As I race through a daily checklist of assorted obligations, I often forget to press pause and rediscover the beauty of the natural world.
Although I try to avoid it, I find it’s a recurring routine that I slip into until the stress of reality settles on me like dust. Sometimes it takes until the tipping point for me to dust myself off and make my way to Tallahassee, where the open woods and tranquil river waters offer a breathtaking natural sanctuary. The Great Outdoors inspire a sense of wonder that can sometimes get lost, and exploring nature instills in me more than just joy, but a new hope for tomorrow.
From Tallahassee’s signature towering oak trees, to its wonderful array of native wildlife inhabitants, it's a destination that never ceases to amaze me.
The first time my wife and I visited Wakulla Springs State Park, 20 miles south of Tallahassee, we arrived just after dusk. Driving toward the lodge through a low hammock of trees, in the headlights a welcoming committee of several deer were casually crossing the road ahead of us. It was magic. And there was more to come.
During recent wintertime visits, we’ve found that manatees by the dozens have joined the ranks of Wakulla’s most majestic wildlife welcoming committees. Pound for pound, they are about the cutest animal you’ll ever run across—a factor, which may have saved them from extinction. No one could picture Florida without these lovable walrus-y creatures floating along like lazy balloons in Florida’s sparkling springs and rivers.
Although still a threatened species, their numbers continue to rise, which, naturally, increases the opportunity to catch a thrilling glimpse of them in the wild. By their natural instinct, during the cold winter months, herds of manatee travel upriver to reach the mainspring where the clear waters flow at a relatively constant and comfortable 70 degrees. While you can—and definitely should—swim in the spring, to protect the manatees it’s not permitted to approach them (although their natural curiosity may have them checking you out).
What’s probably best for both you and the manatee is that you rise early and watch them from the vantage point of the diving platform, and later take a river cruise that departs from the nearby dock. Along the way you’ll often spot alligators, turtles, anhingas (a dapper flyer with many nicknames including water turkey, snake bird and devil bird), osprey, bald eagles and… yes more manatees!
Watching manatees explore crystalline waters is one of Florida’s most satisfying aquatic experiences. You’ll find another hotspot of aquatic life 20 miles south of Wakulla at the Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory in the coastal town of Panacea. For more than half a century, this combination research and visitor center has been committed to the cause of protecting marine life, including Loggerhead and Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. Each year they treat nearly two-dozen injured sea turtles before releasing them into the nearby Gulf of Mexico. Some, like Lil’ Herc, a Loggerhead blinded after being struck by a boat, are considered too fragile to return to the sea and become permanent residents/goodwill ambassadors for the Marine Laboratory.
To give visitors a greater connection to wildlife, Gulf Specimen Marine Laboratory has a hands-on approach. So, if you’ve never touched a starfish, you can do it here! You can even hold a clam, handle a sand dollar, pet a sea pansy, and get an up-close look at a fantastic array of sea life brought here from the Gulf waters. These types of encounters have a way of forming bonds, and it’s not uncommon to find visitors inspired to return as volunteers and docents, sharing with school children and adults alike their rekindled passion for protecting sea turtles, marine life and Florida’s fragile ecosystem.
Growing up near Orlando, over the years I watched as forests became freeways, and rows of colorful citrus groves changed into rows of colorless carbon copy homes. Nature, it seemed, was optional.
This is where Tallahassee is decidedly different. It is a place where forests are still standing and birders seem to outnumber builders. That may be due in part to the Apalachee Audubon Society whose namesake—naturalist John James Audubon—explored Florida in the early 1830s as he studied, sketched and documented the territory’s diverse range of birds. Nearly two centuries later, his legacy continues in this local Audubon chapter, which publishes an informative online newsletter, and hosts field trips for novice and experienced birders.
These excursions often lead to the J.R. Alford Greenway, which covers more than 800 acres on a peninsula where a freshwater swamp abuts pastures, forests and the waters of lakes Lafayette and Piney Z, a gathering place for storks, herons, egrets, ibises and cormorants. The entire preserve is a paradise for red-tailed hawks, palm warblers, sparrows, meadowlarks, purple martins, bluebirds, swallow-tailed and Mississippi kites as well as 370-some other species—not all of which are year-round residents. The Greenway is in a prime location along the Florida Birding Trail, which connects a network of 510 parks, preserves, reserves, refuges, wetlands, forests and assorted wildlife viewing sites found along a flyway for migrating birds. For a truly jaw-dropping view of the grounds, head up to the Canopy Walkway. This 40-foot-tall observation platform will give you a complete bird’s-eye views of the area.
In addition to being a natural habitat for birds, it just so happens this is a natural habitat for humans as well. With a paddling trail and nearly 20 miles of multi-use trails that link adjacent parks, the Greenway attracts runners, hikers, cyclists, horseback riders and anyone else in search of activity and outdoor serenity.
Less than 30 minutes north, Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park is yet another source of peace and tranquility. Located on the eastern shore of Lake Jackson, its 670 acres offers areas for recreational sports like hiking, mountain biking, soccer and horseback riding. Overall, the park is an expanse of wild streams, towering magnolias, longleaf pines and ancient oaks blended together in a tangle of untouched Florida wilderness. As a result, it’s the equivalent of a five-star resort for resident woodpeckers, nuthatches, bluebirds, wild turkeys, sparrows, chickadees and wading birds.
If this inspires you to seek out more wildlife, just head 20 miles south of Tallahassee to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, named by National Geographic Traveler as one of America’s six “stand-out” national wildlife refuges.
At 72,000 acres, this vast natural wonder is a gateway site on the Florida Birding Trail. It offers wildlife diversity including alligators, otters, deer, bears and more than 300 species of birds, along with activities like fishing, kayaking and bicycling. St. Marks National Wildlife Refugee has plenty to offer for birders, boaters, anglers, hikers, riders, photographers and nature lovers of all kind. For many visitors, the highlight of the St. Marks calendar is October’s Monarch Butterfly Festival, where kaleidoscopes of gorgeous butterflies can be seen as they migrate through the area.
If you’ve ever strolled through a butterfly garden, you know what it’s like to watch a few dozen butterflies dashing and darting among the flowers. At St. Marks, multiply that times ten thousand. That’s because the refuge is along the flight path of millions of migrating monarch butterflies traveling from Canada to Mexico. The festival offers a perfect opportunity to learn about these beautiful, fragile and resolute wonders.
You don’t have to go too far back in Florida history to see that alligators, manatees and even bald eagles faced extinction before concerned humans recognized the role we played in their plight and our power to save them
Now add to that list red wolves. They once roamed the Southeast by the thousands, but as recently as the 1980s, the red wolf population had fallen to fewer than two- dozen, a number so small they were declared biologically extinct. Helping avert a man-made catastrophe were the men and women of the Tallahassee Museum, whose participation in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan was a key to their successful future. From a mating pair, a litter of three was born and then transferred into the wild and the tide began to turn. Today it’s estimated there are more than 100 red wolves in the wild, with 200 residing at dozens of zoos, preserves and sanctuaries across the nation.
Few things connect people more quickly and more sincerely than our common love of wildlife, and you’ll witness that as you climb to the top of the donor-funded viewing platform, built to provide a better sightline of the red wolf habitat. It’s a beautiful place to watch visitors sharing a sense of wonder as they watch the red wolves. Personally, I think it reflects a message of hope and possibility.
That’s the same feeling I get when I watch manatees laze in clear spring waters, or rescued turtles being cared for by volunteers, songbirds and shorebirds in wildlife preserves, or a flood of fluttering butterflies floating overhead.
It’s even better knowing I can do all of this in one amazing place: Tallahassee.