The thing that most people don’t know about Florida, is that it isn’t all gorgeous shelled beaches and theme parks. Sure, most of the state boasts these things, and there are several great spots to take a vacation or a day trip. But what else is there to do besides Disney World and the beach? Read on below to hear about our Florida caverns trip, and all the beauty that the panhandle has to offer.
My family and I took a trip up to the northern part of Florida, near Tallahassee, to explore some of the lesser known places to visit. We originally planned our vacation around a trip to Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna. However, there was so much more to visiting the panhandle area than just the caverns. We were there for 4 days, and we still weren’t able to hit every spot that we wanted!
Day 1 – Wakulla Springs
We chose a place to stay that was a little off the beaten path, but still not too far from the places we wanted to go. We stayed near Wakulla Springs, just south of Tallahassee. The springs was our first stop the morning after we arrived.
The entrance to Wakulla springs is $6 per car (less if you have one or two people). The parking area is near a historic lodge — which you can stay for the night if you wish!
Picture above and below is the hiking trail that we took in the morning… full of beautiful pine trees and fallen leaves. The weather was gorgeous in January, and pretty cold for those of us from central Florida! This trail is about 9 miles when you go all the way out and back, however, we turned around about 2 miles in so that we could return before lunch.
Back at the parking area, we took a walk behind the lodge. Behind it, you can get a close look at the springs. This area of the park is busy in the summer, due to its nice swimming area and a platform to jump into the water. However in January, we were the only ones out there. It was the perfect time to view the manatees because they seek the constant temperature of the springs. Year-round this spring is about 70 degrees. The water felt pleasantly warm compared with the 45 degree air temperature!
The view pictured above is near the swimming area. Below, is a photograph taken from a second story platform. You do have to walk up a flight of stairs, but it has a much better view of the manatees from up there. This is also the platform that you can jump off of during the summer.
Heading back toward the car, I did take note of the pontoon boat tour the park offers. It’s fairly inexpensive and 45 min long. The tour was booked up at the moment, but it takes you up and down the spring. It is open currently and you can make reservations online.
Tallahassee St. Marks Historic Rail Trail
After lunch, the next stop on our list was the Tallahasee St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail. This trail runs all the way from Tally to the river in St. Marks. We rode the end portion, starting at mile 12.5 and riding out to mile 16 and back (see map at the bottom for where we parked). The entire trail is 16 miles long, or 32 if you ride it out and back. It has restroom stops along the way and is wide and paved. We stopped at the end at the river in St. Marks, which is a popular fishing spot if you are looking to fish. We spotted a swimming otter here! We also stayed to watch most of the cloudy sunset before taking a chilly ride back to our car.
The next morning, we drove into the city to see some of the historic sites. Much of the free museums are still closed (January 2021) due to CoVid 19. It was a little challenging to find something that was open. Not to mention, the weather was bordering on rainy. So we opted for a short hike at Lake Jackson Mounds Park.
This park has an entrance fee of $3. There are a few historic Indian Mounds and a grist mill remains site. We hiked about 30 min out to the grist mill and then 30 min back. There is a much longer nature trail that looked tempting, but with the weather being iffy we kept it short. Pictured below is the Grist Mill runs.
There are two other hiking and biking trails in the outskirts of the downtown area that we wanted to check out in the afternoon: Elinor Kapps-Phipp Park and the Lafayette Heritage Trail. We planned to mountain bike there, but the weather wasn’t cooperating. Hopefully, I can check out these two areas in the future.
We did manage to take a drive by of both the Capitol building and the Governor’s mansion. And we went to the one open historic spot downtown, called the Goodwood Museum & Gardens. It is an old plantation that they remodeled in the 1920’s and preserved. The site an old swimming pool, historic house, and even a hockey rink. It was lightly raining, but we walked around anyway. There’s no cost to walk the property and they offer tours of the historic house as well for a cost ($12 adults, $6 children).
Day 3 – Florida Caverns Trip
The third day was a huge day for us! And it started super early (we are not morning people). We were up at 6am to make the hour and a half drive to Florida Caverns State Park. This was the main attraction on our trip that we planned to see. We were excited to get underground and take the caverns tour. They book up, so you are supposed to get there close to the gift shop opening at 8:45 am.
