Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory
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Wild and Natural Florida
By James and Dorothy Richardson
Located on the Florida Panhandle near Apalachicola and Tallahassee, Franklin County offers many of the outdoor sporting activities visitors to Florida are looking for. Within its borders are the Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area and Tate's Hell State Forest, as well as the Apalachicola National Forest and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Nearby St. George Island State Park and Bald Point State Park also offer camping, fishing, hiking, canoeing, snorkeling and many other activities that will keep almost every member of the family happy.
The barrier island beaches of Franklin County are some of the prettiest in the state. The white sand is typical of the panhandle's beaches and there are almost no crowds. The best and most accessible beaches are within St. George Island State Park. Two State Parks St. George Island State Park is located at the extreme eastern end of St. George Island. To get there, visitors must cross the four-mile bridge over Apalachicola Bay. The 2,023-acre park has several miles of undeveloped and uncrowded beaches. The Gulf of Mexico is on one side with Apalachicola Bay on the other. Fishing, boating, shelling, sunbathing, swimming, canoeing, hiking, camping, and bird and wildlife watching are all popular activities on the island. Two boat ramps are available for fishermen wanting access to Apalachicola Bay to fish for flounder, redfish, sea trout, pompano, whiting or Spanish mackerel. The campground has 60 campsites with water and electricity and is located behind large sand dunes in the pine forest at the easternmost point of the island. The beach is only a quarter-mile walk or ride from the campground. Primitive "carry in, carry out" camping at Gap Point is accessible only by foot, canoe or kayak by way of the 2.5-mile Gap Point Trail.
Bird watching is excellent at St. George Island State Park. Shore birds are prevalent, as are songbirds. Migrating birds use the forest and grass flats as stopovers. Bald eagles and ospreys appreciate the bay's easy access to food.
Another of Franklin County's state parks is located in the eastern portion of the county on the mainland. Making up most of Alligator Point is Bald Point State Park, a 4,065-acre natural area with a multitude of land and water activities. Coastal marshes and pine flatwoods support a diversity of plant and animal communities that make the park a popular destination for bird and wildlife viewing.
The park's Range Road is a paved drive that reaches the interior of the park and provides access to a fishing bridge over Chaires Creek (which connects Tucker Lake to Ochlockonee Bay) and a canoe/kayak launch on Tucker Lake, which is the largest interior lake on the park. Access to the launch is just off the paved drive south of the bridge down a dirt service road.
The majority of Franklin County's land is public and in the form of state and national forests, or refuges. The western corner of the county, north of the town of Apalachicola, holds the Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area (WEA). The 86,140-acre Apalachicola River WEA contains the largest expanse of floodplain forest in Florida. Visitors can enjoy camping, fishing, canoeing and kayaking, hiking, and biking. Fishing for largemouth bass, catfish, striped bass and bream is excellent. Numerous creeks flow through the WEA, offering great opportunities for anglers. Paddlers can enjoy the nearly 100 miles of trails through the Apalachicola River WEA Paddling Trail System.
There is an interpretive trail through cabbage palm hammock at Sand Beach at the end of Sand Beach Road, which is accessible from SR 65 north of US 98 between Eastpoint and Carrabelle. Bicycling is permitted on any of the 50 miles of roads throughout the WEA. Camping anywhere in the area is permitted except where noted. Because of the variety of habitats, from floodplain forest, sawgrass marshes, and pine flatwoods, the area has significant populations of both rare and common wildlife. Black bear and alligator are among the most sought after by visitors. This area is also part of the Great Florida Birding Trail. Many kinds of shore and wading birds, as well as waterfowl and songbirds, are viewable in the area.
The 575,849-acre Apalachicola National Forest occupies the majority of northern Franklin County. Outdoor activities available within the national forest include fishing, hiking, biking, horseback riding, bird watching and camping.
Wright Lake Recreation Area within Apalachicola National Forest is one of the most scenic areas for camping and recreation. It is in Franklin County and has a designated swim area with a small white sand beach on its beautiful lake. A 5-mile interpretive trail winds around the lake. There are 20 campsites. Each has a picnic table, grill and fire ring. Drinking water is available.
Tate’s Hell State Forest occupies 202,437 acres of land in Franklin and Liberty counties, and lies between the Apalachicola and Ochlockonee Rivers. Tate’s offers an abundance of wildlife, including species of special concern such as the bald eagle, Florida black bear, gopher tortoise, and the red-cockaded woodpecker. Rare plant species living in the forest include the thickleaf water-willow (Justicia crassifolia), white birds-in-a-nest (Macbridea alba), Florida beargrass (Nolina atopocarpa), Chapman's butterwort (Pinguicula planifolia), and small-flowered meadowbeauty (Rhexia parviflora).
Unique residents of Tate's Hell State Forest are its dwarf cypress trees, which only reach 15 feet tall, and most are more than 150 years old. A boardwalk with a 30-foot tall observation tower overlooking one of the most prolific areas is accessible by way of a drivable 5-mile forest road off US 98 near Carrabelle.
With an unusual name like "Tate's Hell" State Forest, there must be a story behind its name. Local legend has it that an area farmer by the name of Cebe Tate, armed with only a shotgun and accompanied by his hunting dogs, journeyed into the swamp in search of a panther that was killing his livestock. Tate became lost in the swamp for seven days and nights, was bitten by a snake, and drank from the murky waters to quench his thirst. Finally, he came to a clearing near Carrabelle, living only long enough to utter the words, "My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from hell!" Cebe Tate's adventure took place in 1875 and the area has been known as Tate's Hell ever since.
Two More Barrier Islands
Aside from St. George Island, there are two other barrier islands protecting the coastline of Franklin County. Dog Island, to the east of St. George, is 3.5 miles south of the town of Carrabelle. It is almost 7 miles in length and is accessible only by boat, ferry or airplane. There are white sandy beaches, great surf fishing and beach combing. It is sparsely populated and is a refuge for loggerhead and leatherback turtles. More than half of the 1,850 acres of Dog Island is in trust by the Nature Conservancy and is undeveloped. Some parts are privately-owned residential property and camping is prohibited due to its fragile ecosystem.
The other barrier island in Franklin County is the undeveloped 12,000-acre St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge. It is just offshore from the mouth of the Apalachicola River. The only way onto the island is by boat. The refuge personnel conduct guided tours in October during National Wildlife Refuge Week. But the public is welcome on the island for wildlife watching, hiking and fishing. The objectives of the refuge are to provide habitat for migratory birds, and provide habitat protection for threatened and endangered species such as the American alligator, bald eagle, indigo snake, red wolf and sea turtle.
There is a third barrier island called Cape St. George Island. Cape St. George Island (also known as Little St. George Island) is an uninhabited barrier island situated southeast of St. Vincent's Island and west of St. George Island. According to baynavigator.com, it was formerly part of St. George Island, but was separated from the main island in 1954, when the U.S. Corps of Engineers constructed a ship channel. Cape St. George Island was purchased in 1977 under the Environmentally Endangered Lands program to protect it from development and to contribute to the protection of Apalachicola Bay. Pine trees on the island were used to extract turpentine in the 1900s. Evidence of that is still present on the island. The old buildings of the turpentine camp are still in existence at the Government Dock. It is now Cape St. George State Reserve and is managed by the Florida Department of Natural Resources.
Because Franklin County is 87 percent public land, and due to the building restrictions imposed by the county, the abundant waterways and forested lands, there are still amazing opportunities for visitors to enjoy this part of wild and natural Florida.