Florida's Gulf County: Don’t Forget the Forgotten Coast
By Gary McKechnie
Between Bay County’s popular Panama City to the west and the increasingly popular Franklin County town of Apalachicola to the east, Gulf County’s Port St. Joe is the picture-perfect coastal town where Florida was born.
Well, in a sense.
Seven years before Florida achieved statehood, it was here, in 1838, that 56 delegates gathered to cobble together a constitution, with many of the names affixed to the document – ie: Blount, Levy, Duval, and Yulee -- now affixed to the names of cities and counties across the state.
An arch that commemorates the event stands in the shade of hundreds of towering pines that fill a 12-acre park that reaches to St. Joseph Bay. Dedicated in 1923, this long-standing tribute to the historic event takes on even more meaning when paired with the adjacent Florida Constitution Convention Museum State Park, which includes artifacts from the era and exhibits on the timeline of the creation of the constitution. (Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays).
In the town itself are other notable bows to Florida’s history. One is the Cape San Blas Lighthouse. Moved here in 2014 as the focal point of George Core Park, compared to other lighthouses this circa-1885 beacon is minimalist in design but powerful enough to attract visitors who can climb to the top. At the adjacent gift shop and tourist welcome center, be sure to pick up brochures – especially the one that includes a lighthouse driving tour of the Forgotten Coast.
You’ll see more history any time you check the time. While nearly every time zone around the world is divided by imaginary north-south lines, in this pocket of Gulf County an east-west line – namely the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway – separates Central and Eastern Standard Times.
One story is that a railroad originating from Jacksonville terminated at the only stop along the line that stubbornly ran an hour earlier than the rest: Port St. Joe. To keep things simple, timetables and time itself were modified here. A popular fringe benefit is that every year here there are two New Year’s Eve celebrations marked by two fireworks displays (one here and one down the bay at Mexico Beach) with a fleet of trolleys available to shuttle revelers to parties throughout the area.
Time also seems to stand still along Reid Avenue, the business district where a pleasing absence of chain stores brings to mind a shopping village of the past. There’s a bar and package store established in 1938, the historic 1938 Port Theatre being prepared for renovation and restoration, and independent businesses including florists, antiques, salons, a day spa, realtors, boutiques, gift shops, restaurants and outdoor cafes.
Although Reid Avenue is a few blocks from the waterfront, the Gulf breeze often has the gusto to reach the business district. Just follow the cooling breeze and at the terminus of C.R. 71 (more about that later) is a small park and playground, a boat launch (none closer to the Gulf), and a short walkway leading to a waterfront gazebo that opens up views of Florida’s curving coastline and the open waters stretching to Cape San Blas and beyond. If you never seem to have time to stop, this is the place to go…
What surrounds you is a reminder that watersports are big business here. In town, several outfitters offer rental kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards. A few blocks away, the sprawling Port St. Joe Marina sells boats. If you’re on a budget, they rent them as well. For a land-based excursion, the popular Port City Trail is a combination of pedestrian and bicycle paths of varying lengths, each interconnected and each exploring different areas of the town.
Should you go west, within a few miles you could instantly become an hour younger when you reach Bay County, but stick with Gulf County. From Port St. Joe, head east on Highway 98, known in town as the Clifford Sims Parkway in honor of the man who was raised here but died after throwing himself on a mine to save his squad in Vietnam. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.
From town, the coastal road will take you to places you never imagined.
With apologies to the Atlantic Coast, the slow curves of the Gulf County coast are ideal for a casual drive. What’s more, by making Cape San Blas your next destination, you’ll enjoy a mesmerizing waterfront ride that lasts for miles and miles.
East of town, Highway 30A splits south off of 98 and hugs the shore, passing old marinas, small RV and trailer parks, and dozens of old school cabins and cottages which are slowly giving way to far larger and costlier modern homes. Watch for 30E, which branches to the right onto Cape San Blas and traces a line between the bay and the Gulf. Here, as you’ll find throughout Gulf County, the parks department is looking out for residents and visitors with wonderful parks like the Salinas Bayside Park (on your right) and the Salinas Gulf Park (on your left). With screened picnic shelters, restrooms, and a pier that leads to a kayak launching area, it’s a convenient place to stop for a bite to eat or put in for a few hours on the water.
