Explore Florida’s St. George Island on Apalachicola Bay

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Sea Oats Photo © Beverly Hill

 

In late October I visited Dr. Julian G Bruce St George Island State Park (talk about a mouthful!) along the Forgotten Coast located in the lower panhandle of Florida. This important barrier island provides protection for the Apalachicola Bay Aquatic Preserve and the nearby Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) and UNESCO World Biospher Reserve. In a word, it’s pretty special.

Interestingly, St. George Island is an exercise in balance. Half of the island is developed, with homes, condominiums, shops and businesses on the western end, and the eastern half of the island is home to a state park with 9 miles of pristine sand beach and 12 miles of estuarine shoreline. As one would expect, during the summer months, St. George Island is a haven for endangered sea turtles coming ashore to lay eggs.

Great Egrets Photo © Beverly Hill

My early fall trip coincided with the seasonal butterfly migration; Monarchs, Gulf Fritillaries, Long-tailed Skippers, and other colorful butterflies dotted the flowering landscape. I chose the one-mile long East Slough Overlook trail that wound through the pine scrub to a slough flanked by Smooth Cordgrass and Black Needlerush. From the boardwalk I was able to observe a Great Blue Heron and several Great Egrets stalking their prey in the shallows. To my delight I also spotted some Southeastern Five-lined Skinks that quickly raced for cover upon my approach.

Gulf Fritillary Photo © Beverly HIll

I took my time taking in the sights from the boardwalk and adjoining sand trail before eventually returning to the parking area near the trailhead. I drove further into the park, stopping to take in the sights along the coastal dunes, including a defunct section of boardwalk that had been damaged by Hurricane Dennis in 2005. The surf was a bit rough on this day, so I decided against a walk on the beach, instead turning my attention back into the heart of the park.

Old boardwalk on St. George Island Photo © Beverly Hill

Next, I took a drive through the campground to check out the amenities available for camping and noted 60 campsites complete with electricity and water, two bathhouses and a playground. There are current plans in the works to expand the campground with an additional camping loop with up to 30 additional spots, as well as expanding the number of primitive hike-in campsites. Among other amenities, there are two natural kayak launch areas on the bay side, three covered picnic pavilions and 6 covered beach shelters, and restroom/shower areas.

Long-tailed Skipper Photo © Beverly Hill

To get to St. George Island State Park, turn onto FL 300 S from Hwy 98 in Eastpoint and follow it 4 miles across the bay. Once on St. George Island, turn left onto Big Bend Scenic Byway Coastal Trail/Gulf Beach Dr and drive 4.3 miles to the state park entrance. Other nearby parks include St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Port St. Joe and Ochlockonee River State Park in Sopchoppy. Check the Florida State Park webpage for entrance fees and closures.

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The Jewels of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

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Fishing Pond at Topsail Hill

Oasis is perhaps the best description of Topsail Hill Preserve. An oasis of nature in a changing world of urban sprawl. Here, a unique ecosystem holds onto its place in Florida’s coastal dune system under the shade of an old-growth Longleaf pine forest and gentle sea breezes. Among ancient dunes, threatened Gopher tortoises and endangered Choctawhatchee Beach mice forage next to four rare coastal dune lakes that lie within the park’s 1,640 acres of paradise. Sanctuary.

Shuttle Tram

Topsail Hill is a shining example of balance between humans and nature by mitigating human impacts in fragile areas of the park while still offering amenities similarly available in more urbanized parks. This has been accomplished by careful land and forestry management practices, including locating the camping, lodging and parking areas near the entrance to the park and supplying tram service for visitors to the beach access area. Visitors can also ride bikes or hike to areas within the park, allowing them to see even more of this amazing place.

Parrot’s Head Pitcher Plant

Along the hiking and old jeep trails visitors have the opportunity to see both pine and wetland plant communities, including pitcher plants. The park uses controlled burns to keep understory species in check so that pine, wiregrass and pitcher plant species are able to thrive without competition. It is in one of these hydric pine flatwoods where I was first able to see a beautiful native Pine lily in full bloom.

 

Pine Lily

The coastal dune lakes are another important feature within the park, and represents a vanishing resource along much of the coast. These rare and globally imperiled lakes perform multiple functions such as filtration, retention and habitat. Salinity differences caused by outflow and inflow of sea water can vary widely between lakes, allowing for a variety of fresh and saltwater fish and animals. Campbell and Morris Lake are the two most notable lakes within the park, with Lake Stallworth lying on the eastern boundary. Outside vessels are not permitted on the dune lakes, but canoe and kayak rentals are available from the camp store for kayaking on Campbell Lake.

