Beyond Destin: Chipola River and dry caves

Savannah Chastain
The peaceful Chipola River in the morning.

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.

As the autumn months begin in Northwest Florida, the summer humidity and heat index dissolve into glorious cooler weather, perfect for outdoor exploration.

The temperature is cool enough that you don’t melt in the Florida sun and yet warm enough that you can still enjoy a dip in the ocean, river or spring without freezing to death.

While in this perfect weather mid-zone, my husband and I decided this weekend to venture out to the Chipola River in Marianna to try our hands at exploring the area the old fashioned way; in a canoe.

Before heading out, I first researched the area surrounding the river, and found that dry caves and a hiking trail were available at a small park called Hinson Conservation and Recreation Area. One cave known as, “The Alamo,” was along the hiking trail, while another, more popular cave, known as “The Ovens,” sat along the river-side and by the photos online looked best accessed by water.

Next, I searched for a kayak or canoe rental place, as we do not have our own. After finding one outfitter closed for the season, I finally found the jackpot; a rental place called Bear Paw Adventures that actually rents canoes with tours that began at Hinson Recreation Area.

“Bingo!” I thought, “Now we can explore the caves on land and the caves on the river all in one fell swoop!”

The day we headed out was overcast, but we left early hoping that if the clouds did bring rain, it would come after our riverside adventure.

After a two-hour drive to Marianna we arrived at a wooden outpost near the river, recognizable from the road only by a red canoe on stilts.

Bear Paw Adventures, it turns out, is a homestead that doubles as a rental business, and on this dreary morning, we were the first (and I thought possibly the only) customers of the day.

After paying for our tour, we hopped into a truck and bumped down the road to Hinson, a city-run recreational area with a long gravel path meandering through fields of long grass and trees covered in Spanish moss.

Upon arriving at the boat launch, we put in our canoe and decided to paddle upstream to the caves before following the current back down to the Bear Paw lodge.

I was instantly in awe. The river was placid and reflected the long trunks and green foliage of the Cypress trees growing on the river bank. Eerie spikes of Cypress roots dotted the banks, and even popped up in the center of the river at times forming gnarly cypress tree islands.

After paddling upstream for about half a mile we came across the cave opening on the left and parked our canoe on some nearby rocks to explore. The cave, locally known as “The Ovens,” was much deeper than I anticipated. The limestone cavern, molded by the elements throughout the years, has long tunnels and circular-shaped openings that form a system of “rooms” throughout the cave. Using a cell phone as a flashlight, we regretted not bringing our headlamps from our last cavern adventure, however, we joked that if we were cavemen, this would be a perfect home.

As the sole explorers on the river that morning, it felt like we owned everything we saw. We took our time exploring the cave, paddling through felled trees, and even discovered an old railroad running parallel to the river.

However, it was clear by the names etched into the limestone cave, and the old beer cans scattered on the riverbank that hundreds of visitors use, and sadly abuse the Chipola River every year.  

After lunch on rocks near the cave, we finally began our five-mile trip downriver, stopping off one more time to explore the land cave, the Alamo.

This limestone cave formation is a hallowed out dome, with large openings on either side. But unless you are looking for it you could walk right by, as it blends in with the sloping ground.

Back on the river, not far from our put-in spot we noticed a small creek on the left feeding clear water into the murky river. We followed the winding creek to its source to find a small, yet deep spring.

Further down we spotted another, larger spring and struggled to paddle up-current to discover Spring Creek, another local put-in spot for tube floaters, kayakers and canoes. I later learned that the Chipola River has 63 freshwater springs feeding into it, which makes it the largest spring-fed river in Northwest Florida.

After the large spring, we passed by several limestone stool-like formations and stopped for a photo-op. Next, we paddled under two interstate bridges and found that we had made our way back to Bear Paw.

Our trip had taken a total of four hours from start to finish, even with our slow meandering, two spring jaunts and multiple cave exploring. Chipola River exploring was well worth waking up early on my Saturday morning and the sore arms I had for two days afterwards.

WANNA GO?

The Chipola River has several public launching spots including Hinson Conservation and Recreational Area located one mile south of Marianna off of State Highway 73.

For those looking to rent equipment, Bear Paw Adventures is located at 2100 Bear Paw Lane, Marianna, Florida.

Bear Paw offers inner-tubes starting at $15, one-person kayaks for $35, and canoes starting at $40 for the day. Each trip includes a parking voucher, drop-off, life-jackets, and emergency whistles.

For more information call 482-4948, or visit www.chipolariver.com.