Florida’s Gulf Coast is an Overlooked Gem, Sparkling with Southern Hospitality and Rich in Natural Charm.
Follow U.S. Highway 98 where the Gulf Coast laps at the Florida Panhandle and you’ll find the very heart of what locals call “The Real Florida” — a place with little pretense, an absence of towering beachfront high-rises, and an abundance of natural wonders. From sugar-sand beaches to dense pine woods, from quirky fishing villages to quiet bird sanctuaries, the place is easy, the landscape largely unspoiled — and the opportunities for RVing as endless as the rolling Gulf waters.
A few weeks before the year’s end, Bill and Pat Barnett decided to play hooky – with real hooks.
Heels dug into the soft coastal sand along St. George Island State Park, a picturesque spit that curves into the Gulf of Mexico, the Traverse City, Mich., couple cast their lines into gentle morning surf.
Their reward? A bucket of lively whiting, for starters. That, and delicious solitude.
Never mind that it was the middle of December, or that they had to squint through frothy fog to check their lines. Minor issues to the Barnett’s, who figure conditions that chase others away only create a little more breathing room down on the beach.
“This is our third camping trip here, and it’s just wonderful,” grinned Pat Barnett, already a few fish up on her husband. “It’s wonderful — the people are so nice, both the other campers and the park staff. And it’s just not as crowded this time of the year.”
The Barnett’s spend a few months each winter in Tallahassee, and enjoy exploring the state in their small camper. “We don’t have a lot of room, but we don’t need a lot of room,” said Bill, who took up surf fishing only recently after years spent snagging steel-head off Lake Michigan.
For the Barnett’s, and others who make their way to the “quieter” side of northwest Florida’s shoreline, this is “the Forgotten Coast” — a loosely defined region that winds nearly 250 miles, bounded to the west by Mexico Beach and to the east by St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
In between, visitors will find an incredible assortment of state parks, nationally ranked beaches, steep sand dunes, languid rivers and marshes, and pine forests, with a bounty of camping options.
U.S. Highway 98 is the gateway to the entire adventure.
A Diamond in the Rough
“The Forgotten Coast” is a diamond in the rough — a quiet section of coastline populated by shorebirds and small towns, oyster shacks and screaming orange sunsets.
When other regions of the northern Florida coastline were being developed (some would say, “over-developed”), this area was largely ignored, preserving something remarkable, from pristine estuaries, marshes and bays to unspoiled beaches and barrier islands.
Some may turn up their noses at a coastline that isn’t crowded with commerce and casino boats, but that’s the real beauty of this place, sometimes looked upon as a “Poor Man’s Riviera.” Just forget the labels and embrace this overlooked treasure, which is rich with state parks, public beaches, history and local color.
To get there, you’re going to have to pass through larger, commercial zones, such as Panama City, a bustling tourist center with its own peculiar appeal and popular with the Spring Break crowd. It’s also a good chance to stock up on supplies at larger grocery chains and discount stores.
` As long as you’re passing through Panama City, make a point to stop by St. Andrews State Recreation Area, a 1,260-acre facility perched at the end of Thomas Drive just off U.S. 98. As far as beaches go, St. Andrews touts one of the best, with soft white sand, clear green water, and sweeping views into the Gulf of Mexico. Little wonder it’s one of the state’s most popular outdoor recreation spots, with camping, hiking, fishing, snorkeling and swimming opportunities galore.
Take note: Florida earns our nod as one of the nation’s best bargains when it comes to state parks. Admission and camping rates were extremely affordable when compared to other states.
St. Andrews is a great destination for RVers, especially away from peak-season crowds. Two campground loops are located in dense pinewoods near the Grand Lagoon, which hugs one side of the park.
You’ll find 176 family campsites with electricity, water, picnic tables, and grills or fire rings. The sites are nicely landscaped, spaced well for privacy, and can accommodate up to a 40-foot motorhome. Some campsites overlook the water; all are located near a system of five large bathhouses.