Little did we know — this is what happens when you don’t read carefully — this park is actually in the central time zone! So when we arrived at the entrance at 7:30, we were quite a bit early. We had a nice laugh and then went in search of something close by to do for an hour. Pictured above is a cool park that we found, with a playground for the kids and a running path for me.
So we occupied ourselves in the chilly weather at the park before returning to the entrance to get our tour tickets. The process to get a ticket is to wait outside the gift shop, and then they book you for a tour time. We were able to get on the first tour, which still didn’t start until 9:30.
Upstairs they had a neat indoor history and science display area, so I took the kids upstairs to learn about caverns. We also made a stop at the car to get drinks and snacks, as you cannot to eat on the tour. Due to the CoVid19 pandemic, masks as also currently required on the tour.
At the beginning of the tour we met by the gift shop and then walked down a bunch of steps into the cavern. It was not as dark or as cold as I expected it to be! The tour guide said the cave stays around 65 degree year round. Long sleeves and pants is sufficient.
The tour guide was excellent, and gave us a ton of information on the cave as we went along. The biggest thing that was hard for the kids: you can’t touch anything!! We walked along through the different “rooms” in the cavern, this one has a Christmas tree, can you spot it? The green is from lights that they have illuminating the area. They had several different colored lights.
During the tour, we often had to duck under parts of the limestone. The picture above was towards the end of the 1 hour tour. As we emerged from the cave, I felt the cold weather again and we put back on our jackets and hats! The tour was excellent, I wish it were longer and we could have spent some more time exploring the caverns.
Torreya State Park
The second leg of Day 3, we started driving back from the caverns, and stopped to take a hike at Torreya State Park. I had read online that this is one of the highest elevation hikes in Florida, and we happened to be right near it! The trail here has two loops, one is 5 miles and one is 6. Since we had only about 3 hours, we opted to do most of the 5 mile loop, and then cut back on the road to head back to our car.
The terrain on this hike was awesome for Florida! Where we live down on the east coast, all you have is flat, flat, and more flat. This hike had many ups and downs. They call it the “Florida mountains.” I wouldn’t quite say mountains, as we have hiked in North Carolina, Tennessee, and New Hampshire, but it definitely had changed in terrain, and at some times, huge puddles of water to dodge.
During the hike we were hoping to see more wildlife. It was very cold, so assume the of the animals were hiding. We did see a family of wild pigs, one with a super tiny baby pig! The kids were excited for that one. We hiked all the way to Weeping falls, which was a rather unimpressive waterfall. I think during certain times of the year (probably summer when its rainy) it has more volume. At the time in January, it was just a trickle.
We both started and finished our hike at this beautiful view from the historic Gregory house. This is a good place to park when you are going out on the trail. It’s a large historic house and they have a restroom on site. Behind the house, just at the start of the trail, you will also find several cannon encampments from the civil war.
As you can see, the cavern tour and the 4 mile hike totally wore the girls out. Not to mention they woke up at morning at 6 — which for us homeschoolers, is super early!
The last day of ourt trip we packed up and wanted to hit one last spot on the way out, St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was a little out of the way home, but it was worth a stop anyway. The entrance fee is $5 and there are several places along the route that you can get out and view the wildlife or take a side trail. The weather that day felt a little chilly, so we stayed in the car and drove along the path very slowly so we could see the birds. My daughter had just bought a bird guide the day before, so that really held her interest.
We drove all the way down to the lighthouse and stopped to get out. The actual lighthouse is currently closed for visitors, but I think at some point they will reopen so that you can climb it.
On our way back down the path, we were able to spot both a river otter and a baby gator (pictured below). The path to the lighthouse is super long, at least a few miles. We drove slowly out and back and it took us about 30 min.
After leaving the wildlife refuge, we headed towards our home on the east coast. There was one last stop that we could check out on the way home, to grab another breath of fresh cool north Florida air and make lunch. Right off the highway we went to see another waterfall.
Although it was a small fall, it has a fast current and was beautiful to look at. The park also has a trail that we didn’t have a chance to walk down. If we head up this way again, we may take a walk here.
That sums up our Florida caverns trip! We thoroughly enjoyed the cooler weather and the change of scenery in the panhandle of our home state! Be sure to visit our page on Tallahassee for more great places to visit!