A Slow Drive Through Natural Northwest Florida

By: Gary McKechnie

ADD TO FAVORITES

A two-day circle tour in the rural parts of the Florida Panhandle is a low-key road trip. Taking you across six counties and two time zones, much of what you’ll find may be new to you, yet the simple pleasures of Old Florida provide this tour with a comforting sense of familiarity.

Day One: Antiques, Woods, and Water

Just 16 miles northwest of Tallahassee is Havana. About 20 years ago this small town got some big ideas and dozens of vintage homes and brick buildings were repurposed into antique shops, furniture stores, art galleries, boutiques, cafés, and restaurants. Even a spacious railroad depot and cavernous produce warehouse were renovated and are now filled with antiques, upscale accent pieces, and jewelry. This active district can’t shake its agricultural roots, however. Come here on a Saturday and stock up on certified naturally grown produce at the farmer’s market.

From here, SR 12 leads southwest to Quincy where grandiose and stately Victorian homes line street after street. Why are they here? Well, around the time of the Great Depression, a local banker advised his depositors to invest in a small but popular soft drink and soon Quincy was known for its “Coca-Cola Millionaires.” Legend has it that, for a time at least, little Quincy held the distinction of having more millionaires per capita than any other place in America. FYI: A single original share from 1930, reinvested, would be worth around $10 million today. (Read all about it at ‘Coke Millionaires.)

Highway 267 slips south from Quincy and, just nine miles later, brings you to the Bear Creek Educational Forest at Lake Talquin State Forest. The beauty of Bear Creek is found in a dozen educational programs and in its nearly 500 acres, much of it accessible via three well-marked trails. The shortest is the paved half-mile Living Forest Trail that links into the 1.5-mile Ravine Trail that encircles a picturesque lake and includes some gentle ascents, gradual drops, and a few turns around the rim of a deep ravine. At 2.2 miles, the Bear Creek Trail leads deep into the forest and out of earshot from the neighboring highway. Surrounded by nothing but nature, at Bear Creek you can do something unusual: Relax.

Back on 267, about four miles south of Bear Creek, just past the town of Wetumpka, Cooks Landing Road appears on your left. Turn here and drive until it reaches the shores of Lake Talquin (a contraction of Tallahassee and Quincy) where you’ll find one of Florida’s most out-of-the-way restaurants. At the Whippoorwill Sportsman’s Lodge, ‘The Whip’ is a place that is seriously authentic. Guests arriving by land and by water are here either for the bait and tackle shop or, just as likely, to sit on the deck at a waterfront table or inside the dining area, which is loosely decorated with outboard engines, dollar bills, antlers, farm tools, and neon signs. Steaks, seafood, hamburgers are a constant, but the joint really jumps during Friday evening’s low country shrimp boil.

From here, it’s an easy 55 miles between The Whip and Marianna via I-10 (longer if you prefer back roads). You’ll want to be up at first light in order to start your day in the dark.

Day Two: From Caverns to the Coast

Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna allows visitors to see inside the dry cave system. - Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA

You’ll have to take the tour to get the full impact of the must-see Florida Caverns State Park, but for now here are several reasons to put this on your agenda. First, this is Florida’s only show cavern. Rangers will tell you when the caverns were discovered, how CCC workers transformed it into an attraction during the Great Depression, and then they’ll toss in a little science as well (the high and low temperatures of the area determine the caverns’ constant temperature — 65 degrees, give or take).

 

A sign at Florida Caverns State Park leads the way. - Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA

You’ll learn about geology and the glacial pace that make this wondrous cavern a testament to nature. As ranger Kevin Pankau shared, it takes roughly a century for just one cubic inch of limestone to be created through steady drops of water. In other words, filling a space the size of a TV remote could take 1,000 years — a fact that makes it hard to fathom the exquisite intricacy of formations that include stalactites, stalagmites, “soda straws,” columns, flowstones, and even terraced pools. Pankau and his fellow rangers love sharing facts like these, and you’ll be even more thrilled when they remind you where you are. Turning off the lights for a moment, you know you’re far underground. In the complete and total blackness, the hollow and steady rhythm of droplets informs you how these caverns were created over millions and millions of years. For an even bigger thrill, camp out in the park and return for a flashlight tour of the cavern. First rate.

As you roll into town, on your left you will see a historic steam locomotive. - Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA

Highway 71 leads south to Blountstown. As you roll into town, on your left you’ll see a steam locomotive that once ran on the M&B railroad between 1909 and 1972. A historic marker details its impressive past and should pique your interest for history in abundance at the nearby Panhandle Pioneer Settlement.

This is one of the many buildings visitors can see at the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement. - Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA

Few things have delighted me as much as this place, primarily because the “museum” is made up of 18  historic structures ranging from an 1820 cabin to a 1942 gymnasium; all disassembled and moved to this location from across Calhoun County so visitors could look at – and walk into – a home and a blacksmith shop and a church and a jail. Incredibly, this was largely the work of just two people: Willard and Linda Smith. They decided Blountstown needed something like the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement — and so they created it. Thanks to the Smiths and a team of docents and caretakers, over the past 25 years these old buildings have been given a new life as educational institutions and serve double duty at weddings, special events, and field trips. You can’t live in the past, but this is truly the next best thing.

The museum is made up of 18 historic structures. - Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA

Now here’s an easy way to wrap up the day: Take a road trip. First, head east on Highway 20 to the town of Hosford. From here, you can enjoy a pleasing ride south on Highway 65, straight through the Apalachicola National Forest. There is really nothing to do here aside from looking down the straight-as-pines road, gliding through places like Wilma, Sumatra, Beverly, and Creels before the flat waters of the Gulf of Mexico appear before you. Take a left and Highway 98 reminds you why it is one of Florida’s most pleasing drives. It skirts along the water’s edge to provide mile after mile of spectacular scenery.

End the day in Carrabelle, dining on fresh seafood (really – it was probably caught in the Gulf a few hours ago). Watch the sun fire up the evening as it fizzles into the water … with little to do aside from enjoying your surroundings, take a moment and look at a map.

All around you are roads less traveled, each and every one of them ready to take you to new destinations throughout the Florida Panhandle.


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