corporate retreats where guests have access to a chain of lakes, trophy bass fishing, alligator hunting and fast-paced quail shoots. Lodging is available in five-bedroom cabins and five-course gourmet meals are served in the dining room
The Tallahassee–St. Marks Historic Railroad State Trail runs 20.5 miles from the capital to St. Marks. It’s part of Florida’s Greenways and Trails System, a National Recreation Trail and a portion of the developing 120-mile “Capital City to the Sea Loop” corridor on the Big Bend Scenic Byway. Tallahassee’s Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park is a botanical showplace, renowned for winter blooming camellias.
More of the region’s unique flora and fauna is found at such diverse spots as the sprawling savanna at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, a prehistoric sinkhole at Devil’s Millhopper Geological State Park, the wetlands environment at Cedar Key and wooded upland habitats in state and national forests. Any of the area’s springs that are open to the public (usually as state parks) are of interest and almost all have an unusual history or feature. At Wakulla Springs near Tallahassee, take a boat tour to see the jungle where many Tarzan movies were filmed. A rustic lodge offers meals and overnight accommodation.
The Suwannee River Wilderness Trail follows the river through this region and ends at the Gulf of Mexico. Much of the route can be driven by car, but the best portions include primitive but well-maintained campgrounds that can be reached only from the river. The trail runs about 170 miles from White Springs to the land’s-end hamlet of Suwannee, where the river enters the Gulf of Mexico. The river weaves through long stretches of wilderness and its banks are lined with towering pines and stately cypress. With adequate supplies and planning, paddlers can camp the entire distance or spend nights in rustic lodges along the way. This is a trail that can be navigated in its entirety or in part.
Popular start-stop points include White Springs, which has outfitters, and Advent Christian Village in Dowling Park, which also has lodgings and restaurants. The Santa Fe River is also popular with paddlers, with an outfit at the Canoe Outpost in High Springs.
Among the best spots in the area for cave and cavern diving is Blue Grotto near Williston. An extensive cavern system, the site features an air-filled diving bell about 30 feet down where several divers at a time can observe the underwater world. Permanent guidelines throughout the system go as deep as 100 feet, but divers are urged to stop at 60 feet unless they have extensive, advanced cave-diving training and experience. Like the region’s other springs for divers and swimmers, this is a year-round attraction where water stays 72°Fin winter and summer.
The Suwannee River song is familiar to most, but in truth, this untamed waterway is one of the South’s great unsung recreation resources. There are no dams and few markers. Only through patient homework can outsiders learn about the many places that offer lodgings and paddle-in camping along the river.
Dozens of boat ramps throughout the region range from crude gravel slopes to wide paved ramps suitable for larger boats. Canoes and kayaks can be walked in at hundreds of spots. White Springs is the best place to find an outfitter that rents canoes and kayaks and also provides pick-up downstream. Here, you’ll also find the Nature and Heritage Tourism Center with displays and information on the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail.
Many segments of the 500-section Great Florida Birding Trail thread through the area while the lonely stretches of this region’s Gulf coast are a goldmine for birdwatching and fishing. Sparsely populated Gulf shorelines known as the Big Bend are familiar to boaters as the “long, lonely leg” because waters are shallow and harbors are few. While the area is ideal for gunkholing (cruising) in shallow-draft boats, larger boats must stay well out to sea.
Tons of gorgeous outdoor landscapes make North Central Florida a no-brainer destination.
Now it’s your turn! Which places have you been? Where do you want to go? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us all!