Reservations are recommended at all Florida State Parks. Call (800) 326-3521 to make your reservation up to 11 months in advance.
In early December, Ben and Janet Turner awoke one morning in their Tennessee home, considered the temperature — 10 degrees — and decided that a road trip to St. Andrews in their new motorhome was definitely in order. They covered 450 miles in one day and snagged a bay-side campsite with no problem.
“We really like it here,” Janet said. “The sites aren’t too close together, the view is beautiful and the people are really friendly.”
The Turners planned to stay for a week, enjoying the deer and fox that wander through the campsites, as well as beach strolls and shopping in nearby Panama City, where you can also find luxury RV resorts.
St. Andrews is, in many ways, a lovely curiosity. Towering dunes, nature trails with signs warning about alligators, and a stopover point for migratory birds, all located just outside the city limits of a big, bloated tourist town. In some ways, it makes you appreciate the serenity here even more.
Travel tip: If you arrive during warmer weather, consider taking the St. Andrews State Park shuttle to nearby Shell Island, a pristine, shell-covered oasis.
It’s a bargain.
Sand, Sea and Sunsets
To slide away from commercial Florida, head southeast along U.S. Highway 98 toward St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, a coastal barrier peninsula known for great beaches, and excellent birding and a lack of crowds.
You’ll want to catch Florida Route 30-A, continue to Route 30-E, turn, and proceed to the peninsula. Here, you’ll find 10 miles of white sand beaches, sweeping dunes, three major nature trails, 119 campsites with water and electricity, and a 1,650-acre wilderness preserve.
Sea turtles, horseshoe crabs, brown pelicans and some 240 species of birds have been sighted in the park, which is also known for some pretty terrific sunsets — and all of that white, white sand.
“The sand here is so white that at twilight, it looks like new-fallen snow,” enthused one camper. “Just incredible.”
The park offers two campgrounds: Gulf Breeze, located on the ocean, and Shady Pines, on the bay-side, which offers more shade and seclusion, and in warm weather, bugs.
Just southeast of the peninsula lays the St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge, 12,490 acres of undisturbed native habitat, which can be reached by private boat. Look for nesting bald eagles, loggerhead sea turtles, endangered red wolves and the rare Sambar deer. Kayaks, canoes and pontoon boats may be rented at the entrance to St. Joseph Peninsula Sate Park.
St. Joseph Peninsula Park affords year-round recreational opportunities, but watch out for mosquitoes during warm weather. It also ranks as a premier location in the Eastern U.S. for watching hawks during fall migration, including the endangered peregrine falcon. Shorebirds are plentiful throughout the year, though waterfowl populations peak December through February.
You can also catch part of the Monarch butterfly migration in autumn, as the brilliant creatures make their long journey to Mexico.
Travel tip: The closest grocery store is located in Port St. Joe, about a 30-minute drive from the park. It’s a good place to load up on last-minute needs.
Also, St. Joseph Peninsula Park rangers will warn you about the raccoons, who apparently haven’t met a cooler they can’t open — reportedly, they’ve even broken into a pop-up camper and broken into a refrigerator. Make sure your food and trash are secured.
Returning to U.S. Highway 98, continue east toward Apalachicola, one of the more colorful stops along the coastal trek, so be sure to make the time to explore it.
Apalachicola was once considered the town that cotton built — in fact; the original town name was “Cottonton.” Before railroads cut through the Gulf region, it was considered the third busiest port in the Gulf of Mexico.
Though seafood has long since replaced cotton as the town’s cash crop, it remains a vibrant working port for shrimpers and oyster harvesters — some 90% of Florida’s oyster production comes straight from the clear waters of the Apalachicola Bay.
This means one thing: Stop Here And Eat.
