Top Things to Do in Northwest Florida
By VISIT FLORIDA staff
Quaint small towns and beautiful state parks highlight your drive from Pensacola to Tallahassee. Here are some of the best stops and things to do in Northwest Florida.
Slow down. That's right. Slooow downnn — maybe even drive the speed limit. This is northwest Florida, the deepest stretch of the Deep South. Here, as the expression goes, it takes five minutes just to say hello. Along U.S. Highway 90, between Pensacola and Tallahassee, there are plenty of places to dawdle, to pass a few minutes and get the feel of the place. This is the land of magnolias and gazebos, of conversations in the shade.
If you're in a hurry, well, Interstate 10 is just to the south. But then you'd never enjoy the view along the bluffs above Pensacola Bay. You'd never taste genuine Southern barbeque. You'd never ride an inner tube down the Blackwater River, or step below ground at Florida Caverns State Park, or paddle the open waters of Three Rivers State Park.
Most of all, you'd never visit DeFuniak Springs, one of the best-kept secrets in Florida. The beauty of this spot brought in the railroad, settlers, and then the Florida Chautauqua program, which drew thousands of people for turn-of-the-century educational programs and entertainment. This historic small town is just a stone's throw from I-10, but millions of tourists zip right by at 70 mph.
But not you. You're slowing down. You've got time. Here's our guide for things to do in Northwest Florida.
It's clear to see why this portion of Highway 90 has been designated a Scenic Highway before you leave the Pensacola city limits, as the road hugs the edge of wooded bluffs hanging 100 feet over Pensacola Bay. To the right are the bay and a view across to Pensacola Beach, while to the left are some of the Pensacola Bay area's finest homes.
Following your map as you continue north, there's an inviting splotch of green above U.S. Highway 90. This is the Blackwater River State Forest, home of Blackwater River State Park, Route 1, Harold. . The Blackwater is considered one of the purest sand-bottom rivers in the world, with snow-white sandbars bordered by oaks and pines, cedar and magnolia trees.
You know that gorgeous sand you enjoyed on Pensacola Beach? Well, this is one of the places it comes from.
Just south of the state park entrance is Blackwater Canoe Rental, which offers tubing trips, canoes and kayaks and overnight camping.
North of Milton, along Coldwater Creek on Highway 87, is Adventures Unlimited Outdoor Center. This full-service nature resort offers camping, canoeing and a confidence-building ropes course.
A little further east along U.S. Highway 90 is historic downtown Crestview. This charming Florida Main Street Community is the home of the original Old Spanish Trail Festival, founded in 1955, which takes place every April.
If you're going to linger at one spot along U.S. Highway 90, let it be DeFuniak Springs. Don't leave town without touring Circle Drive, which loops the oval, spring-fed lake that gives the town its name. In fact, don't leave town without getting out of your car and walking the 1.5-mile-long path among the towering pines that ring the lake. This is the quietest of tourist destinations. If this doesn't slow you down, nothing will.
When the Chautauqua movement expanded from upstate New York, visitors flocked to DeFuniak Springs for cultural, educational and religious activities. The Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood, set on the lake, seated 4,000 people for national speakers such as William Jennings Bryan. The Brotherhood auditorium was destroyed by Hurricane Eloise in 1975, but the original hall still stands. It now houses the Chamber of Commerce, which offers brochures on walking tours of the area. The nearby Information Center is open 1 - 4 p.m. on weekends.
The history of DeFuniak Springs is reflected in the architecture of the homes that line Circle Drive. Highlights include the Magnolia House, 470 Circle Drive, a Colonial Revival home built in 1887, and the 1907 Queen Anne-style home at 534 Circle Drive. Other homes offer examples of Folk Victorian and Frame Vernacular styles of construction.
The DeFuniak Springs Historic District, filled with antique and second-hand stores, is also worth a walk. Between downtown and the railroad depot is a gazebo meeting spot known as 'The Opinion Place'. The redbrick Hotel DeFuniak, 400 E. Nelson Ave., has a prominent spot along U.S. Highway 90. This bed-and-breakfast also features Bogey's Bar and Restaurant.
A few miles past DeFuniak is Ponce de Leon Springs State Recreation Area, just south of U.S. Highway 90 on Route 2. This tiny park is especially popular during the heat of summer, when 68-degree spring water feels refreshing rather than chilly. There are two nature trails along the floodplain forest surrounding the spring.
If you're up for something more adventurous, there's Vortex Spring a few miles north of U.S. Highway 90 on State Road 81. It's one of the scuba diving centers of north Florida, offering lessons and guided cave diving trips, along with swimming along the surface of Blue Spring. There's a dormitory-style lodge for overnight guests.
Continuing east past Bonifay and Chipley is Marianna, best known for Florida Caverns State Park, 3345 Caverns Road, just north of town. A small series of connecting caverns feature calcite rimstone, flowstones and draperies. The park was one of the state Civilian Conservation Corps projects during the Great Depression and features a stone-and-timber lodge that is now a museum. Tours of Florida Caverns are 9 a.m. - 4 p.m. (tours closed Tuesday and Wednesday).
Stop by the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, housed in a magnificently restored historic home at 4318 Lafayette St.
Before the highway swings down through Quincy to Tallahassee, it skirts the Georgia border near Three Rivers State Park, 7908 Three Rivers Park Road, in Sneads. Lake Seminole, a prime spot for fishing and boating, picnicking and camping, marks the meeting of the Chattahoochee, Flint and Apalachicola rivers. Lucky and alert visitors might get to see a white-tailed deer or grey fox.