The 67,000-acre St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Apalachee Bay due south of Tallahassee is the panhandle coast’s most important natural treasure. Approximately 20 miles across and spanning three counties, the refuge is divided into three distinct regions: from east to west, the St. Marks, Wakulla, and Panacea units. The St. Marks unit, which features a wildlife drive and 75 miles of marked trails, is a mecca for birders, offering them the possibility of seeing many of the refuge’s 270-plus species, including the Vermilion Flycatcher and the Western Kingbird. Waterfowl, shorebirds, and long-legged waders are especially plentiful here. The refuge also supports about 50 mammal species and a large number of reptiles and amphibians, including American Alligators.
The Wakulla and Panacea units have fewer amenities and are less visited than the St. Marks unit, but they also offer opportunities for exploration. Wakulla Beach Road, which leads through the Wakulla unit to a salt marsh on the shores of Apalachee Bay, affords access to a trailhead for the 40-mile St. Marks portion of the Florida National Scenic Trail. The Panacea unit includes Otter Lake, an excellent place to see Ospreys and cormorants.
This 6 3/4-mile-long drive starts at the visitor center and ends at the 80-foot-high St. Marks Lighthouse overlooking Apalachee Bay. For most of its length, the roadway parallels a series of managed impoundments that allow easy viewing of waterfowl, long-legged waders, hawks, and Bald Eagles. All the gated roads that turn off Lighthouse Road are open year-round for hiking. The Stoney Bayou (7 miles) and Deep Creek (13 miles) trails both start on Lighthouse Road and follow old logging roads. Both pass through a variety of habitats, including the tops of the levees that form barriers around refuge pools.
The mile-long Mounds Interpretive Trail, located about 5 miles south of the visitor center, originates at a sharp curve in the road near a restroom facility, then crosses an old Indian midden (refuse) mound and encircles Tower Pond. The pond hosts wintering waterfowl, and the marsh vegetation along its edges supports a large variety of nesting species later in the year. The Mounds Pool Observation Tower, across from the trailhead, provides an excellent vantage for viewing both the salt marsh and Tower Pond. Bald Eagles are often seen here.
St. Marks Lighthouse
St. Marks Lighthouse was built in 1829, rebuilt in 1842 after the soil began eroding away, and has been in continuous use ever since. The lighthouse area is a favorite birding spot and features a covered observation deck with a view of the salt marsh and Lighthouse Pool. The marshy shore of Apalachee Bay, below the lighthouse, is excellent for launching sea kayaks. Paddling east along the coastline allows exploration of numerous shallow coves, which often contain flocks of shore- and wading birds. Plan trips around high tide to avoid being stranded.
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