Whether its shrimp chowder, crab cakes or the massive fried grouper sandwich, you can catch a great lunch (at decent prices) in a relaxed, easygoing atmosphere at the Apalachicola Seafood Grill and Steakhouse. It’s easy to find: Just look for the only traffic light in Historic Downtown Apalachicola, and you’re there.
Oyster fans won’t want to miss Papa Joe’s Oyster Bar and Grill, located on the Apalachicola River on Market Street. The beer is cold and the oysters are fresh and affordable — some say the famed sliders are at their best during fall and winter months.
Stroll the sidewalks of downtown Apalachicola and enjoy the eclectic shops. But be sure to leave time to visit the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve Nature Center, located just north of the downtown area. Kids will especially enjoy the up-close-and-personal fish exhibits and nearby fleets of working boats.
Then pack up and keep heading east along U.S. 98, through Eastpoint and onto a gigantic, swooping causeway that will deliver you onto St. George Island State Park, a slim barrier island that divides Apalachicola Bay from the mighty Gulf of Mexico.
Our first impression of St. George Island State Park brought a smile: a dedicated surf fisherman, hunkered in a low beach chair, surrounded by all the fishing toys that an angler could possibly want.
Not 20 feet away, a Great Blue Heron stalked the gentle Gulf shallows with the same intensity.
It was a fitting metaphor. St. George Island is a place where man and nature meet.
Man is the newcomer here. For most of its existence, this island was uninhabited. And the park’s location — and isolation — limit many resident animal populations, with the exception of a few native species and migrating birds. Bald eagles and osprey nest in the trees; sea turtles nest along the sandy beaches.
Few state parks will give you a better opportunity at shelling. Each morning, the beaches are pebbled with gifts from the sea.
St. George Island parallels main-land Florida like an accusing finger; the park occupies nearly 2,000 acres at the easternmost end of the island. Here, visitors find nine miles of undeveloped beaches and dunes, forests of slash pine and coastal scrub, marshes, ponds and small sloughs.
The easternmost tip of the park is not accessible by vehicle, but walk it to your heart’s content. A 2 1/2-mile nature trail to Gap Point will take you from the campground through pine forests to Apalachicola Bay. Hikers, anglers and boaters will find much to do; two boat ramps provide bay access.
It’s also a great fit for RVers. The park offers a full-facility family campground with 60 campsites — 50 sites can accommodate RVs —complete with water and electricity, hot showers and restrooms, a playground and nearby dump stations.
Dense vegetation and tidy sites help create a pleasant campground atmosphere. And the price is right.
On the Gulf side, you’re treated to gentle blue waters, broken only by the occasional rise of a passing dolphin. Anglers on the ocean or the bay can find flounder, redfish, sea trout, pompano, whiting and an occasional Spanish mackerel. Be sure to pick up your saltwater fishing license in advance.
Even if you don’t choose to camp here, the park makes a terrific day trip.
Continuing the coastal trek, slide back over to mainland — look for oyster harvests going on out in the bay — and head east on U.S. 98, through colorful Carrabelle. Pull over for a picnic at the exceptional public beach here, where U.S. soldiers once trained for D-Day. It’s located right off the highway across from the Carrabelle Palms RV Park.
Want to sample the local flavor? Don’t miss Happy Hour at Harry’s Bar, with its casual Key West-style ambiance. Eavesdrop on the conversation and you’ll probably learn a few things about the oyster trade.
Peak tourist season along the Forgotten Coast runs late May through early August. Locals observe “prices and temperatures are lower at other times of the year.” But even in late December, you can find the daily high climbs into the 70s. A light jacket can probably keep you comfortable on Florida’s coldest days.
Deep in the Pines
For a non-coastal camping experience, head inland about 10 miles along U.S. Highway 319 toward Ochlocknee River State Park, a small, but scenic, site nestled in a mixed forest of pine flatwoods and oak thickets. The Dead and the Ochlocknee rivers — including a designated Florida Canoe Trail, bound the park.
