Beyond Destin: St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
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 once a month, will follow the wanderings of reporter, Savannah Vasquez, and explore the many opportunities in Destin’s surrounding area. I invite you to explore with me Beyond Destin.
Three hours east of Destin, just below the state capital of Tallahassee, is the little port town of St. Marks. This historic fishing town is not much to write home about but it is surrounded by national land with the Apalachicola National Forest to the west and St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge to the east.
Last year on a whim, Cristian and I decided to visit St. Marks, and after a disappointing visit to the town center, we headed to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and were surprised to discover that it is home to a plethora of interesting outdoor activities.
Our first stop was the historic St. Marks Lighthouse, which was built in 1831 and became fully operational in 1842. Currently in a state of disrepair, the lighthouse is not open to the public but the keepers house is occasionally opened for special events.
Although nothing was open the day we visited, local supporters of the lighthouse where on-site to raise awareness and funds to restore the monument. Very eager to share knowledge, the volunteers told us that the keeper's house and the 80-foot light tower both rest on a 12-foot thick limestone base and could be best photographed by taking a short hike along the marsh that runs parallel to the Gulf of Mexico.
Of course we took the hike, noticing along the way thousands of tiny crabs that live in the salt-water marsh. In fact, the refuge brochure informed us that 29 percent of the land in the 70,000-acre refuge is made up of salt-water marsh. We also learned that St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is one of the oldest refuges in the entire National Wildlife Refuge System as it was established in 1931 as a winter habitat for migratory birds.
If you enjoy hiking, the refuge boasts 49.5 miles of prime trails and contains a segment of the Florida National Scenic Trail. We chose an easy family-friendly hike called the Plum Orchard Pond Trail located right behind the Visitor Center. This trail has interactive signs that target young children and give information on the local flora and fauna within the refuge. The trail is often used in correspondence with the refuge’s Nature’s Classroom that hosts several educational programs throughout the year.
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is also a great spot for bird watching, fishing and even hunting during specific seasons. Spotting wildlife is also very easy on the refuge; as no sooner had Cristian and I entered, we spotted a small American Alligator crossing the road to a brackish pond. We hopped out to photograph it, but were too late as it plopped into the water disappearing from sight.
We had to cut our trip a bit short as we were headed to another spot that day, but we will definitely be back to enjoy the scenery from the water in our kayak as we discovered boats are only permitted from March to October each year to allow for wildlife to thrive over the winter. So mark this one down on your list of great Florida sights and make sure to bring your camera!
St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is located three hours east of Destin at 1255 Lighthouse Road in St. Marks, Fla. Entry Fee is $5 and the park is open year-round during daylight hours. Boats, kayaks and canoes are only permitted in refuge impoundments along Lighthouse Road from March 15 to October 15 each year. For more information call 925-6121 or visit http://www.fws.gov/refuge/St_Marks/.