TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — North Florida is rife with options for outdoor enthusiasts and Tallahassee is a great place for your adventure base camp.
Whether it’s diving into the state’s deepest freshwater spring, checking out the state’s tallest waterfall or trekking through the state’s only guided cave system, there are many great choices to take in what’s truly unique to Florida.
Here are seven great options for a day’s adventure within an hour of downtown Tallahassee, perfect for a day of outdoor fun topped with a return to city for a great meal and good night’s sleep.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
There’s many a mile to be explored in this 68,000-acre oasis that spans three counties on the Gulf of Mexico. If one were to explore on foot, they could trek 150 miles of roads, trails and levees while taking in the abundant wildlife, but the most popular road leads to the lighthouse.
The oldest lighthouse on the Gulf of Mexico, and second oldest in Florida behind the Amelia Island lighthouse, the St. Marks Lighthouse stands 82 feet rising up from where the salt marshes meet the gulf. Built in 1842, it’s undergoing a renovation that looks to restore a light to the tower, and thus not currently open for those who wish to climb to the top. It still makes for a great photo opportunity, whether up closer or from across the marshes after a 15-minute hike up the water’s edge.
The biggest draw for nature lovers, though, is the thousands of birds that call the refuge home, either permanently or as a stopover during migration. Bald eagles, white pelicans and flocks of water-loving birds. The refuge has 278 documented bird species within its borders that also includes longleaf pine and freshwater marsh ecosystems. It’s also home to dolphins, alligators and in the fall, hundreds of migrating monarch butterflies.
It’s about 20 miles from downtown Tallahassee to the visitor’s center, where you can see the lighthouse’s now-removed giant Fresnel lens. It’s another 10 miles from the entrance to the lighthouse.
Florida Caverns State Park
For most of Florida, the idea of a basement means some seriously wet feet, but in North Florida, nature has its own basement complete with stalactites, stalagmites and other cave features like “soda straws,” the hollow rock tubes that are the thousands-of-years-in-the-making predecessors to the cone-shapes stalactites and stalagmites.
And when those two come together, that’s a pillar.
All are on display in Florida’s only cave tour, a 30-minute trip into the dark, and extremely warm by the way, multi-room underground. It’s the highlight of the park that was constructed around the feature by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1940s.
The tour, led by humorous state park guides that like to make jokes such as turning off all the lights, is an extra $8 on top of the park entrance fee. ($5 per carload or $4 for single drivers).
While waiting for the tour, which if you don’t arrive early could take place hours after you get there, you can walk the moderately challenging trails around the park.
One lets you walk through a “tunnel cave,” which is more like a cavern passageway. Well, walk would be what you would do if you were shorter than 4 feet tall. Stoop and scuttle is more like it. The trails run alongside a cypress tree floodplain and through upland hardwood hammock. It’s definitely an unFloridian experience, but the cave is the draw and well worth the wait.
Falling Waters State Park
While this is indeed home to Florida’s tallest waterfall, this ain’t Niagara.
It’s a 73-foot drop into a natural sink, which more often that not features just a trickle.
To really be impressed, you would have to go in the rainy season, when you might get the impressive wall of water that the park features on its brochure.
The flow of water, though, is actually managed to some degree by a man-made two-acre lake upstream of the sink, so there’s always at least some hydrological action. The park itself, though, is a lovely 171-acre park with a white-sand beach on the lake with swimming area, and boardwalk trail that takes you to the sink and through upland pine and fern-covered forest grounds. One might consider a visit to both Caverns and Falling Waters on the same day.
It’s about 85 miles from Tallahassee to the park entrance.
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
This is the swimming hole for many a Seminole, the college kind as the park is only a 20-minute drive from downtown. Many a co-ed has made the jump from the platform 21 feet above the spring surface. What’s better is once you break the surface, you plunge into only a smidgen of the springs 180-foot depth.
It’s one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world. It’s an exit point for the Floridan Aquifer with a massive cave system that attracts divers year-round. The 6,000-acre park also features a vast trail system, a popular 45-minute boat tour daily and its own glass-bottom boats that will venture out when the water is clear. Also on site, and open since 1937, is the Wakulla Springs Lodge with a full-service dining room overlooking the springs. Admission is $6 for vehicles with 2 to 8 people, $4 for single-driver vehicles.
