Exploring Northwest Florida
Exploring Northwest Florida
If you drive to Northwest Florida, you'll arrive from the north, the east, or the west. From the south, you'd be coming in by boat because that's the Gulf of Mexico. If you're flying to the region, obtaining a car rental is easy and it will quickly get you out and Exploring on you own.
Driving directions are mainly north to south and east to west. There aren't a lot of of diagonal roads because of the number of rivers and streams that flow through the region to the gulf. There's also the issue of the rolling hills. They are the last remnants of the Appalachian Mountains that extend into Northwest Florida and the reason the sand on our beaches is so white.
The main east-west artery is Interstate 10. It starts in Jacksonville and travels west for over 360 miles through the northern part of Florida, including Tallahassee and Pensacola, before leaving the state at the Alabama border. From there it continues its cross country journey through Mobile, Baton Rouge, Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix, and Palm Springs, finally ending in Los Angeles. I-10 actually goes from "sea to shining sea."
If you want to get off the main route and drive the Northwest Florida blue roads, U. S. Highway 90 runs parallel to I-10 and passes through a number of historic towns including Monticello, Quincy, Chattahoochee, Marianna, Defuniak Springs, Chipley, Crestview, and Milton. Just east of Milton you'll see a section of brick road running beside the highway. This is the remains of Florida State Highway 1, the first paved road in Florida, built in 1921. In addition to having a quaint, riverside downtown, Milton is the "Canoe Capital of Florida" and the gateway to more than 150 miles of hiking trails in the Blackwater River State Forest and the Eglin Air Force Base reserve.
From the north, several highways, like the rivers, pour across the border from Alabama and Georgia. Tallahassee receives traffic from both Thomasville and Bainbridge, Georgia via U. S. Highways 319 and 27. U. S. Highway 231 travels down from Montgomery, Alabama through Troy and Dothan to Panama City Beach and is a good four-lane road the whole way.
U. S. Highway 331, called the Beach Road, also travels down from Montgomery, and is a scenic two-lane highway that passes through some "old South" towns. Be sure and stop at Corbey's Ice Cream & Deli in Florala for a hand-dipped frosty treat. Just south of the state line and off the beaten path is the highest point in Florida, Britton Hill at Lakewood Park, elevation 345 feet. If you go, be sure to have plenty of provisions for the climb.
State roads 81, 83, 85, 87, and 189 all travel down from the Alabama back roads and are excellent two-lane minimal-traffic roads for doing some scenic driving. At the corner of Highway 189 and Highway 4 in the town of Baker is the Baker Block Museum, a great little community built and supported history museum with artifacts from the Native American cultures to the mid-20th Century, including a log cabin village with a picnic area.
U. S. Highway 29 comes through Flomaton, Alabama where it drops south and becomes four-lane all the way to Pensacola.
From Pensacola, pick up U. S. Highway 98 east. This is the coast road and runs the length of the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast from Pensacola Beach through Fort Walton Beach, Destin, Panama City Beach, Apalachicola, Carrabelle, and Panacea before heading inland to central Florida.
Driving old 98 is like stepping back in time and some sections of the drive haven't changed much in the last 50 years or so. There are stretches where the road is only a few feet from the Gulf, the two separated only by ancient, weathered sand dunes. Places like Mexico Beach give you a glimpse of what Florida looked like the the early to mid 20-Century.
Just past Port St. Joe, where the first Florida state Constitution was drawn up in 1839, take a side trip to St. Joseph Peninsula to see one of the best beaches in the country as well as the Cape San Blas lighthouse.
A little further past Apalachicola is Eastpoint where you can take another side trip to St. George Island and cross the third longest bridge in the state. The St. George Island lighthouse is also fun to climb.
Finally there are dozens of backroads to drive that will take you to great inland dive spots, sparkling spring fed creeks and rivers, state parks, historic sites, national forests, and hiking trails. The beaches may beckon, but the inland waterways and natural areas are unsurpassed for eco-touring or just sitting back with a picnic lunch. No matter how you get here, Northwest Florida is worth the drive.
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