Along the River: The Apalachicola
By Chelle Koster Walton
“As we slowly made our way up the creek that flowed into the Apalachicola River we were overwhelmed by the most wonderful smell. It was the tupelo trees in bloom,” said Clyde Butcher, famed Florida nature photographer who published his Apalachicola: An American Treasure collection of images in 2006.
“Between the peace and quiet, the beauty along the edge of the creek, and that gentle sweet smell, I could have stayed right there all day just soaking it in. I don’t know where we were, but I titled the image ‘Tupelo Creek’ in memory of the smell.”
The blossoms of the tupelo trees along the Apalachicola River produce a highly prized honey, but it comes second in worshipful food reputation to the Apalachicola oysters farmed in the bay. Although there is dissent between the oyster fishermen and lovers of the river in regard to its effect on Apalachicola Bay’s salinity, all agree on the haunting beauty of the river and its bordering forest lands.
The 112-mile river meets up with Georgia’s Chattahoochee River and is said to be the reason for the silky, white-out sand beaches of Florida’s northern gulf coast. It delivers quartz rock from the mountains, pulverizing and softening it on its journey to St. George Island at its mouth and to the entire Gulf of Mexico coastline to the east.
Carlton Ward Jr. for VISIT FLORIDA
Vast acreage of government lands protect the Apalachicola on its snaky travels. One of its most dramatic gets its name from another iconic tree in these parts, the endangered Florida torreya. The eponymous Torreya State Park is a highlight along the river for hikers and other recreationists.
“Landscapes along the upper Apalachicola River are dramatic, with some of Florida's highest bluffs dropping off to river level,” said Sandra Friend, author of FloridaHikes.com and a number of Florida hiking guides. “The Torreya Hiking Trail is one of the most rugged hikes you can do in Florida, complete with ridge walks and a primitive campsite with a sweeping view of the river.”
Considered “the mountains of Florida,” the park also accommodates “river rats” with cabins and conventional campgrounds.
Farther south, Tate’s Hell State Forest and Apalachicola National Forest follow the river. Florida’s largest national forest at nearly 633,000 acres, the latter’s opportunity for recreation keeps measure, and includes rock climbing, off-roading, and hunting. Rare geological features include the Leon Sinks caverns and sinkholes. Apalachee Savannas Scenic Byway takes drivers through fields of wildflowers at river’s edge.
The river’s biggest town, Apalachicola, dates to the pre-Civil War era in its well-preserved historic downtown. Brick buildings once constructed for the shipping of cotton today hold oyster plants, one-of-a-kind boutiques, and river restaurants like Boss Oyster. Water Street Hotel & Marina is one of the newest places to stay in town, but the historic Gibson Inn remains a favorite.
“The quaint town of Apalachicola has that wonderful slow feeling of old Florida -- a feeling that time has passed it by,” said photographer Butcher. “In fact, the whole area is like a secret dream.”
For more information about and around Florida’s rivers, see the whole Along Florida's Rivers series.