Each year, thousands of tourists make a beeline for Florida Panhandle beaches, bypassing the fascinating but lightly visited natural attractions along the inland river corridor just to the north. Big mistake. In your hurry to plant your toes in the sand, you are missing out on chances to pet wolves; view one of the Southeast’s most endangered birds; photograph carnivorous plants; catch and eat enormous exotic catfish; and tour a beautifully-decorated underground cave — among other little-known draws.
Here’s a sampling of some only-in-Florida destinations in the northwest part of the state that I was glad I checked out:• APALACHICOLA NATIONAL FOREST, near Sumatra: Our car caravan stopped when we saw longleaf pines with white rings painted around their trunks. These trees along SR 65 and CR 22 in the 630,000-acre national forest are confirmed homes of the endangered red cockaded woodpecker. This region hosts 700 pairs, the largest population in the world.
We got out of our cars and broke out binoculars while Mark Keiser of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission set up a telephoto lens to view the small, rare birds in detail.
After they flitted away, we admired the beautiful wildflowers, orchids and pitcher plants on the ground. The pitcher plants are carnivorous, drawing insects with a sweet fragrance, then trapping them inside with downward-pointing hairs that prevent them from escaping.
“This is what Florida used to look like,” said Chuck Hess, a retired wildlife biologist with the national forest.
Added Billy Boothe, a local naturalist: “It’s the coolest area for seeing plants and birds.”
You can see the woodpeckers year-round, but prime wildflower viewing is in early spring, particularly after a controlled burn.• TORREYA STATE PARK, Bristol: Noah’s Ark, the biblical watercraft that saved Earth’s wild creatures from the Great Flood, is reputed to have been built of Torreya wood, which is now endangered due to overharvest and a fungal blight. This scenic park located on high bluffs above the Apalachicola River is its last stand.
But seeing the rare tree isn’t the only reason to visit. We toured the historic Gregory House, which was built on the other side of the river around 1849, then relocated to its current location in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. We also walked a short segment of the more than 15 miles of trails that wind through the park — a popular training ground for Floridians preparing to hike the mountainous Appalachian Trail.
As we were preparing to leave, a middle-aged man accompanied by three teenaged girls excitedly reported to a ranger that they had spotted numerous frogs in one of the creeks — something they hadn’t seen in previous visits. It was a good sign, since frogs are considered by ecologists to be a bellwether of environmental health.• CHOCTAWHATCHEE RIVER near Westville: This 140-mile river that flows from Alabama to Choctawhatchee Bay is best known for two very large fish — one native and one invasive.
During summer, Gulf sturgeon as large as seven feet frequently can be observed leaping from the water, sometimes colliding with speeding boats and personal watercraft. No one knows exactly what prompts the bony-plated fish to jump, but the Choctawhatchee and other Panhandle rivers are where they go to spawn before returning to the Gulf of Mexico in the fall. They are a protected species, so you’re not allowed to keep them. But they keep summertime boating excursions interesting.
The other resident behemoth is the exotic flathead catfish, which can grow to 50 pounds. Introduced into Panhandle rivers from the Mississippi River drainage in the 1980s, the great-tasting, ugly creatures have generated a popular fishing tournament circuit.
If you’d like to catch one of these unsightly-but-delicious banquet entrees, contact Jeep Sullivan’s Outdoor Adventures in Bonifay. Sullivan conducts fishing, frogging, hunting and sight-seeing adventures aboard his comfortable airboat. He gives special discounts for military vets, police, firefighters and the disabled.• SEACREST WOLF PRESERVE, near Chipley: This 430-acre ranch is the only place in Florida where you can pet wolves — not just observe them from behind a fence or window.
Owners Cynthia and Wayne Watkins invited our small tour group to enter a large, gated enclosure where we caressed (and were licked by) a family of four armed with 1,500 pounds-per-square-inch of bite power in each set of jaws. The wolves chose — mercifully — not to exercise that power. Instead, they behaved like family pets.
The Watkins now shelter about 40 gray, Arctic and British Columbian wolves that they have either rescued, bred, or fostered since they bought the property in 1999.
The couple conducts tours by appointment with the aim of changing the public’s perception of the canine predators.
“Wolves are being demonized and slaughtered,” Cynthia Watkins told us. “The wolf is not a big, bad guy. Their purpose is to trim out the herds of hooved species, to trim out the weak of the species so deforestation doesn’t occur. When you see them up close and personal, it will touch your heart.”
It did. Several of us wore wolf T-shirts from the gift shop the next day.• FLORIDA CAVERNS STATE PARK, Marianna: The quarter-mile-long limestone cave provided our tour group a welcome 65-degree oasis on a hot day. But even better than the natural air-conditioning were the gorgeous stalactites (ceiling), stalagmites (floor) and other drip formations everywhere we looked.
Depending on the breadth of your artistic imagination, you might see a duck, a castle, a waterfall, a wedding cake, or a walled and terraced fortress (like in the movie Troy) frozen in stone in the various rooms, which run 55 to 65 feet below the earth’s surface.
The dazzling natural designs took a very long time for nature to create, according to ranger Kelly Banta — about one cubic inch in 100 years. There are more than 30 caves in the park, some with bats and Native American artifacts, but only one is open to the public.
Besides caving in the park, you can paddle the Chipola River, ride a horse, hike and camp.