Natural and Historical Wonders
Experience the best of the Big Bend’s natural and historical wonders. Walk in the footsteps (and wagon tracks) of Florida’s history. Explore old-growth forests, springs and marshes while learning about the area’s conservation history. Discover world-class wildlife viewing along bird migration pathways that skirt the Big Bend’s shoreline.
Step into a forest just a few blocks from charming downtown Monticello. The Monticello Ecological Park is a 27-acre virgin woodland, an enticing gem that time forgot. The park is home to stately tulip poplars and mature sycamores towering above shady trails and an elevated boardwalk. Three ecosystems are present, spanning from pine uplands and palm hammocks to swampy lowlands cradling a spring-fed stream. These diverse habitats entice wildlife and migrating birds including Mississippi and swallow-tailed kites.
Rising from the gently rolling landscape near Lake Miccosukee, striking ceremonial mounds were created by Native Americans between 1,100 and 1,800 years ago. People of the Weeden Island culture built these sacred mounds as well as dwellings and plazas by carrying tons of earth basketful by basketful. A paved path leads to an elevated boardwalk with an impressive view of the 46-foot tall mound, one of the largest in Florida. The park includes interpretive exhibits, a picnic pavilion, restrooms and nature trails that pass by massive live oaks and cypress-lined wetlands where visitors may see wild turkeys and white-tailed deer. Contact the Florida Park Service in advance for a guided tour.
3. Wacissa River*
The crystal clear Wacissa River (fed by twelve major springs) offers novice paddlers and boaters miles of beauty starting at the headsprings within Wacissa Springs County Park to a takeout at Goose Pasture (a site on the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail) ten miles downstream – the Wacissa River Paddling Trail is the perfect distance for an through the incredible scenery of the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area (WMA), the river is home to abundant wading birds, alligators and turtles. Beneath the clear surface, freshwater fish tempt anglers. The area is popular on weekends so plan accordingly. Contact the Fish & Wildlife Foundation of Florida to purchase a waterproof map of the “Rivers of AWE”: Aucilla, Waccissa and Econfina.
4. Aucilla WMA*
The Aucilla WMA is part of a huge swath of wild lands purchased by the state of Florida to conserve wildlife habitats and protect our water resources. Biologists are restoring the expansive pine forests that cover the higher drier lands. Deep swamps and hammocks cover much of the area. The Aucilla WMA harbors Florida black bears and limpkins year-round. Swallow-tailed kites soar overhead in the spring and summer. Bald eagles and ospreys join anglers to ply the rivers. The area’s karst geology makes it a wonderland of springs and dramatic sinkholes. This WMA is an excellent destination for hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing and paddling. Humans have lived along the shorelines of these rivers for at least 12,000 years, with some of the earliest evidence of human habitation in North America occurring nearby. The Wacissa’s spring-fed, calm waters are perfect for beginners while experienced paddlers will enjoy the more challenging Aucilla River and the extremely challenging Slave Canal that connects the two. Conditions on the Aucilla vary depending on water levels and include a short stretch of rapids. Some area roads require four-wheel drive.
Originating in Georgia, the Aucilla River flows over 62 miles until it reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Its dark waters are tinted the color of black tea from naturally occurring tannins picked up from vegetation that steeps in the swampland. The tannins increase the acidity of the river water and, combined with rainfall, slowly erode the limestone riverbed. The Aucilla creates dramatic sinkholes as it disappears and reappears beneath the limestone for nearly eight miles before ultimately surfacing at Nutall Rise and flowing to the Gulf of Mexico. The Aucilla Sinks Trail winds along the river’s route and provides an excellent opportunity for visitors to enjoy the area’s unique geology. For short hikes, park at the kiosk on Goose Pasture Road to access the trail heading north or south. Just a short saunter in either direction reveals an unforgettable landscape. Ticks can be numerous from April through October; take precautions.
Nestled along an unspoiled coastline, this park protects a mosaic of diverse habitats. The Econfina River meanders like a dark ribbon through pine flatwoods and oak-palm forests to broad vistas of salt marshes dotted with cabbage palms and pine islands. Visitors can explore its scenic beauty by paddling, or by hiking, off-road bicycling and horseback riding on almost 15 miles of shady trails. Keep your eyes peeled for white-tailed deer, bobcats and numerous bird species. The Econfina River is a prime fishing destination for both freshwater and saltwater species. The river empties into the Gulf two miles south of the park’s improved boat ramp. Call the ranger for a one-hour guided interpretive tour.
