Jackson County: Cold Springs, Cool Caves, and Country Roads
By Gary McKechnie
One of the finest roads in the state is U.S. 90, the lonesome ribbon of highway that ties together rural communities and counties as it rolls across northern Florida.
One of those counties is Jackson and one of those communities is Marianna, the county seat. From “The City of Southern Charm” a web of two-lane roads reach out in all directions, most leading to rivers, natural springs, small towns, and historic sites.
While the county’s pace feels like Florida circa 1950, its history begins much earlier. The area had long been home to Native Americans before Spaniards showed up in 1674, arriving via the Old Spanish Trail that stretched between St. Augustine and Pensacola.
To this day, the county’s website for the Spanish Heritage Trail highlights 11 sites (which includes a parallel geocache trail) travelers can visit including Mission San Carlos in Sneads, the Creek Indians’ Ekanachatte Village in Bascom, and the site of the 1675 Fernandez Raid in Cottondale.
You’ll find a wonderful, wide-ranging map of the county’s historic sites online at Visit Jackson County.
Getting There… and Getting Around
Located just south of the Florida-Alabama line, Jackson County is roughly rectangular in shape, making it easy to navigate. Since every journey needs a starting point, for this trek the best place to start is…
It doesn’t take long to realize there are a lot of hidden gems in the heart of Marianna.
Drive or walk through the historic district where several state markers share tales of the past, perhaps the most notable event being the Battle of Marianna. On Sept. 27, 1864 Confederate troops fought a street battle with Union soldiers before retreating into the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church where many fought to the death in the burning church. (Read more about it at www.battleofmarianna.com).
Just a short drive west, the restored 1895 Russ House is Marianna’s focal point. Looking like the bow of a Mississippi paddlewheeler, it is now the home of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center -- a smart first stop to pick up guidebooks and brochures.
Nearly every driver on Highway 90 speeds across the bridge spanning Spring Creek, never considering what pleasures await below. In a small parking area on the south side of the roadway, people are inflating rafts, unloading kayaks, and walking down a shaded boardwalk to reach the cool, clear waters. A lock that often sends a torrent of rushing water downstream adds an extra kick to the flow of the creek, just enough to give the tubers and rafters and kayakers a little push as they start a slow, soothing, and meandering float from here to the Chipola River two miles away. That’s followed by another two-mile journey to Magnolia Point for a cruise of roughly four hours. So picture yourself in a float on this river…
Note that on the north side of 90, Arrowhead Campground offers great camping, canoeing, kayaking, and swimming on crystal-clear Merritt’s Mill Pond that feeds Spring Creek.
Lakes, Springs, and Underwater Caverns
Jackson County is recognized for its wealth of springs and underwater caverns. Some activities are tranquil while others would give most people the heebie-jeebies.
If you’re looking for a pleasant day on the water, visit the Blue Springs Recreational Area, the only first-magnitude spring in the Chipola River Basin -- 64 million gallons of water flow from it each day.
Once a favorite with Spanish explorers, the county park is now a place that attracts locals and visitors who come here for swimming, hiking, and picnicking. It opens after Memorial Day. If you have a taste for adventure and adrenaline, get in touch with Cave Adventurers (850/482-6016). Cave divers from around the world come here to descend deep into the mouth of the cave and explore thousands of feet of coal-black passages that feed the spring.
Jackson County has many more waterways than can be included here: The Chipola River, Apalachicola River, Chattahoochee River, Compass Lake, Round Lake, McCormick Lake, Lake Seminole, Parramore’s Landing, the Woodruff Dam, and the Three Rivers State Park in Sneads. For more information on these and other water recreation areas, visit Jackson County Waterways.
Florida Caverns State Park
Located a few miles north of downtown, Florida Caverns State Park is the state’s only show cavern. On a 45-minute tour, rangers will fill you in on when the caverns were discovered, the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps to transform it into an attraction during the Great Depression, and about the glacial pace that created what you see.
Believe it or not, it takes roughly a century for the ceaseless efforts of water droplets to build one cubic inch of limestone. In other words, it takes about 1,000 years to create something the size of a deck of cards.
Incredibly, time and nature have made exquisitely intricate formations that include stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, columns, flowstones, and even terraced pools. At some point, the ranger may turn off the lights and in the complete and total blackness, the steady rhythm of droplets informs you how these caverns were created over millions and millions of years. For an even bigger thrill, stay overnight at the park’s campground and return for a flashlight tour of the cavern. First rate.
After some time spent spelunking, now’s the time to expand your reach. If you travel to Graceville via Highway 231 in addition to the peaceful sight of rolling hills, pastures, farms, and fields you’ll eventually see Nan’s Country Store (4130 Highway 231, 850/352-1118). Because it’s in the middle of nowhere, it manages to be the center of attention. This roadside store is filled with everything tourists (and locals) crave: cider, honey, homemade sauces, pickled eggs, pecan logs, boiled peanuts and much more.
At Campbelltown (“The Gateway to Florida” is 20 miles south of Dothan, Ala.), turn left. When you start to see well-kept homes highlighted by yards typical of Southern Living, you’ve arrived in Graceville. There are two places to visit, and each is wonderful in its own way.
The first is Service Drug Store. Here since 1906, it is still a drugstore that, in addition to the old-fashioned soda fountain (great malts!), a high-fashion showroom is filled with stylish apparel for ladies.
The other sight to see is the Heritage Village on the campus of the Baptist College of Florida. Displayed on Jernigan Commons, the wonderful collection of historic structures includes a one-room schoolhouse, several Baptist churches, and the relatively ornate Carlton House. A private campus, you’ll need to call in advance to arrange a tour (850/263-3261).
Named in honor of Dr. Walter Robert Sneads (although it sounds like it was named by Dr. Seuss), this is the home of the Three Rivers State Park (850/482-9006). Here the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers converge to form Lake Seminole, which then flows into the Apalachicola River. A 100-foot pier attracts anglers while forest trails lead through a mix of pine and hardwoods. Campsites and cabins, a boat launch, picnic areas and pavilions make this popular for day guests and overnight visitors.
It’s unusual when you reach a town where the most notable thing to see is the name of the town itself. But for fans of Old Florida, there’s no place like Two Egg, located 15 miles northeast of Marianna. Legend has it that the name of this unincorporated area came about during the Great Depression when some farm kids would take two eggs to the general store to barter for something they needed. Pretty soon their trading caught the attention of travelers and the name Two Egg stuck. A picture by the town signpost makes a great souvenir. FYI: Academy Award winner Faye Dunaway was born in Two Egg and raised in neighboring Greenwood, which in part explains her success.
As you explore Jackson County, you’ll notice farms sprinkled across the land. Some have created sideline businesses by selling fresh pre-picked produce – and some welcome visitors to pick their own products and shop small markets selling certified organic produce. Call ahead for hours, seasons, what they grow, what’s ripe, and what’s ready.
Fox Hollow Vineyard Muscadines
Lady’s Strawberry Farm
Lee’s Tree Farm
Mosier’s Family Farm
Veitch’s Blueberry Farm
Great Florida Birding Trail
Jackson County features four sites designated on the Great Florida Birding Trail: The Upper Chipola River Water Management Area; Florida Caverns State Park; the Chipola River Greenway – Butler Tract; and the Chipola River Greenway – Hinson Conservation and Recreational Area. Among the permanent and visiting species are red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds, grackles, rusty blackbirds, hawks, king rails, purple gallinule, winter wrens, brown creepers, and more than 20 species of warblers.
For upcoming events and festivals, visit Jackson County Events.
If you go…
Jackson County Tourist Development Council