Ochlocknee means “yellow waters,” and the river offers a mix of brackish, tidal surge and fresh water, home to both fresh and saltwater fish.
It’s also a good destination for kids. Picnic and swimming areas can be found at a scenic spot where the Ochlocknee and Dead Rivers meet, and nature trails along the rivers and through the forest allow visitors to hunt for the red-cockaded woodpecker, wild turkey and a rare glimpse of the Florida black bear.
The park features 30 campsites tucked deep within mature forest. All sites have water and electricity. Facilities are clean, pleasant and spacious.
Rangers report that April is their busiest season, so plan accordingly. For more information, call (850) 962-2771.
From here, you can head north into the Apalachicola National Forest, Florida’s largest national forestland. You’ll find great hiking trails, water recreation on the Ochlocknee and Sopchoppy rivers, off-road cycling, and RV campsites at Silver Lake Campground, located near the intersection of State Routes 263 and Route 20. Take Route 20 west 3.7 miles to the National Forest Silver Lake Recreation Area sign and continue 3.5 miles to the campground entrance.
Silver Lake campground is open year round. Though you won’t find electricity or RV hookups, the 25 campsites do provide picnic tables, grills, and paved parking aprons. Potable water and unheated, open-air showers are available — hot showers are within walking distance in the day use area — and a dump station is provided.
Even if you’re not staying, a drive through the forest is entertaining in itself, with views of a lush ecosystem that includes longleaf pines, wiregrass, savannahs, wetlands, and an assortment of geological oddities.
Consider a side trip to view the Leon Sinks Geological Area, located just off State Route 319 in the northeast corner of the national forest. There, you’ll find five fine examples of large sinkholes yawning in the forest floor, created over the centuries by dissolving limestone. The largest hole, The Dismal Sink, measures 200 feet across and 75 feet deep.
Bring your bicycles and enjoy a scenic, challenging ride through rolling forest terrain on the St. Marks Trail, a rails-to-trails project, which follows the abandoned rail bed of the historic Tallahassee-St. Marks Railroad.
You’ll find paved parking on State Road 363, just south of Tallahassee, the entrance to the trail, which stretches 16 miles toward the coastal village of St. Marks.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge makes a fitting grand finale to your coastal trip.
To get there, return to U.S. Highway 98 and turn onto State Route 59, following signs out Lighthouse Road toward the refuge. You’ll find a sanctuary in every sense — an oasis of lush Florida habitats, including salt marshes, freshwater swamps, pine forests and lakes.
Pack a picnic lunch, bring binoculars, and give yourself some time to explore this national treasure, established in 1931 as a wintering point for migratory birds. Maps and other information are available by calling (850) 925-6121.
Ranger’s say that fall through spring is the best season for birdwatching. Over 300 species of birds have been recorded on the refuge; some 98 species are known to nest on-site, including bald eagles, the red-cockaded woodpecker and the endangered least tern.
In spring, the refuge turns into an artist’s paint box of color, as songbirds migrate north. In October, you can spy Monarch butterflies on their way to Mexico.
Stop in the Visitor Center first thing to get your bearings and pick up hiking guides. A paved 6.8- mile wildlife drive runs from the Visitor Center to historic St. Marks Lighthouse on Apalachee Bay. There are plenty of pullouts, picnic sites and viewing platforms along the way. You don’t even have to stop your car to enjoy the scenery, but you’re missing something if you don’t get out, cut the engine, and listen to the babble of mixed birdsong.
Be sure to follow the road all the way to the St. Marks Lighthouse. You’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of wetlands and coastline, prolific bird life and a chance to watch some American alligators basking in the sun.
From here, the St. Marks Lighthouse casts a steady eye over the expansive Gulf of Mexico. Late in the day, the sun warms the landscape to lovely amber — reminding us that like much of this “Forgotten Coast,” there is elegance in the natural world, beauty in unspoiled simplicity.