Bike racks at Beach Access

Wildlife finds a home here as well and binoculars or a camera could be beneficial. An early morning stroll to the beach could have visitors crossing paths with Gopher tortoises, White-tailed deer, or even a Loggerhead Sea turtle on its way back to the Gulf after an evening of egg-laying. If walking near any of the lakes within the park, keep a sharp eye out for basking Alligators, since they also call the park home. Watch for wildlife tracks along any of the sandy paths as it may provide clues to some of the park’s unseen residents.

Topsail Hill at Campbell Lake

Topsail Hill is an ancient dune from which the park takes its namesake, rising 25 feet above the shore of Lake Campbell and used historically as a navigational marker for vessels. Several archaeological finds have been made at Topsail including WWII metal tracks, a wrecked wooden ship, shell middens and turpentine collection materials. A reminder in case you stumble across any archaeological materials, these are not permitted to be removed from any State Park, so leave them be for future visitors to observe.

Sea Oats wave next to an Outflow

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is on Hwy 98, although the main entrance is located along Scenic Hwy 30A in Santa Rosa Beach. Park hours are 8 a.m. until sunset, 365 days a year. Check with the park for current admission and rental fees.

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Kayaking Adventure on the Ichetucknee River

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Beautiful clear waters of the Ichetucknee

The Ichetucknee River has always been on my list of rivers to explore. For years I had been jealous of tales of crystal clear waters and more wildlife than you could shake a stick at, so I was thrilled to get the opportunity to paddle on this pristine waterway last October during the 2015 Florida Paddler’s Rendezvous at the Suwannee River Campground in Mayo, FL.

Ichetucknee Springs State Park is almost literally in the middle of nowhere, with the closest town being some 5+ miles away in Fort White and the next largest town, Lake City, located nearly 23 miles away. Despite the distance, Ichetucknee Springs receives more visitors than it can sometimes handle and it has to turn people away once capacity for the park is reached.

Aquatic grasses swaying in the current

Fortunately for our group, October is the off-season and the tubers had gone home for the summer and our convoy of paddlers had no problem dropping off kayaks near Blue Spring at the north end of the park before shuttling vehicles to our takeout on the lower Santa Fe River almost 12 miles away. The plan was to paddle 6 miles on the Ichetucknee before merging onto the Santa Fe River where we would paddle another 5 ½ miles to our takeout on Hwy 129.

 

Unnamed spring beneath a limestone bank

Because of the distance we would be traveling that day and the restrictions within Ichetucknee Springs State Park, special care had to be made with our food and water provisions since disposable containers/wrappers are not allowed within the park, including glass or plastic bottles. For this trip I brought along my Camelbak and a drybag containing cookies and dehydrated fruits. I really don’t mind extra measures like these when it comes to protecting such a vital natural resource.

Kayaking

We finally got underway and were immediately met with the beauty that is Ichetucknee. The waters were clear and cold, allowing us to see all the way to the bottom of the river where a sea of grasses waved gently beneath us, beckoning us with their rich colors. A variety of bream, bass and other fish drifted casually in and out of the grasses, probably secure in the knowledge that fishing isn’t permitted here. Along the banks we would sometimes see White Ibis, Great Blue Heron and even a Barred Owl as it swooped across the river.

Raccoon washing paws

Turtles were everywhere, and more than once I counted as many as 30 on a log. I figure there weren’t more simply because the log wasn’t long enough. We never saw any alligators, and I’d been told that any over 4′ in length are trapped and relocated. That being said, this is Florida and you never know when one will find its way in, so it’s a good idea to be on the lookout just in case. Someone should probably mention that to the Raccoon I spied washing his paws at the water’s edge.

Devil’s Eye Spring

Along the way we took the time to gaze into the depths of Devil’s Eye Spring and later Coffee Spring, as well as several other springs along the length of the spring run. We drifted along the river for a couple of hours, passing several of the park’s tube launch platforms until we finally passed out of the park and the last takeout before entering the lower section of the Ichetucknee where houses and long boardwalks slowly loomed into view. There were no takeouts beyond this point, so we were committed to our takeout on Hwy 129.

Confluence of the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe Rivers

Finally we reached the amazing confluence of the Ichetucknee and Santa Fe Rivers. I stopped to take several pictures of the brilliant clear water of the Ichetucknee merging with the tea-colored flow of the Santa Fe. It was such a stunning contrast. From here we downstream the remaining 5 ½ miles to our takeout. This last section of Santa Fe was mostly unremarkable with homes appearing regularly. Our biggest challenge was just keeping an eye out for any motor boats.

Before planning your trip, be sure to visit the Florida State Parks website to see when the south gates are open. Ichetucknee Springs State Park is located at 12087 SW Hwy 27, Fort White, FL.

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A Hike to Cherokee Sink near Wakulla Springs

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Cherokee Sink Trail

Cherokee Sink Trail

I learned of Cherokee Sink Hiking Trail while preparing for a return visit to Wakulla Springs south of Tallahassee. My morning plans consisted of a river boat ride on the Wakulla River followed by a couple of hours of hiking before continuing south to Crystal River. Cherokee Sink fit the bill perfectly by being a short hike with a scenic destination.

