Marianna State Parks
If Florida had its own official rankings for the "Seven Wonders" of the state, you'd expect to see the obvious: Everglades National Park, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Lake Okeechobee, the Florida Reef, Canaveral National Seashore.
It's deciding which natural attractions should fill the last two open spots that takes some thinking. Perhaps it's a toss-up between the St. Johns River, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and maybe one of the clear, blue-green springs in north central Florida. Or, there's always the 46,000-acre Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve ("Jacksonville's Central Park"), or the Kissimmee Prairie Preserve (the largest of its kind).
But before you make your final decision, consider two more strong contenders: Florida Caverns State Park and Falling Waters State Park.
Florida Caverns State Park is tucked away in the small town of Marianna, located west of Tallahassee at a point where Florida, Georgia and Alabama converge. Though most of Florida's caves are underwater – and therefore you need to be a certified cave diver to ever see them – this park is home to an air-filled cave system that's open to the public. Even better, rangers offer daily guided tours.
You'll walk through amazing stalagmite and stalactite formations that resemble massive waterfalls, cathedrals and wedding cakes – which is why areas of the cavern have names like Waterfall Room, Cathedral Room and Wedding Room. (Yes, people do get married in the cavern's Wedding Room.)
About a half-hour west, in another small town you may have never heard of – Chipley – is Falling Waters State Park. This gem of a park is abloom in wildflowers each spring. Follow the Sinkhole Trail past the butterfly garden to a boardwalk that overlooks a 20-foot-wide, 100-foot-deep cylindrical pit into which a stream of water cascades 73 feet – Florida's tallest waterfall. It's not exactly Niagara Falls ("tallest" is a relative term, after all), but it's a pretty rare site here in Florida.
Check out these places yourself this fall to see if they'd make your list.
Florida Caverns State Park: The cavern can get a little chilly at 65 degrees, so you may want to bring a light jacket. The tour, which lasts about 45 minutes, is considered moderately strenuous – please make sure you're in good health before you go "spelunking."
Falling Waters State Park: Be sure to call ahead for conditions – recent rainfall amounts determine how much of a waterfall you'll see. If there hasn't been rain, the waterfall will look less than impressive; however, the geology of the area is still very impressive no matter the water level.
Florida Caverns State Park: Fishing holes, campsites and nature trails (Atamasco lilies start blooming in February).
Chipola River Canoe Trail: Canoe rentals are available at Florida Caverns State Park. The 2-mile trail runs north on the Chipola River into the Chipola Wildlife Management Area.
Florida Caverns Golf Course: Near the entrance to the park. Nine-hole course designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr.
Florida Caverns State Park: Thirty-eight campsites, most including electrical, sewer and water hookups. Pet camping is available and stables are available to house horses at three of the sites.
Falling Waters State Park: Twenty-four campsites in pineland forest, each with picnic table and grill. "Campfire Circles" with park rangers are often held every other Saturday afternoon. Pet camping is available.
For more information on the Marianna and Chipley areas, check out the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce's website at www.jacksoncounty.com (for Marianna) and The Washington County Tourist Development Council's web site at www.visitwashingtoncountyfl.com (for Chipley). Information on the state parks can be found at www.FloridaStateParks.org.