Although the access road through private forest land can be bumpy, your drive will be worth it as the road emerges onto well-maintained WMA roads with breathtaking views of the Gulf. With more than 14,000 acres, this unit of the Big Bend WMA offers a range of activities. The large impoundment is a great place to look for butterflies and wildflowers in the fall and a variety of waterfowl and wading birds. Scale the observation tower for a 360-degree panorama or hike into the impoundment on the Bat House Trail. The area offers seasonal hunting, and anglers can use two boat ramps on shallow creeks that flow into the Gulf. Access is dependent on tide levels. Biking and hiking are allowed on Hickory Mound’s hard-packed roads and grassy trams; hiking-only trails include the Coffeepot Trail and the Yellow Rock Trail.
The Florida Forest Capital Museum, part of the Florida State Park system, focuses on the history of the forestry industry from the early 1800s through the present day. Fittingly, the museum is within Taylor County, designated the “Tree Capital of the South” by Congressman Don Fuqua in 1965. Longleaf pines, live oaks and water oaks dot the 13-acre property, providing living examples of Florida’s native tree species. A historic homestead gives an accurate depiction of what a home from the 1860s would have looked like, including a swept yard, vegetable garden, sugar cane plantings, antique furniture and tools. The log house has a fireplace in each room and exemplifies the classic Florida Cracker dogtrot design. One unique aspect of the museum is a map of Florida constructed from 67 different species of native Florida trees. In addition to the focus on forestry products and turpentine production, the park offers picnic pavilions and a playground. The park celebrates Florida’s forest heritage each October with the Florida Forest Festival and hosts other programs throughout the year.
The nearly 20,000-acre Tide Swamp Unit boasts a scenic driving tour, hunting, fishing and rewarding wildlife exploration. Visitors can meander on shady roads through coastal hardwood swamps, pine forests and along ancient sand dunes. Improved roads, accessible from the nine-mile driving tour, provide additional walking and bicycling opportunities. Visit during the late spring and fall to observe colorful wildflowers adorned with butterflies. Launch at the improved ramp on Dallus Creek to fish for spotted sea trout, common in the spring and then again in the fall. Hagen’s Cove offers an observation tower with spectacular views of coastal habitats and wildlife along with group and single picnic shelters and a vault toilet. The Tide Swamp Unit is a focal point of the Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail where shorebirds, songbirds and numerous pineland species call this habitat home.
10. Steinhatchee Falls*
Steinhatchee Springs Wildlife Management Area, managed in cooperation with the Suwannee Water Management District. The area was acquired by the state to protect the resources along the 28-mile-long Steinhatchee River which rises from deep within Mallory Swamp. Walking along the trail, visitors will pass through a variety of habitats. Florida’s widest waterfall, Steinhatchee Falls, pours over limestone rock in a series of rapids before continuing its downstream journey. A picnic area and canoe launch are located at the falls and have become a popular lunchtime spot. The falls have a long human history. The rock shelf provided an easy crossing of the river used by Native Americans, Spanish explorers, early European settlers and Civil War troops. When the water is low, the ruts of wagon wheels are visible in the limestone.
11. Dixie Mainline, Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge*
The nine-mile Dixie Mainline is located within the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. Constructed in the 1920s, the Dixie Mainline was originally used as a narrow-gauge railroad to move timber out of swamps and forested areas. After logging ended in the 1940s, the tram fell into disrepair. The federal government purchased the property in 1979 to create the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. The bridges and roads were repaired for public use in 1998 and provide an unforgettable journey through the heart of tidal swamplands. Stop by Salt Creek for a short hike to a pier overlooking the creek and salt marsh. Don’t forget your binoculars and camera. Look for bald eagles and other species soaring overhead. Visit Fishbone Creek’s observation tower to scan the sky for the signature silhouettes of swallow-tailed kites from March until August. Popular Shired Island, at the end of County Road 357, is surrounded by salt marshes and tidal creeks. Visitors will find a short nature trail, a county campground and an improved boat launch.
Fanning Springs is both the name of a town and a significant spring that releases between 40 and 60 million gallons of clear, cool water every day, year-round. Particularly in winter, manatees glide up the short spring run from the Suwannee River to shelter in the relative warmth of the 72-degree water. This sparkling gem has attracted people for thousands of years. First inhabited by Native Americans, it became a stop for steamboats in the 1800s through the early 1900s. It remains a delightful swimming destination on a steamy summer day and was designated as a state park in 1997. The park is a hub of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail and also offers a short nature trail, shady picnic area, volleyball courts and comfortable rental cabins. The 31-mile paved Nature Coast Trail has been built along a historic rail line that passed through Fanning Springs and other small towns. Equestrians may enjoy a 4.5-mile segment that parallels the paved trail between Old Town and Fanning Springs. A historic railroad bridge near the Old Town Trailhead offers a lofty view over the iconic Suwannee River where sturgeon may be seen leaping during the summer and fall months. Additionally, visitors can access the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail. This trail begins at the town of High Springs near the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. The river coils through the heart of north central Florida, ending in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf of Mexico.
