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Searching for Florida treasure
Nearly 160 state parks, historic areas and cultural sites preserve the best of Florida’s natural beauty and fascinating heritage

Published: Mar/Apr 2003
By Diana C. Gleasner

Outdoor enthusiasts can find a number of places to canoe in Florida State Parks (above). /VISIT FLORIDA photos. Beautiful Eden Gardens State Park features an historic home set amid moss-draped live oaks and magnolias (below). /Bill Gleasner photo
Those first Spanish explorers slogged ashore looking for gold. Imagine their frustration when, steaming under the weight of their clanking armor, they discovered only exquisite natural beauty in Florida.

Snow-white beaches glittering like diamonds, turquoise waters and an endless supply of golden sunsets, but gold? Florida had none.

For many years, the pre-condo Florida wilderness the explorers had come upon seemed limitless and everlasting. Today, it is in distressingly short supply.

Fortunately, Florida’s state park system and the federal government are committed to protecting a diversity of natural treasures and unique cultural heritage sites. More visitors each year are discovering that the true wealth of Florida is in the stunning beauty of these scenic parks.

“America’s Best State Park System”

Florida’s 158 state parks, state historic and cultural sites are far more than preserved land. They are centers of activity and education ranging from outdoor recreation of all kinds of re-enactments, musical events, festivals, archaeology workshops, nature hikes, canoe tours, campfire circles, living history and interpretive programs. No wonder Florida state parks in 1999 won the National Gold Medal State Park award and were voted “America’s Best State Park System.”

The stretch of land between Perdido Key, at the western tip of Florida, and Panama City features as rich a selection of parks as you’ll find anywhere. They include Blackwater River State Park, Perdido Key, Big Lagoon, Rocky Bayou, Henderson Beach, Topsail Hill, Grayton Beach, Eden State Gardens and St. Andrews, as well as Gulf Islands National Seashore. These parks are clean, safe and kind to the budget. Most state park entrance fees are less than $4 per car. For added economy, an annual state park entrance pass ($30 individual, $60 family) is available.

River drifting

Canoeists and campers will appreciate Blackwater River State Park, 15 miles northeast of Milton, on the shores of one of the purest sand bottom rivers in the country. Dark water contrasts with dazzling white sandbars at bends in the river to create one picturesque setting after another. The Blackwater, especially good for novice paddlers and inner-tubers, winds its leisurely way from Alabama to Blackwater Bay at three to four mph.

The Florida section of Gulf Islands National Seashore includes Naval Live Oaks Reservation, part of Perdido Key, the forts on the Pensacola Naval Air station, and a section of Santa Rosa Island. This expansive preserve protects, among other things, the barrier islands that shelter Pensacola from storms and hurricanes.

Mighty oaks

At Naval Live Oaks, visitors learn the importance that these venerable trees once had to the shipbuilding industry. Besides being resistant to disease and decay, they are the heaviest of all oaks. The Constitution, which saw action against the British during the War of 1812, was nicknamed Old Ironsides because of the strength of its live oak construction. At the time, this wood was so highly prized for shipbuilding that the government protected thousands of acres of these valuable trees.

History buffs will want to explore the ruins of Fort Pickens on the western tip of Santa Rosa Island. This massive five-sided fort was built in 1834 soon after Florida was ceded to the United States by Spain. Originally designed to protect a Pensacola Bay shipyard, the fort was only attacked once when Confederates tried, unsuccessfully, to capture it during the Civil War. Perhaps the most unfortunate period in the fort’s history were the two years (1886–1888) when Apache chief Geronimo was imprisoned here following the United States-Apache Wars in the Southwest.
Big Lagoon State Park, about 10 miles southwest of Pensacola, is well situated. An observation tower provides a panoramic view of Big Lagoon and Perdido Key across the Intracoastal Waterway. Expansive boardwalks are especially good for bird watchers who will find the park’s sandy beaches and salt marshes shelter an impressive variety of birds.

Garden of Eden

The mansion and beautifully landscaped grounds of Eden Gardens State Park are a short hop off U.S. Highway 98 at Point Washington. A tour through this grand old house will transport visitors back to the days of the Old South. One of the things a prosperous lumber baron did with his money in 1895 was to build a great big wooden house with a fireplace in every room.

The house, set amid azaleas, moss-draped live oaks and magnolias, overlooks Choctawhatchee Bay. It’s hard to imagine this serene setting was once the heart of a bustling sawmill complex as forests of Longleaf pine and cypress came tumbling down to meet the building demands of a growing region. Picnickers are welcome to use the tables at the old mill site on Tucker Bayou.

Rocky Bayou State Park, five miles east of Niceville, is an excellent place to camp. Full service sites overlook scenic Rocky Bayou. Nature trails wind through a pine forest shading reindeer moss and scrub oaks. A freshwater lake is home to largemouth bass, and the fishing, they say, is excellent.

Henderson Beach State Park, just east of Destin on U.S. Highway 98, has a lovely sun-sparkled beach. This is a fine place to swim, picnic and admire laughing gulls, black skimmers, brown pelicans and sea turtles. Bath houses and picnic tables are available.

America’s finest beaches

Northwest Florida is renowned for its beaches. In fact, Grayton Beach, Topsail Hill and St. Andrews have been officially recognized among the best beaches in the nation. With sugar-white sand dunes crested by dense stands of sea oats and wind-sculpted trees, they are ideal subjects for the artist’s brush.

Grayton Beach State Park offers an extensive, self-guided trail system that provides an up-close look at the diverse ecosystems that make up the region’s coastal areas. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park showcases a 3-1/2 mile stretch of beach held in trust by the state as a nature conservatory. Dunes rising to 25 feet, a longleaf pine forest and two freshwater lakes create a safe haven for wildflowers, plants and wildlife. This undeveloped beachfront has been identified as the most pristine and environmentally protected piece of coastal property in Florida.

St. Andrews State Park, three miles east of Panama City, features another glittering beach along with pine-shaded, waterfront campsites. Brilliant white sand eases into transparent water–ideal for scuba diving–vacillating from emerald green to sapphire.

Old-time turpentine still

A few steps from St. Andrews’ fishing pier parking lot is a reconstructed turpentine still. This two-story structure is a remnant of an industry that once flourished in the pinewoods of this area. The process by which sap was converted into turpentine and resins known as "naval stores" is explained on signs throughout the exhibit. Nearby pines show scars from slashes cut in the bark to allow gum to flow into collection containers.

Every park offers a slightly different angle. Each one is a piece in the puzzle that makes up the real Florida. Taken as a whole, these state parks comprise a vast variety of land-and-seascapes as well as environmental riches beyond measure. It’s too bad those early explorers didn’t know a good thing when they stumbled upon it.

Diana C. Gleasner is a contributor from Denver, N.C.

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