Beyond Destin: Exploring the hidden gems outside of the ‘World’s Luckiest Fishing Village’

Savannah Chastain
The cathedral limestone formation was by far the most glorious area of the cavern.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Destin has a lot to offer, and although its beaches are world-famous and its seafood delicious, there are hundreds of hidden treasures in the surrounding area of Northwest Florida that yield for fun adventures, day trips and weekend getaways. This column, which will be featured on Wednesdays, will follow the wanderings of reporter, Savannah Chastain, and explore the many opportunities in Destin’s surrounding area. I invite you to explore with me Beyond Destin.

Who knew that just two hours Northeast of Destin lays a beautiful cavern labyrinth of limestone stalactites, stalagmites? I personally didn’t know until I started researching state parks of the area and found Florida Caverns State Park located in Marianna.

The most popular attraction of the park is of course the tours of the caverns which are available from Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. However the tours are often so popular that they fill up quickly and sell out.

As my luck would have it the day I ventured to Marianna with my husband, we arrived a bit later than planned and the final tour of the day was already sold out. At first we were really disappointed, but then the ranger gave us a beacon of hope; literally. A secret flash-light tour was available afterhours and there was still room for more visitors.

To equip ourselves for the evening tour we purchased two headlamps from a nearby convenience store, and a cheap sweatshirt, as the cave is often 15 degrees cooler than the outside temperature. I began to regret my choice of footwear however, as my canvas no-traction TOMS were not ideal for the wet cavern floors.

Now with a couple hours to kill before nightfall, we used the time to explore the park grounds. We found multiple hiking trails that meandered through the park leading to natural springs, a tunnel cave, and spacious campsites.

Six picnic areas dotted the park, five of which feature pavilions and grills that are first come first served or can be paid for in advance to reserve for gatherings. The most popular picnic site is nearby a field and small playground that features two swing sets and a slide jungle gym.  

We also learned that daily canoe rentals are available to explore the Chipola River which runs through the heart of the park, but as time for our tour was drawing near we checked out the interactive visitor’s center instead.

The visitor’s center hosts a small museum with informational boards and screens that tell of the history of the park, and offer a virtual tour of the caverns for those who cannot make the climb down into the cave. Souvenirs and concessions are also available in the visitor’s center and adjoining gift shop.

As the trip into the caverns started, a lively tour guide took a head count of the group and we began our decent 25 feet below ground. With the unique feature of the after-hours tour, our flash-lights were the only source of illumination for most of the trip.  

Our guide pointed out several limestone formations and freshwater pools throughout the tour including some that had been given nicknames such as the cathedral formation, and one resembling the leaning tower of Pisa. A challenge to spot small bats and sea-life fossils was a fun highlight of the trip; our guide even showed us a fossilized shark tooth. The history of the tour cavern was also of interest as it dates back to the late 1930s when crews of men worked in tight crawl spaces to excavate the walk-way through the cave.

The tour lasted just shy of an hour, and was well worth the $8 tour fee. And we discovered that we had been super lucky as our afterhours tour is usually reserved for organized groups and classes. Rangers told us that the flash-light tour is gaining popularity, and therefore the park is trying to offer the tour on Fridays and Saturdays if there is an available guide. If interested in setting up an after-hour tour call ahead and make sure a group of at least five people will be in attendance.

Stay tuned for my next adventure.

WANNA GO?

Florida Caverns State Park is located at 3345 Caverns Road Marianna, Florida, and is open daily. A $5 fee is required for entry per vehicle carrying two to eight people, or $4 for a single occupant.

Cavern tours are available Thursday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cave Tour Fees are $8 per person, age 13 and older or $5 per child from age three to 12. Children under three are free of charge.

For more information about the park CLICK HERE. Or call 482-9598.