Tallahassee, Florida

Getting Outdoors in the Florida Panhandle

Tallahassee’s Trails & Parks invited us to explore

By Christy Heitger-Ewing

We were newlyweds from the Midwest, fresh out of college and thirsty for adventure. My husband, Todd, had applied to several graduate schools and we had decided to visit Florida State University.

Rolling into Tallahassee, a peace settled into my soul that’s hard to describe. The natural beauty and friendly people immediately put me at ease. After asking for recommendations of things we should see, several people suggested we head just south of Tallahassee to Wakulla Springs State Park, home to the world’s largest, deepest freshwater spring.

“You’ll love it,” they raved. “The 1950’s film Creature from the Black Lagoon was shot there. And the Tarzan movies, too!”

And that wasn’t all. They gushed on about the majestic cypress trees and abundant wildlife that inhabited Wakulla Springs. Then I heard someone utter the magic word: alligators. My ears perked. Ever since I was a little girl, these prehistoric-looking creatures had both terrified and fascinated me. When I learned Wakulla Springs offered daily riverboat tours that would get me a front-row seat to see them, I was all in.

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"“You’ll love it,” they raved. “The 1950’s film Creature from the Black Lagoon was shot there. And the Tarzan movies, too!”"

Hope springs eternal

Todd and I jumped in the car and headed out. Upon arrival, we made a beeline for the boats. The moment we boarded the 30-ft. vessel, my lips curled into a smile that didn’t dissipate throughout the entire 45-minute journey. As the boat pulled away from the dock, I inhaled the fresh air, closed my eyes and tilted my head back, allowing the mid-day sun to drench my face in its warm glow. The steady rumble of the motor lulled me into a state of relaxation as we chugged along the springs.

Any speculation I had wondering if I’d catch even a glimpse of an alligator was quickly put to rest. Little did I know that we’d spot 14 of them in a matter of minutes. One was chilling in the water, mostly submerged, while the rest were sunning themselves along the shoreline. You can imagine our surprise when we saw several little hitchhikers riding on the alligators’ backs—tiny turtles who were also catching some afternoon rays.

Tranquil times

As the boat slowly traversed the old-growth cypress swamps, our guide pointed out several species of birds that inhabit the springs, including the osprey, egret, white ibis, and—the most interesting of creatures—the anhinga snakebird. I’d never seen anything like it! When the anhinga is swimming (and who thinks of birds swimming?), only its neck is seen above water, and because its neck is so long and thin, it resembles a snake. The guide told us these fascinating birds can’t fly when they’re wet because their feathers aren’t waterproof. Instead, they are often seen hanging out on the shoreline looking ever-so-regal with their wings outstretched drying their feathers.

Wildlife surrounded us on all sides—a wood duck on the left, a brown water snake on the right, a bald eagle to the left, a ruby-throated hummingbird to the right, a wild turkey on the left, a manatee on the right.

Save for the sound of cameras clicking, passengers oohing and ahhing, and the occasional flap of a large bird’s wings flying overhead, the air was silent, the mood serene. I felt like I was on the S.S. Tranquility.

After returning to the dock, Todd and I meandered over to the swimming area that had an observation deck and two-story diving platform with views of the springs. According to the guide, the water temperature always hovered around 70 degrees, making for a chilly swim in the winter but a refreshing dip in the scorch of summer.

In search of trails

After leaving Wakulla Springs, we headed to Leon Sinks Geological Area for another view of the springs. This fascinating natural wonder is home to an extensive underwater cave system that feeds Wakulla Springs. We learned that it was the longest, mapped, underwater cave system in the country, with more than 30 miles of underwater passages. After a relaxing boat ride, I was anxious to get out on the trails to do some hiking to see more of what the area had to offer.

“I know you’ve grown accustomed to getting in your miles on the treadmill,” Todd said, “But you may feel differently after hiking these trails.”

He was right.

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Communing with nature

Located in the Apalachicola National Forest, Leon Sinks has no shortage of botanical beauty, with more than 20 species of trees and 75 different plants. I could learn all about Florida botany here! We paid our $3 day use fee at the self-pay kiosk and headed off to explore.

According to the interpretive signs, two main trails meander through the forest, over swamps and past wet and dry sinkholes. We opted for the 3-mile Sinkhole Trail to check out the big sinks, instead of the 1.7 mile Gum Swamp Trail. Already excited about our discovery, I was making plans in my mind to combine the two trails to get in a 5-mile hike. But on this day, we were taking it slow. Ready to experience this unique Florida gem, Todd and I headed off down the well-marked trail, eager to see what natural wonders awaited us around each bend.

Giant pine cones littered the forest floor, purple wildflowers poked their cheery heads up between ferns and pine duff, and flowering dogwood, Azalea and Magnolia blooms perfumed the air. We could hear the sinks before we could see them, trickling water hinting at what lies beneath. We caught a glimpse of the shimmering turquoise water of Hammock Sink through the trees. It almost looked not real it was so blue!

Stopping at Big Dismal Sink, the most impressive of all of the sinks, we looked down from the observation deck—130 feet down! We learned the water dips down another 100 feet with a cave entrance at 80 feet. Moss and ferns covered the walls of the deep sink. The late-day sun shimmied down through the open pockets of trees, spotlighting different facets of nature. The woods were full of chirping birds, croaking frogs, buzzing insects, whistling winds, and the occasional click of a leaf breaking free from its lofty home base and gently fluttering to the earth. On the trail, every stride offered a new experience.

Serenity and gratitude

Back at the trailhead, Todd commented on what a peaceful hike it had been. As the last hint of vibrant color dipped below the horizon, I inhaled joy and exhaled gratitude. If this was getting outdoors in the Panhandle, I couldn’t wait to see what tomorrow’s adventure would bring.

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