If you're in the mood to Explore nature, you’ll need some time to do it. In this neck of the woods, there are about 1.5 million acres of protected lands that include state parks, state forests, national forests, and much of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The Apalachicola National Forest has miles of hiking trails, as does the Blackwater River State Forest, the largest state forest in Florida. There are also approximately 300 miles of the Florida National Scenic Trail that travel through the region before connecting to the Eastern Continental Trail and disappearing into Alabama.
Camping in the Northwest Florida outdoors can be anything from a hammock strung in a tree along the trail to upscale RV hookups with a concrete pad. Many state parks have campsites for tents and pop-up campers, as well as cabins for rent. Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park even has an historic lodge that takes you back in time with its early 20th-Century ambiance.
There are lots of outdoor activities in the region to keep you busy, from hiking and biking, to paddling and birding. In fact hiking in Northwest Florida is very popular and there are hundreds miles of hiking trails to choose from. There's even a small five-acre nature preserve called Jolee Island at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, with trails meandering through the woods and along the bay.
Five rails-to-trails projects have created paved pathways from former railroad routes. They are great for walking or bicycling and make the natural surroundings wheelchair accessible. The 19-mile Timpoochee Trail in South Walton is also paved and travels through upscale beach towns where the gulf is only a few steps away and ice cream shops beckon you to stop. Several state parks have equestrian trails and canoe and kayak liveries are scattered along the rivers, streams and bayous.
With its many state forests and nature preserves, and national forests and wildlife refuges, the Northwest Florida outdoors is a haven for rare and endangered species of birds and animals such as the red-cockaded woodpecker and the shy beach mouse. Deer, black bears, raccoons, opossums, foxes, coyotes, skunks, red wolves, and snakes all share these pristine environments. Look for tracks in wet sand or mud, but be sure to stay on the trails when hiking. Right around sunset is the best time for wildlife watching. Perseverance, a calm demeanor and a keen eye are the only tools you’ll need to spot these wild creatures.
Remember, however, that where there is fresh water, there are alligators. Florida alligators, once slaughtered by the thousands for their hides, have made such a comeback that they are no longer on the endangered species list. A visit to Gator Lake in St. Andrews State Park on Panama City Beach will reward you with a close-up view of these fearsome reptiles meandering menacingly through the water or sunning themselves on the lake’s tiny island. Inland ponds and marshes are the best places to spot a gator, but don’t get too close and never try to feed a wild alligator. Besides the obvious danger to you, alligators that are fed by humans quickly lose their natural fear of man, creating a public nuisance, and often have to be destroyed.
Coastal dune lakes such as Deer Lake are a feature unique to this part of Florida and are extremely rare. In fact, this is one of only two places in the world you'll find these lakes. The major concentration of dune lakes lies within Walton County, with a few scattered into Bay and Franklin Counties. When the lakes are overly filled with rainwater, they will interact with the gulf and “blow out,” creating a brackish mix where rare biological communities thrive. Visitors often think the water is “dirty” but the tannins in the water are what give it that dark tea color.
In addition to these wild and natural areas, Northwest Florida outdoors also includes some beautiful examples of planned horticulture. Eden Gardens State Park features camellias, azaleas and a 400 year old oak that has come to be known as the Wedding Tree for all the weddings that take place beneath its boughs. Alfred B. Maclay Gardens feature ornamental gardens as well as five miles of multi-use trails surrounding a lake.
So put on your hiking boots, brush off the bicycle seat, and pack up the RV. There are a lot of outdoor activities just waiting for you, so let’s start Exploring.
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