Exploring Northwest Florida's Natural Side
"It's what Florida used to look like," comments Chuck Hess, retired wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, as he points out toward the land. "It has everything. It has the sandhills, flatwoods, and savannas. This is Florida in a nutshell."
Bill Boothe, environmental educator, adds, "It's a very unique site."
Both men are talking about the Apalachicola National Forest. A little over 630,000-acres, it is the largest national forest in the state and the only one in the Florida panhandle.
As one of the most diverse systems in North America for plants, the forest is home to everything from pitcher plants to longleaf pines to orchids that only bloom after a prescribed fire.
"You can see something in blooming all year round," says Boothe. "However, the prime blooming time is spring through September."
Apalachicola National Forest also has the largest population of red-cockaded woodpecker in the world.
This is just one of the gems you can discover when you go "natural" in northwest Florida.
Pop quiz time! When you think northwest Florida, what immediately comes to your mind? Beaches, right? It's the most natural answer. No doubt about it, the beaches are the main draw; however, inland has a few gems of its own. There are many ways to experience and enjoy a more natural side of this area. You just need to know where to look.
- Take an airboat ride with Jeep Sullivan of Jeep Sullivan Outdoor Adventures along the Choctawhatchee River. Prime area for fishing (Sullivan will tell you "the best tasting fish in the state of Florida comes out of this river") and hunting.
- Go diving at Vortex Spring, or take a dip in Ponce de Leon Springs at Ponce de Leon State Park. Both are 68 degrees year round, and both are located in Holmes County.
- Torreya State Park in Bristol is one of the few places in Florida to see fall foliage. With the bluffs (about 190 feet above sea level) overlooking Apalachicola River, it's one of the state's more scenic places. The name comes from a rare species of Torreya tree that only grows on these bluffs. Interestingly it was believed that Noah used Torreya for the Ark. There are hiking trails along the bluffs, and ample chances to view wildlife.
- Seacrest Wolf Preserve provides a rare opportunity to interact with wolves. As the state's only preserve and rescue, the facility, located in Chipley, is home to Gray, Arctic and British Columbia wolves. Learn how to howl with the wolves. Owners Cynthia and Wayne Watkins take pride in educating the public about their packs. Tours are given every Saturday. You can also meet foxes, skunks and other smaller animals at the "Small Animal Adventure" section.
- Florida Caverns State Park in Marianne is one of the original nine state parks of Florida. While there are over 30 caverns in the park, only one is open to the public for exploring. At 65 degrees year around. Be on the lookout for the "wedding room" complete with a "pipe organ" and "cake" named by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) while working on the cavern, and the cathedral room.