Florida Panhandle

Manatee Springs
Being born and raised in Florida, it would seem that at some point in time I would have experienced some travel in the northwestern portion of the state, known as the Panhandle.  But in fact, the only time I have traveled in this region is when I was passing through quickly to some other destination.

Leaving home recently, we headed,
initially, to Manatee Springs State Park as a stopover.  Manatees were not around during our visit. Recent torrential rains had left water standing everywhere and water overflowing the banks of the Suwannee River.  The river also receives water from the springs via a stream linking the two.  Headwaters of the springs produce about 100 million gallons of clear water daily; provide a winter home for manatees and, slightly chilly, 72-degree water for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving experiences year-round.  Oak trees grace the shores of the springs and the lands throughout the park.

Dunes at St. George Island
Luckily, the following evening we were able to secure a reservation at St. George State Park southeast of Apalachicola.  During the summer and spring break times of the year, this portion of Florida is inundated with visitors from Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and
Apalachicola Bay
Texas (and Florida).  Even though the campgrounds were full, we saw few park visitors once we left the campsite.  Dunes are the most outstanding feature of St. George and they run for miles along the barrier island, sandwiched between the Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.  Beach walking, biking, fishing, kayaking and boating are the primary past times for this park.  The community of St. George provides rental units, restaurants, limited groceries and a public beach area for folks that don’t want to make the drive to the State Park. 

Oyster skiffs
Oyster harvesting has been part of the history of Apalachicola Bay since the first Indians settled this area.  The Bay produces 90% of the oysters consumed in Florida and 10% of the oysters consumed in the U.S.  Unfortunately, the rains, which contributed to partial flooding of parks in this portion of the state, also severely restricted the ability of oystermen to harvest oyster.  Traveling into Apalachicola most restaurants had stricken oysters from the menu for the week but we were able to score some tasty raw oysters at a place along the waterfront, Boss Oyster.  Shrimp boats line the dock in town.  Local shrimp and crabmeat graced our dinner plates the next few evenings.  Though much of the area reflects economic hardships, Apalachicola appears to be a thriving community.  Renovation projects seemed to abound throughout the town and the historic district reflects the town’s pride in their history. 

Moving slowly to the west, we made a stop at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. 
Snorkeling for dinner
Scalloping is one of the main calling cards for this park, so we wanted to give it a try.  Launching our kayaks into St. Joseph Bay, we traipsed and snorkeled in 3-4 feet of water for a couple of hours.  The yield for our effort was zero scallops.  But it was still fun getting out into the kayaks and giving it a try.

Early morning St. Andrews beach
Saint Andrews State Park was our next destination.  Located just east of Panama City Beach, we passed by miles of high-rise hotels and a varied assortment of entertainment venues lining the highway to arrive at the park.  As a former military reservation, the land had been preserved prior to the encroachment of this development.  The mile and one-half of beaches, plus two fishing piers, a jetty and a boat ramp provide a variety of water-oriented activities.  Sunbathing and biking were our choice of activities.

Kayaking on Western Lake
The numerous parks in this region enabled us to travel short distances and
experience the diversity offered along the Gulf coast.  We traveled next to Grayton Beach State Park, where the white, sugar sand beaches have won numerous awards through the years.  Located near Seaside, FL, this “perfect ” town was the movie set for Jim Carrey’s, The Truman Show.  Indulging in steamed Red Royal shrimp and grilled oysters at the Shrimp Shack, we enjoyed a lovely breeze in their pavilion while overlooking the Emerald Coast.  Western Lake provided a fishing venue for us the following morning.  Paddling in our kayaks provided a view of the salt marsh eco-system as we cast our lines out for the “big one.”  Concluding our outing a couple hours later, we had scored a few hits and one bite, a small mouth bass, which we released.
Fort Pickens

Gulf National Seashore
Ft. Pickens, which is part of the Gulf National Seashore Park, was our next destination.  The Seashore Park runs for 160-miles from Florida to Mississippi, broken up into 12 different parts.  The fort construction was started in 1829 and completed in 1834 with the use of slave labor.  One of four forts built in the Pensacola Bay area; Ft. Pickens was the largest and was occupied by Union forces during the Civil War.  With modifications, the fort was used through WWII.  By the end of the war, it was considered to be obsolete and was abandoned.  It’s open daily and the nearby museum offers details on the history.  Miles of snowy white sand are available for beach walks, but the park also offers opportunities for fishing, biking, boating and birding.

Juvenile Osprey
Big Lagoon State Park was our final campsite in Florida, before shooting over to New Orleans.  Grand Lagoon, leading out to the Intracoastal Waterway, provided another opportunity for kayaking and fishing.  Once again, our fishing luck was limited, but the setting was lovely.  The park utilizes extensive boardwalks to protect the marshlands, an observation tower for a wonderful overview of the park, fishing and 5 miles of hiking trails.  Osprey nests were plentiful and we spotted many juveniles in the area near the campground.

Now we’re moving on to the “Big Easy”, New Orleans. 

Early morning walk at St. George Island

St. George Lighthouse

Apalachicola scene

St. George beachfront

St. George sunset

Flooding at St. Andrews

Apalachicola scene

Small mouth bass

Fort Pickens entrance

Kayaking at St. George

Spotted trout catch (and release)

Overlook at Big Lagoon State Park
St. George early morning beach

Osprey takeoff
Apalachicola shrimp boats

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