Visit any Florida State Park, or its website, and you’ll be greeted with the motto “The Real Florida.” It is, no doubt, a response to the prevailing belief among many that “Florida” equates to “Disney World.” But Florida offers a whole lot more, and we got to experience some of it while touring several state parks along the panhandle.
Suwannee River State Park
Our first stop was Suwannee River State Park. It is, by all measures, a small park, with an even smaller campground – about 30 spots. But we were thrilled to find a state park featuring full hook ups for the bargain basement price of $22.00 per night. Given that the last place we stayed charged three times that for a much less spacious site, we were pretty happy.
What made us even more happy were the park’s well maintained and easy-to-tackle hiking trails. For the first time in over four months, we were able to take a walk in the woods! And no one was more excited than Dixie, who, for the last several months, has had very little opportunity to explore all the awesome smells of the great outdoors. Or to eat a ton of grass. Which she could then puke up on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night. Thanks Dixie. You’re the best. And by “the best,” I mean “the worst.”
The park’s relatively flat hiking trails, which run right next to the Suwannee River, offered some nice scenery, and were easy for me to navigate on my work-in-progress knee.
We hiked just about every day and finally gave our Fitbits reason to be proud of us.
Fitbit: “Buzz. You should go for a walk.”
Me: “I will in a minute.”
Fitbit: “Buzz. It’s been a minute.”
Fitbit: “Yeah. Seriously. You’re worthless.”
Me: I’m in the middle of something.”
Fitbit: “Instagram can wait.”
Me: “Don’t make me take your battery out.”
Fitbit: “Don’t make me call you worthless.”
Me: “You already did.”
Fitbit: “Good point. You should go for a walk.”
Annoying as it was, the FitBit had a point… getting back on the trails felt great!
Perhaps best of all, during our afternoon hikes, the setting sun would filter through the pine trees and paint these incredible golden highlights on every inch of the park.
It was a pretty spectacular way to end each day.
Three Rivers State Park
Our next stop on the Panhandle was Three Rivers State Park, located west of Tallahassee. Three Rivers was much larger than Suwannee and featured the beautiful Lake Seminole as its centerpiece. Even better for us, the RV campground sits right next to the lake and we were able to score a campsite that backs up to the water.
Our first night, we wandered down to the pier, hoping to get some nice sunset photos. However, we found the real splendor in the opposite direction…. the moon, which was either full or very close to it, was just gorgeous as it rose over the lake.
One afternoon, we rented a canoe from the park and went out on the water. It was late in the day and the lake was incredibly calm and glassy.
The water reflected the blue and silver colors in the sky providing a spectacular background as we paddled around.
Florida Caverns State Park
About 40 minutes down the road from Three Rivers is Florida Caverns State Park, a property featuring, you guessed it, caverns!! We took the 45 minute Ranger led tour which took us through several “rooms” in the cave system.
While we had both previously visited other cave systems, it was interesting nonetheless. There are so many different types of formations, and it was fascinating to learn why the various structures appeared as they did.
Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park
I had read on multiple travel blogs, and heard from a fellow tourist in Charleston, that Wakulla Springs Park, a little over an hour south of Three Rivers, was not to be missed. So, on a particularly warm and sunny day, we headed in that direction.
As we were driving through a large section of Apalachicola Park, we suddenly noticed dark smoke rising from the forest ahead of us.
We soon realized forest service personnel were starting a controlled burn of part of the forest.
Yet, they seem to use the term “controlled” quite loosely. They didn’t shut the road down or even attempt to re-route or restrict traffic. There were no warnings about what they were doing, no artificial barriers placed along the road, no firetrucks at the ready if things went badly. Nothing. They were lighting acres of brush and trees on fire with the same level of concern with which I make a cup of coffee in the morning. As we were driving through, the smoke was billowing up just yards away, and we could feel the heat from the flames washing over the car.
The optimistic side of me said: “This is what these people do all day. They know what they’re doing. They’re experts!” The cynical side of me said “This is Florida: home to gas station fireworks shops, sooooo, you should probably drive really fast and get the hell out of here.” Ergo, sorry for the drive-by photos, but we are only willing to suffer so much for our art….
Anyway, we eventually made it to our intended location. Wakulla Springs has numerous hiking trails and a hotel on property, but the main attraction is the boat tours that go down the river.
The tours are narrated by Florida park rangers who point out all the wildlife along the route. The weather was incredible and the number of other tourists minimal, giving us a great opportunity to try wildlife photography…. Of course, high on the list of things we wanted to see was an alligator. One alligator would do, but we were fortunate to see about about 10 of them during the trip.
As cool as the alligators were, the real stars of the show were the various birds that treat the river like a salad bar at Ruby Tuesday.
As you can see in some of the photos, after dipping in the water to get their meals, the birds open their wings and stand still for minutes at a time allowing their feathers to dry in the sun. This was super helpful to us as we were taking photos, but I couldn’t help but notice this guy doing his version as we floated by.
Dude looks like he’s flashing people in a park or something.
And now you know what happens to people who spend too many years working in the criminal justice system. They become so jaded, they start assigning bad intentions to birds in wildlife sanctuaries….
And on that note, we are headed for the Gulf Coast! White sand beaches, crystal clear water, 70 degree temperatures….. This one’s been high on our list since we hatched this plan, so we’re looking forward to it!