It’s about 16 miles from Tallahassee to the park entrance.
Torreya State Park
There’s a moment at Torreya State Park when you look out over the edge of the trail to the river below and think this couldn’t possibly be Florida.
That’s because the river is 300 feet below.
Torreya State Park, named after the rare coniferous Torreya tree, abuts the Apalachicola River. This particular tree, Torreya taxifolia named for American botanist John Torrey, only grows along the bluffs of the winding south-flowing river.
When you go, you feel more like you’re in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee rather than the Sunshine State. The views are tremendous, and if you go in the late fall, you might actually see some color change from the vast hardwood hammock that stretches across the horizon.
The park was developed in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, but has historical significance back to the Civil War. It was home to six Confederate gun pits and an antebellum cotton warehouse. The CCC moved the historic Jason Gregory House, a plantation home built in 1849, from its original location on the lower west bank of the Apalachicola to the high bluffs on the east bank. It now offers one of the most scenic views in Florida.
The park has a great trail system covering 16 miles. The easier of the two main trails takes hikers through a variety of ecosystems including along the river and over to Logan’s Bluff with its view from 300 feet up, but also through an otherworldly swamp, upland pine forest with red rock outcroppings and across old stone bridges. There’s a much more strenuous trail that serious hikers who even train to hike the Appalachian Trail use.
Because there are steep elevation changes, it can be challenging, but you also get waterfalls, so it’s extremely satisfying. Bird watchers can enjoy the 100+ species found among the varying environments, and it’s also home to deer, beaver, bobcat, gray fox and the Barbours map turtle as well as rare flora including big leaf magnolia and Florida yew tree.
RV and tent campers can stay at one of the 29 full-service sites in the campground, one Cracker cabin, and one Yurt (Year-round Universal Recreational Tent). There are also primitive campsites and two youth campgrounds.
Tours of the fully furnished Gregory House are offered daily.
It’s about 50 miles from Tallahassee to the park entrance.
Wacissa River Paddling Trail
The spring-fed Wacissa River is a great place to explore by kayak or canoe for easy to moderate skill level.
The headwaters at Wacissa Springs County Park offers the best put-in point. One mile down the run is Big Blue Spring, which is popular with swimmers and snorkelers. The river is a clear one with great views of the freshwater fish underneath until it joins up with the blackwater Aucilla River 15 miles downstream, a more difficult river to travel.
Both are state designated paddling trails and the Aucilla eventually takes you out to the Gulf of Mexico. The Wacissa, though, offers a serene setting to slow down and glide along through a forest that’s home to osprey and hawks, spy alligators and turtles along the shore and maybe catch a glimpse of some river otter.
You can rent for a few hours or the entire day for $30 or less at places like Wacissa River Canoe Rentals (wacissarivercanoerentals.com) and Jesse’s Canoe and Kayak Rental (wacissacanoerental.com) located at the springhead.
It’s about 21 miles from Tallahassee to the park entrance.
St. Marks Trail
The St. Marks Trail covers more than 20 miles near the capital south to the coastal city of St. Marks over what used to be a railroad line to take plantation cotton to ships that would transport it to Northern cities. It’s the first of the state’s converted trails to be paved and attracts hundreds each week. The path is a straight shot, and St. Marks is a quaint fishing village that hosts an annual stone crab festival each October (stmarksstonecrabfest.com). Adjacent to the trail’s terminus is the San Marcos de Apalachee Historical State Park (floridastateparks.org/park/San-Marcos), which is free to walk the grounds, and $2 to tour its small on-site museum.
The northern end of the trail features several options for off-road exploration, including a popular entrance to the Munson Hills mountain bike trail, which connects to other trails within the Apalachicola National Forest for 21 miles of challenging terrain. There are several other popular mountain bike trails around Tallahassee as well including the 6-mile Magnolia Mountain Bike Trail in Tom Brown Park and more than 10 miles of mixed-use and bike-only trails in Maclay Gardens State Park.
Unfortunately, there is no handy bike rental location at the north end of the trail, but you can rent bikes and bike racks for your vehicle from The Great Bicycle Shop (gbs.bike/rentals/) in midtown Tallahassee for half a day, overnight or longer.
The main trailhead, where the state-maintained portion of the trail begins, is about 4 miles south of downtown Tallahassee.
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