After a mile of homes on bayside and gulf, development pauses momentarily to accommodate the U.S. Air Force (a test site is here) but after a few more turns, you’ll spot a pristine and lightly-used beach behind a wall of boulders.
Soon after, mostly magnificent homes fill the remaining distance between here and the entrance to the T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph State Park. If you’ve enjoyed the scenery so far, just wait. There are three miles of paved road into the park – but that’s only half of it. Actually, less than half. After driving as far into the park as possible, where the road ends a seven-mile trail leads to the northern tip of the cape. If you really want to get away, take a hike.
Along the way (the paved way), pullouts, parking areas, and beach/bay access points appear, with nature trails leading to lovely coves and inlets. There are nearly ten miles of beaches here that open the doors for fishing, swimming, snorkeling, and boating. If you can’t bear the thought of leaving… don’t. Along with 120 campsites (RVs and tents) is one of Florida’s best lodging choices: eight waterfront homes (deceptively titled “cabins” outfitted with kitchens fireplaces, bathrooms, heat, and air. All for just $100 per night.
Three For The Road
• Indian Pass
As mentioned, Gulf County seems custom-designed for a road trip. After leaving Cape San Blas on Highway 30E, hook back up with 30A south and follow it to the unincorporated community of Indian Pass. You’ll know you’ve arrived because it seems the only building for miles is an old filling station/general store which is now the Indian Pass Raw Bar, a restaurant/gift shop with character to spare. Inside, folks are gathered at small tables where boxes of Saltine crackers, sauces, and napkins are placed as they await delivery fresh-from-the-bay oysters. A map cluttered with push pins shows that folks from around the world have been here to dine on fresh seafood, many leaving with souvenir T-shirts and ball caps to prove they’ve discovered this remote hideaway.
The raw bar is at the junction of Indian Pass Road, which leads three miles the Indian Pass Campground where RV sites, campsites, primitive camping, and a general store can help you escape civilization a while longer. The great escape, though, is just across the water.
The St. Vincents National Wildlife Refuge is a barrier island that helps create the broad lagoon before you. Two islands totaling more than 12,000 acres provide an undisturbed environment for fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing, hiking, bicycling, kayaking, and nature photography. To reach it, a ferry shuttles people and bicycles (no cars) to this undeveloped island where you’ll find a shoreline that’s never changed and trails that take you into the quiet woods.
Speaking of woods…
• S.R. 71 and Howards Creek
If you look at a map, there are only a handful of major roads in Gulf County. One of those, C.R. 71, shoots straight north from Port St. Joe, or straight south from Wewakitchka (see below). From the coast, it’s about seven miles from the coast to the Gulf Coast Intracoastal Waterway – where the time zone changes.
The Elgin Bayless Bridge spans the waterway, and on each side of the span you’ll find the White City Park where you can launch a boat or fish from docks along the shore. A few miles north of the bridge is the unincorporated of Whitfield Hills. For anyone who travels far off the beaten path, it’s always puzzling to find people living in places most other people would consider the middle of nowhere. Nine miles down Doc Whitfield Road you’ll find the middle of nowhere at Howard Creek.
Surprisingly, this well-maintained community has wide lanes and a mix of residences including custom homes, motor coaches, RVs, and mobile homes. At the end of this long dirt road the Fisherman’s Creek Landing RV Park (850/827-2255) sits on a canal that leads to the Brothers River that flows into the lower Apalachicola River. A country store and 16 campsites are about as remote as you can find and, as in Indian Pass, an ideal option when you’re looking for an Old Florida getaway.
It’s not often a county seat changes places, but that’s when happened when Wewahitchka passed the baton to Port St. Joe in 1965. Although business may take place closer to the coast,
“Wewa” still has plenty going for it, especially the historic 1927 Gulf County Courthouse, which stayed right here.
It doesn’t take long to drive around the town, and one of the most pleasing routes will take you around Lake Alice Park (“Where Families Come to Play.”) A small stage here is the a perfect setting for a summer band concert or religious revival. The town’s also known for its production of Tupelo honey (apiarist LL Lanier’s been here since 1898), and the Dead Lakes Recreation Area, where White Tupelo trees on the banks are the source of the sweet, sweet honey.
When You Go…
To examine the county from every angle, in Port St. Joe are the Gulf County Welcome Center adjacent to the bay, and the Gulf County Chamber of Commerce on Reid Avenue, downtown.