Come and take a drive on the ”Wild Side” along Florida’s Big Bend Scenic Byway where theme parks and bright lights give way to horizons of towering pines and blue-green Gulf waters. The “Bend” is where Florida’s Gulf Coast curves westward, sheltering vast seagrass beds, marshes, winding rivers, sugar-sand beaches, deep forests, and crystal-clear springs. The unparalleled natural bounty and beauty of the Bend have attracted visitors since 15,000 BC. While traveling on the Byway, visitors can explore the natural resources which have supported and sustained the lives and the livelihoods of generations past and present.
Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city, welcomes travelers to this 220-mile natural wonderland where wildlife outnumbers people. Over 300 species of birds, 2,500 plant species, and more carnivorous plants (30) than any similarly sized area in the world call the Bend home. The Forest and Coastal Trails, offering two distinct experiences, culminate in a two-day drive unlike any other.
Back in the 1800s life along the Forest Trail was truly the “Wild West”, with cracker cowboys, rustlers, Indians, trappers, and hand-scrabble farmers. Start the day walking through a north Florida pioneer farm and later stop at Fort Braden, a military outpost during the Second Seminole War. Keep this history in mind as rolling sand hills and hardwood forests give way to extensive stretches of pine forests, wetlands, and river floodplains. This route follows an ancient sea bed with an elevation drop from 230 feet (70 meters) to sea level, and Black Bear, Bobcat, Turkey, Fox, Deer, Coyote, or Wild Hog could appear at any moment.
The Coastal Trail, first discovered by Panfilo de Narvaez in 1528, was subsequently occupied by Spanish, English, American, and Confederate forces…and, for a brief interlude, declared the “Nation of Muskogee” by William Bowles on behalf of Creek and Seminole Indians. In the 1800s rivers were full of ships with cotton and timber bound for foreign markets. Later they were replaced by sponge, shrimp, crab, oyster, and fishing boats, which still ply these waters.
This trail is alive with maritime history. “Old Florida” fishing villages serve up fresh seafood and access to bountiful fishing grounds Three 18th century lighthouses stand sentinel along beaches where Generals Patton and Clark planned the Normandy Invasion and trained soldiers for the amphibious landing. Explore shipwrecks on windswept islands. Visit Fort San Marcos, a 16th century Spanish fort whose camouflage-- logs painted with lime to look like stone—didn’t fool the pirates.. Walk through once-famous ports where brick warehouses--which today house galleries and antique shops--were once filled with goods bound for New England and Europe. And take a step back in time while visiting two new maritime museums.
The centerpiece of the Byway is the Apalachicola National Forest, featuring the best remaining example of a native Longleaf Pine and Wiregrass ecosystem in the United States, as well as the largest population of the endangered Red-Cockaded Woodpecker. In addition, the Byway connects nine state parks and three state forests, including Lake Talquin, which is distinguished by its proximity to two Outstanding Florida Waters and Tate’s Hell, containing hundreds of acres of wet prairie, wet flatwoods, strand swamp, and bottomland forest, as well as the mysterious Dwarf Cypress Dome, where trees over 300 years are only 6 -15 feet tall. Travelers will marvel at the scenery along the Apalachicola River, one of the most productive estuaries in North America, supplying 90% of the oysters in Florida and 10% nationally. It is Florida’s largest river and the second largest entering the Gulf of Mexico, providing 35% of the freshwater input.
Other standouts include the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, a "Globally Important Bird Area" with over 300 species, as well as coastal marshes, islands, tidal creeks, and estuaries of seven north Florida rivers, and Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, one of the worlds largest and deepest fresh water springs. A National Natural Landmark, it preserves habitat for over a dozen rare and endangered species and is host to an abundance of wildlife, easily viewed on the River Boat cruise. If geology is of interest, the interpretive trail at Leon Sinks Geological Site is a must. Created over millions of years, its Karst Topography of mysterious underground caverns and magical subterranean lakes makes this site of global scientific interest.
Allow time to savor the red-sky sunsets over the Gulf of Mexico and rural countryside that is “Old Florida.” Stay longer and go hiking, kayaking, biking, horseback riding, or birding. Charter a fishing boat or dive for scallops. There are no crowds, high prices, or pressures. The Big Bend is slower-paced, relaxed, and full of great values. Smiles and friendly people are the norm. You won’t be disappointed…rain or shine. Come make memories!