Tucked just under the southwestern side of Tallahassee, the Apalachicola National Forest is a backyard paradise for the state capital and for visitors to northwest Florida. At about 570,000 acres, it’s the state’s largest national forest. Take advantage of recreation activities, including wildlife viewing, camping, hiking, paddling, ATV and motorcycle riding, mountain biking, hunting, fishing, swimming, picnicking, and horseback riding. Despite the human activity, the forest is a haven for wildlife such as Florida black bears, whitetail deer, fox squirrels, alligators, and snakes, as well as protected, threatened, and sensitive species such as the American bald eagle, gopher tortoise, striped newt, and Flatwoods salamander. Fun Fact: The Apalachicola National Forest has the world’s biggest population of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers; broad white bands painted around the trunks of longleaf pine trees indicate nest clusters.
When to Go: The forest is open year-round, unless there’s a special closure (check the website before you go). Developed recreation sites are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. from April to October and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from November to March. Inside Tip: The District Office Ranger Stations at 57 Taff Drive in Crawfordville (+ 1 850 926 3561) and at 11152 NW State Road 20 in Bristol (+1 850 643 2282) do double duty as welcome centers for the national forest. Stop in for handouts and advice from the rangers.
Must Dos: See the Leon Sinks Geological Area, a unique collection of caverns and sinkholes, recently made more accessible with a new parking lot and boardwalk. Drive one or both of the scenic routes through the forest—the Apalachee Savannahs Scenic Byway or the Big Bend Scenic Byway. Fish or boat the Apalachicola River.
Fun Fact: The forest is home to 77 miles of the approximately 1,300-mile Florida National Scenic Trail, which runs the length of the state.
Photograph by Matt Moyer, National Geographic Travel
Florida Caverns State Park
For a different view of Florida, go underground at Florida Caverns State Park near Marianna, the only park in the state offering dry cave tours. Take a ranger-guided trip beneath the earth to a world of limestone stalagmites, stalactites, flowstones, draperies, and soda straws. Above ground, the park also offers camping, hiking, canoeing, fishing, boating, horseback riding (bring your own mount), picnicking, and golfing. Inside Tip: No cave tours are offered Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Christmas, or Thanksgiving.
Dead Lakes Recreation Area
Dead Lakes Recreation Area in Wewahitchka is anything but dead. Its centerpiece is a 6,700-acre lake teeming with bream, panfish, shellcracker, bluegill, stumpknockers, redbreast sunfish, and largemouth bass. On land, look for foxes, raccoons, opossums, white-tailed deer, rabbits, bears, skunks, turtles, snakes, and, of course, alligators. In addition to a free boat-launch ramp, the park has several ponds, pavilions, and accessible boardwalks. Inside Tip: Tupelo honey is harvested by beekeepers for a short time each spring, when the buds have blossomed on the extremely rare tupelo trees in the park.
Photograph courtesy Eric Felten
St. Mark's Wildlife Refuge
St. Marks Wildlife Refuge covers 70,000 acres in St. Marks and celebrates its 85th birthday in 2016. Buffeted by thousands of acres of salt marsh and an undisturbed estuary, the refuge is transected by seven rivers. Visitors can explore it by hiking (49.5 miles of the Florida Trail run through the refuge), biking, horseback riding, boating, bird-watching, and cruising the six-mile Wildlife Drive from the visitors center to the lighthouse (no climbing allowed). Best Bet: The refuge’s Annual Monarch Butterfly Festival is held on the fourth Saturday in October.