Tucked into the crook of the Florida Panhandle on the Gulf of Mexico, a two-lane highway meanders along 130 miles of laid-back coastal Old Florida. This is the Forgotten Coast, an area of small fishing towns, pristine wilderness, and rustic beauty. Here, southern accents are as thick as the Spanish moss dripping from the cypress trees, and wildlife vastly outnumbers people.
I know this part of Florida well. My family roots run deep here—both my grandfather and my dad were born in Apalachicola, the crown jewel of the Forgotten Coast. This is home, on the deepest soul-level.
I grew up in Miami, but spent many a long weekend and summer vacation in Apalachicola. We fished and crabbed in the bay, and cooked up feasts of blue crab, oysters, flounder, and shrimp. On nearby St. George Island, we enjoyed miles of sugar sand beaches, shelling, and swimming in the warm Gulf waters. We harvested wild blueberries in the Apalachicola National Forest, picnicked on the scenic Ochlockonee River, and cooled off in refreshing Wakulla Springs.
I moved away from Florida more than thirty years ago to expand my horizons, just about the time my parents retired in East Point, across the bay from Apalachicola. I never imagined that decades after I left Florida behind, I’d return to spend winters on the Forgotten Coast.
Eric and I both love this area, but the primary reason we make the long journey from the West Coast so often is to spend time with my mom and dad. From late November until late March we were “next door neighbors,” parked on my folks’ beautiful property overlooking the bay for about a week at a time, interspersed with our many other Florida adventures. I’m grateful that my mom and dad—now 85 and 87—are still in the home that they built, in the town that they love. I’m also eternally grateful that they chose such an interesting and beautiful spot in which to live. I’m well aware that we could be spending long stretches of time in a much less desirable locale.
By some miracle, the Forgotten Coast has been largely overlooked by developers. The places that I’ve known and loved since childhood are remarkably untouched—I’m hoping they remain so. Here, a few of our favorite spots on the Forgotten Coast (in addition to Apalachicola, of course, which I’ve written about here and here.).
(Oh, you might be wondering—if we love this area so much, why don’t we live here? Mostly because of the heat, humidity, and biting bugs that descend in the summer, which runs from about May to October. I would have to spend six months of the year floating in a swimming pool lounger, G & T in hand. Which actually sounds pretty appealing—but probably isn’t the healthiest lifestyle choice.)
• Ochlockonee River State Park: Located in Sopchoppy, 40 miles east of Apalachicola, this pretty park offers hiking and biking trails through pine flatwoods and kayaking on the Ochlockonee River. It’s home to adorable white squirrels (a genetic mutation of the common gray squirrel) and the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker. The park protects large stands of longleaf pine, the habitat the woodpeckers need for nesting and foraging.
About the campground: Set on the banks of the Ochlockonee River amidst pines and scrub oaks, it’s a rustic, but nice campground—$20 per night, with electric, water, and decent Verizon coverage.
• St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge: Established in 1931, this was one of the first National Wildlife Refuges. The biking and hiking trails are wonderful and there’s lots of birdlife—especially shorebirds, ducks, and wading birds—and of course, alligators. It’s also home to the oldest lighthouse on the Gulf coast, built in 1842 and still in use today.
About the campground: There’s no camping in the refuge, but Newport Campground, a small county park, is located just a few miles from the refuge (and about 60 miles from Apalachicola). This is one of the few parks we’ve encountered that has lowered their prices while upgrading their facilities. Full-hookups (with internet!) are $28 night, electric and water are $23. An added bonus is the kayak launch for the St. Marks River, located right next to the campground.
More nearby kayaking: About 3 miles from the campground is the county launch for the Wakulla River, about a six-mile round trip paddle on a wide, pretty river. About 25 miles away is the Wacissa River, one of the most remote and wild rivers in Florida. We discovered a primitive, free, and pretty campground on the banks of the river at Goose Pasture, one of the launch points for the Wacissa. Not close to anything, but if you’re looking for an out in the middle of nowhere adventure, here it is.
• Wakulla Springs State Park: This lovely park is worth a stop to stroll through the lodge and grounds—if it’s hot, take a swim in the beautiful spring. Don’t miss the Jungle Cruise that takes you deep into the cypress swamp. I’ve been coming here since I was a child, and never tire of the fun boat trip. You’re guaranteed to see plentiful wildlife (including alligators) and if you’re there in the winter, manatees. No camping here, but it’s just a few miles from Newport Campground.
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