National Forest Recreation
and Wildlife Viewing in
Northwest Florida

Hiking or camping in a national forest is a great way to get back to Nature. So is wildlife viewing in a national wildlife refuge and scuba diving at a national seashore. Fortunately, Northwest Florida has all three. Once part of the vast holdings of the Apalachee Indians, the region has retained much of its wildness and is rich in natural resources.

During the 16th Century, Spanish Explorers landed in the region and fought their way through the thick swamps and wooded areas. Although the population grew over the years, there were still vast wild lands left unchanged.

Then, in 1908, over 467,000 acres of land were set aside to create the Choctawhatchee National Forest, one of the first such forests east of the Mississippi River. That land was transferred to the War Department in 1940 to form Eglin Air Force Base, but a piece of it was used to create Rocky Bayou State Park.

By that time, other national forests had been established and today the Apalachicola National Forest is Florida's largest. Wildlife management areas, both on land and in the rivers, bays and wetlands, protect many species of plants animals and marine life, and the Gulf Islands National Seashore guards both on shore and off shore natural habitats.

Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve

At 246,766 acres, the reserve is the second largest in the country and one of the most productive estuarine systems in the Northern Hemisphere. (Think Apalachicola oysters!) The reserve overlaps the lower portion of the state-run Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area and includes all of Apalachicola Bay. A visitor center and research facility is located east of Apalachicola on Highway 300 at the foot of the Bryant Patton Bridge. 850-670-7700

Apalachicola National Forest

Florida’s largest national forest at 571,088 acres, this vast wilderness shows what the state looked like before the Spanish Explorers arrived. Located south of Tallahassee and spreading across four counties, Franklin, Leon, Liberty and Wakulla, the forest harbors one of the last remaining longleaf pine/wiregrass communities still in existence. Part of the 1800-mile Florida National Scenic Trail traverses the forest along with numerous other trails. Tent and RV camping are available and the Fort Gadsden State Historic Site is located here. 850-643-2282 Bristol Ranger District

Gulf Islands National Seashore

Spanning the shoreline from Mississippi to Florida, the Gulf Islands National Seashore offers recreation for humans and sanctuary for plants and animals both on land and in the gulf. Almost 80% of the area is underwater and offers great diving and snorkeling opportunities. The islands and mainland sites offer picnicking, hiking, beachcombing and exploration of national landmarks like Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas. 850-934-2600

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1931 to provide winter habitat for migratory birds, the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is one of the oldest refuges in the NWR system. With over 68,000 acres spreading over Wakulla, Jefferson, and Taylor counties, it includes coastal marshes, islands, tidal creeks, the estuaries of seven north Florida rivers and is home to the St. Marks Lighthouse. Recreation opportunities include hunting, fishing, hiking, paddling, and wildlife viewing. 850-925-6121

St. Vincent National Wildlife Refuge

Take the water shuttle to this 12,490-acre undeveloped barrier island that lies in the Gulf of Mexico just offshore from the mouth of the Apalachicola River in Franklin County. Reachable only boat, it is managed to preserve, in as natural a state as possible, several highly varied plant and animal communities. 850-653-8808

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