13. Andrews WMA*
Andrews WMA contains the largest contiguous and unaltered hardwood hammock remaining in Florida. Some of the trees within this 4,000-acre forest rival for the largest of their species. The Suwannee River borders the property, and visitors can even arrive by boat, tying up at the small dock to explore the WMA or fish along its shoreline. Keep a lookout for the magnificent Gulf sturgeon. These ancient fish leap from the water before crashing down in a frothy splash. Miles of shady trails and a boardwalk through a riverside hardwood swamp entice visitors to enjoy exceptional wildlife viewing within the lofty forests. Designated as a Great Florida Birding and Wildlife Trail site, Andrews is home to little blue herons, prothonotary warblers, ospreys, wild turkeys, barred owls and more. The WMA also provides habitat for the rare Rafinesque’s big-eared bat, appropriately named for its incredibly long ears.
Only a 14-mile drive from Fanning Springs, Manatee Springs is a sparkling gem within this popular Florida State Park. It is a first-magnitude spring producing 100 million gallons of water each day, year- round. The spring is named for the giant, gentle West Indian manatees that arrive every winter to bask in the relatively warm waters. The famous naturalist William Bartram visited the area in 1774 and noted manatees here. The spring’s swimming area is a popular summer destination. Visitors may also rent canoes or kayaks from the concessionaire to fish or to enjoy and photograph the beautiful scenery and local wildlife. Over eight miles of hiking trails allow exploration of the wooded areas of the park, including cypress swamps, sinkhole ponds and upland habitats.
Steeped in rich culture and history, the majestic Suwannee River remains a wild, natural wonder with endless delights for adventurous explorers. It is anchored by a pair of pristine National Wildlife Refuges on either end of its 235 meandering miles and is enfolded by large tracts of public conservation lands. Part of the North Florida Refuges Complex, the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) encompasses over 55,000 scenic acres. The Suwannee River flows through its borders, and this refuge was established to protect wildlife habitats and the river’s water quality, numerous creeks and undeveloped shoreline. In early spring and summer, swallow-tailed kites are a common sight over the expansive swamps. Migratory waterfowl and shorebirds arrive in winter to escape the cold and enjoy abundant food sources. The area within the NWR has been logged multiple times, and staff is working to restore native longleaf pines and wiregrass habitat in the uplands. Visitors can explore the refuge by foot, bicycle or car on more than 100 miles of roads. Visit the refuge’s headquarters to enjoy a short hiking trail or borrow maps covering 12 water trails that wind throughout the estuary of the Suwannee River. The 170-mile state-designated Suwannee River Wilderness Trail can be accessed from the refuge. This trail begins at the town of High Springs near the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park. The river coils through the heart of north central Florida, ending in the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf of Mexico.
16. Goethe State Forest*
Goethe State Forest covers 53,587 acres in southeastern Levy County. In all, 19 unique ecosystems thrive here, including swamps, mesic flatwoods, sandhills and more. Longleaf pine stands provide nesting habitats for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. While the forest includes seven trailheads, the most famous is the Big Cypress Trail. The trail slopes downward to the Cow Creek Swamp. Signs along the trail identify various tree species. This portion of the forest was not logged by Mr. Goethe before its purchase by the state and its trees have reached impressive heights. Look for southern magnolias, live oaks, and the cypress tree also known as the “Goethe Giant,” estimated to be over 900 years old. Adventurous visitors can follow a small staircase into the muddy swamp. Boots are advisable.
The Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve encompasses 413 acres of undeveloped wetlands along Florida’s Nature Coast. Purchased by Yankeetown citizens in the late 1990s, the preserve was officially opened in 2009. Hiking trails weave around salt ponds, marshes and diverse woodlands. A canoe and kayak dock provides access to the Gulf of Mexico with excellent fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities. The Ellie Schiller Education Center and 30-foot observation tower provide an opportunity to learn more about the preserve’s ecosystems and see them from a unique vantage point. The center includes a museum, a butterfly garden and guided tours if scheduled in advance. The preserve is known for great birding. From the observation tower, look for ospreys and chimney swifts. Listen carefully within the salt marshes for clapper rails, while keeping eyes open for great egrets and tricolored herons.