Interstate 10 runs through a region of uncommon Florida topography and geological features in the northwest region of the state. Those who take the time to veer off the beaten path are rewarded with wilderness unparalleled and incredible opportunities to explore by foot, by bike or by paddle.
Time may seem to stand still in these parts, but it actually reverses as you travel east and cross the time zone boundary from Eastern Standard Time to Central Standard Time. Small towns dot the map along back roads. Rural hamlets carry colorful names such as Two Egg, Round Lake and Orange Hill. Farming, peanut processing, general stores and other small-scale retailing provide occupations for many folks in this quaint area.
The main town in these parts, Marianna, is typical of the country-burg personality one encounters. Along its hilly streets you will find a Civil War battle monument, a Mediterranean-style post office, a quiet courthouse park and a number of homes listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The town serves as a doorway to state parks and corridors of pure pine, dogwood and magnolia forests. Come spring, azaleas festoon the roadways with their bountiful blossoms. Gentle hills and scenic back roads make this a popular destination for cyclists.
The closest park to Marianna, Florida Caverns State Park is the only place in Florida where you can spelunk without going under water. Rangers guide tours down 50 feet beneath the earth's surface to point out unusual limestone formations including stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, flowstones, draperies and even a wedding cake surrounded by pipe organs, a popular site for wedding ceremonies. The one-third-mile cave walk provides a quick chill-out when it's hot - 65 degrees year 'round. Above ground there's also plenty to do, including hiking, camping, fishing, swimming in Blue Hole Spring, golfing and canoeing on the Chipola River, one of Florida's loveliest paddling trails.
To the east near the town of Bristol, Torreya State Park claims unusual vegetation, including the eponymous evergreen that grows along the 14,000-acre park's bluffs and the Apalachicola River that streams through it. Plants found in the Appalachian Mountains, such as the yew and winged elm, also grow here. Visitors take to its 16 miles of hilly trail and tour its antebellum Gregory House. Camping facilities include a large YURT tent that sleeps five.
Small-town Sneads is gateway to Three Rivers State Park, named for the confluence of the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola rivers. Where they meet, the lovely Lake Seminole forms at the Georgia border, shored up by Florida's largest dam. In the peaceful setting this creates, visitors come to fish for bass and speckled perch from the 100-foot pier, canoe, hike the nature trail, bird watch and camp lakeside in view of Georgia.
Head to Chipley and Falling Waters State Park for yet another outstanding geological rarity, that is a 67-foot waterfall (the highest in all of Florida), which drops from the edge of a 100-foot-deep, 20-foot-wide stovepipe sinkhole. Where the water ends up, no one yet knows, but it does at one point form a lake with a sand beach where swimmers cool off. The waterfall is fed by the lake and streams within the park. One nature trail takes you to the waterfall sinkhole, past a butterfly garden. You can even walk down into the sinkhole for a waterfall view that will blow you away. An elevated boardwalk trail travels around a series of other sinkholes and through a canopy of magnolias and other native hardwood trees. Stay for a picnic or spend the night in the wooded campground. Pine Ridge Campground is at an elevation of 324 feet making it the highest elevation for a campground in Florida. Saturday night ranger programs convene at the campfire circle. For hunters and fishermen, deer, quail and trophy bass are the quarry.
Close enough to capital city Tallahassee, but far enough away from everything rushed and metropolitan, the Marianna area offers to the Florida traveler a rare gift of serenity, genuine friendliness and nature communing. Town folk plan to keep it that way, so come. Pause for awhile and replenish the spirit.