Access to Cherokee Sink Trail is off of Hwy 61 about 1.3 miles southwest of the main entrance of Wakulla Springs State Park. We turned right at the small Cherokee Sink sign onto an unpaved road and drove a short distance to the parking area.

Cherokee Sink

Cherokee Sink

The trail itself was an easy trek over flat terrain down an old forest road lined by hardwood trees. Deer and other small animal tracks were abundant along the 1 mile trail. The weather was mild for late November, and I was glad for that, having hiked many a trail during hotter temperatures.

After about 20 minutes of peaceful walking we arrived at our destination, a large sinkhole lake about 250′ wide glistening in the afternoon sun. Three wooden boardwalks dotted the rocky perimeter to viewing platforms overlooking the lake, and we moved onto the closest one to take in the view of this amazing 80′ deep karst window into the Florida aquifer.

Another view of Cherokee Sink

Another view of Cherokee Sink

Where most people might just see a swimming hole, Cherokee Sink is more than that. Florida is composed primarily of porous limestone, which over time becomes pockmarked with voids and passages, sometimes creating caverns. Cherokee Sink used to be one of these caverns until its roof collapsed into itself creating the sinkhole lake that exists today. The water that you see today is rainwater runoff that mixed with the water table far below.

Pond Apples?

Pond Apples?

We took the time to walk around most of the lake, and to my surprise I found what appeared to be ripe Pond Apples on the ground along the trail. Further along the trail we arrived at the site of the historic Causseaux Cemetery. The grave markers are long gone, but a sign tells about the family that lived there, including Stephen Causseaux, a Confederate Soldier.

After exploring the overlooks, we headed back to the parking area. Our brief visit to Cherokee Sink was well worth the effort – it’s not every day that one gets to peer into a karst window. Don’t pass it by due to the short hike. It’s easy to add more hiking mileage in by adding the trails at Wakulla Springs to round out a full day of hiking.causseaux-cemetery

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Magical Manatee Madness

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Manatee taking a breath of air. Photo © Beverly Hill

Manatee taking a breath of air. Photo © Beverly Hill

At the time of writing this article, the West Indian Manatee, and its two subspecies, the Antillean and Florida Manatee, is still listed on the Endangered Species List. There is a current proposal before the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to change their classification from Endangered to Protected, which could potentially impact their continued recovery.

It’s been a few years since I traveled down to Crystal River, Florida, for the yearly migration of manatees moving inland to overwinter in the warm springs that they depend on during the winter months, only this time as my friend and I glided in on kayaks, I noticed another migration – an over-abundance of tourists.

Crowd of visitors

Crowd of visitors

Manatees are a big draw, monetarily speaking, and Crystal River is one of the most easily accessible destinations that allows tourists to get up close and personal with these gentle giants. On the down-side, it has humans and manatees competing within the same finite resources – Florida’s crystal clear springs.

In an effort to strike a balance between the needs of the manatees and the wants of the humans, the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge has begun a monitoring program that ensures that during periods of extreme cold, the sanctuary at Three Sisters Spring will close to human intrusion so that the manatees can rest undisturbed. Naturally, the winter months experience the most closures to human access. There are still areas within Kings Bay that will allow humans to view and swim alongside of manatees outside of sanctuary boundaries, as well as Homosassa River just a few miles away.

Manatee and snorkeler

Manatee and snorkeler

There is a boardwalk/viewing area at Three Sisters Springs Visitor Center, however, there is no parking available and visitors must purchase tickets and take a trolley that runs every half hour from the Visitor Center to the Springs. Budget-minded visitors may want to consider Ellie Schiller Homossassa State Park instead, because it also hosts a manatee viewing platform on the river, included with the cost of admission into the wildlife park, and has more things to see and do.

Manatee closeup

Manatee closeup

Fortunately, for now, we were still able to enjoy our kayaking/snorkel trip with the manatees. Being able to swim with these big curious creatures is both a joy and an educational opportunity. One can float quietly just outside of the sanctuaries and inquisitive manatees will approach at their leisure to have a look at their human visitors. Its magical moments like these that continue to inspire people to learn more about these amazing animals and educate others about them.

Algae

Algae

I understand the need to protect the manatee, and it is my fervent hope that further restrictions will not take this amazing opportunity away. Currently, the biggest threat to the manatee is the removal of “No Wake Zones” within Kings Bay and surrounding waterways, and the continued pollution by nitrates into the aquifer that feeds the springs. Nitrate laden water feeds the algae that chokes out the plants that the manatees need to feed on.

Manatee

Manatee

So if you’re planning on visiting the manatees, do your research ahead of time to see if the rapidly evolving protections will impact your trip. You can do that by visiting the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission websites for more information.

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