|Navigate northern Floridas natural riches on the outdoor
By Diana and Bill Gleasner
This four-day driving tour on Floridas Outdoor Adventure Trail, one of seven such theme tours, offers variety, glorious scenery and plenty of fun in, on and around the water.
Ideal for families tired of interstates, or for anyone seeking a hands-on, back-to-basics experience, this journey showcases unspoiled wonders from Milton (just north of Pensacola) to Steinhatchee (65 miles west of Gainesville).
Cruising down the river
Begin at Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center on Coldwater Creek near Milton, officially designated Floridas Canoe Capital. This family-oriented wilderness resort offers everything from a ropes challenge course to camping, hiking, biking and tubing.
But most come here to canoe. Known as some of the purest sandy-bottom waterways in the world, area rivers are shallow and free of dangerous rapids.
With snow-white sandbars at every bend and shaded by huge moss-draped trees, the rivers are among the most beautiful waterways anywhere.
Plan to overnight in the secluded woods adjacent to the Blackwater River State Forest. Choose from cabins, a restored cracker-style cottage or the attractively restored Wolfe Creek Schoolhouse Inn.
Gulf Island National Seashore is a few miles away, but it is a world apart.
Beach lovers alert: Glittering sand and gentle surf will tempt you to stay, but there are many more beaches ahead. Take time to explore historic Fort Pickens, a five-sided stronghold that saw action during the Civil War.
Lodging choices in the area run the gamut from fancy to relaxed.
On the second day, there are two award-winning beaches to sample. First, follow Grayton Beach State Recreation Areas extensive, self-guided trail system. Surely this 400-acre park with wide, white-sand beaches is the beach of dreams.
Travel east to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, where you may camp, rent a cabin, fish, swim and hike. Protected St. Joseph Bay, freshwater ponds, freshwater and salt marshes create ideal conditions for bird-watchers. Dunes soar to 60 feet, and the glistening white-sand beach is another winner.
Apalachicola, like so much of the Florida Panhandle, is defined by its waterwaysprimarily the Apalachicola River, the largest waterway east of the Mississippi. The area where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico, one of the Southeasts most important bird habitats, has been designated the countrys largest estuarine reserve. Nearby St. George Island, a beach lovers Shangri-la, stretches for 28 shimmering miles.
Apalachicola has gained well-deserved fame for its oysters. Oyster harvesters with long-handled tongs take 90 percent of the states production of these succulent bivalves from well-tended beds. Sample the local product at Boss Oyster, a shanty near the water serving incredibly delicious oysters prepared every which way.
Pick up a walking-tour brochure at the chamber of commerce. Apalachicolas many historical sites include a museum honoring the inventor of air conditioning, a prefabricated church shipped by schooner from New York and Brigittes Romantic Retreat B&B, built in 1915 and awash with antiques.
Next stop: Wakulla Springs State Park & Lodge. One common meaning given for the American Indian word wakulla is mysteries of strange waters, a highly appropriate name for one of the worlds largest and deepest springs.
Mastodon skeletons from the ice age have been found here, but its the alligators, turtles and exotic birds (including the rare limpkin) that draw visitors. River tours, including those by glass-bottom boat, reveal an enchanting blend of wildlife and wilderness. Historic Wakulla Springs Lodge provides comfortably rustic accommodations and tasty Southern meals.
Toe-tapping musicians can be found in abundance at Spirit of Suwannee Music Park/Campground near Live Oak, where impromptu jam sessions are the order of the day. Visitors may be lucky enough to catch a concert or music festival; a regular schedule features top names. How serious are these folks about their music? The outdoor amphitheater seats 5,000.
Be sure to take the Music Parks paddleboat ride on the Suwannee. The river, which begins in the Okefenokee Swamp on the Florida/Georgia border, owes its fame to Stephen Fosters song Old Folks at Home. In addition to camping, accommodations at the park include cottages, an elegant tree house and an RV park.
Ichetucknee, a National Natural Landmark, is the states third-largest spring. This is an impressive statistic in a state that claims more springs than any other. Sure, folks can canoe or kayak its crystal-clear river, but the quintessential Ichetucknee experience is tubing. Rent an inner tube near the entrance to Ichetucknee Springs State Park, hop in the water and let the current do its work. Sunlight flickers through an emerald canopy, a great blue heron floats overheadsurely this is life as it was meant to be.
If Florida springs continue to intrigue, head for Ginnie Springs Resort. Heres another opportunity to tube, snorkel or canoe down a remarkable river, this time the Santa Fe. The seven springs that feed the river are a favorite of scuba divers, who come from all over the world to explore the transparent 72-degree water. Spread over more than 200 acres of unspoiled forest, this full-service dive site offers everything from a cottage and RV sites to wilderness camping.
The old shell game
Steinhatchee Landing Resort is the last stop, and it is truly a grand finale. For those looking for old Florida with a touch of class, this is the right place. The resort, on the meandering Steinhatchee River just three miles from the Gulf of Mexico, is an ideal base for exploring the area.
Seven scenic state parks, many featuring springs, are within a short drive.
Freshwater and saltwater fishing are favorite Steinhatchee activities throughout the year, and during scallop season (July 1 through Sept. 10), visitors can bag their own supper. Its easy; all thats needed are a mask, swim fins and snorkel, plus a mesh bag for the catch. A delectable feast usually follows an afternoon spent scalloping. No wonder this is such a popular summer pastime.
If that sounds too much like work, rent a canoe and drift eight miles down the Steinhatchee River to the resort. That will give you a relaxed time to reflect on your recent travels.
The Outdoor Adventure Trail, from the states Canoe Capital to its Scallop Capital, introduces visitors to some of Floridas most extraordinary natural areas. This trip has merely skimmed its surface; enticing possibilities for future exploration can be found around every bend.
Diana Gleasner is a contributor from Denver, N.C.