The following excursions are generally on the way to Apalachicola, so if you're headed that way, plan to make a detour or two.
The world's largest and deepest freshwater spring is 15 miles south of Tallahassee in the 2,860-acre Edward W. Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, on Florida 267 just east of its junction with Florida 61. Ball, a financier who administered the du Pont estate, turned the springs and the moss-draped surrounding forest into a preservation area. Divers have mapped an underwater cave system extending more than 6,000 feet back from the spring's mouth. Wakulla has been known to dispense an amazing 14,325 gallons per second of water at certain times. Mastodon bones, including those of Herman, now in Tallahassee's Museum of Florida History, were found in the caves. The 1930s Tarzan movies, starring Johnny Weissmuller, were also filmed here.
A free 10-minute movie is shown in the park's theater at the waterfront. You can hike or bike along the nature trails, and swimming is allowed in designated areas. Note: It's important to observe swimming rules as alligators are present here.
If the spring water is clear enough, 30-minute glass-bottom-boat sightseeing trips depart every 45 minutes daily, from 9:45am to 5pm during daylight saving time, and from 9:15am to 4:30pm the rest of the year. Even if the water is murky, you're likely to see alligators, birds, and other wildlife on 30-minute riverboat cruises, which operate during these same hours. Either boat ride costs $8 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under.
Entrance fees to the park are $6 per vehicle with up to eight passengers, $4 single-occupant vehicle, $2 per pedestrian or bicyclist. The park is open daily from 8am to dusk. For more information, contact the park at 550 Wakulla Springs Dr., Wakulla Springs, FL 32305 (tel. 850/224-5950; www.floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings).
The St. Marks Area
Rich history lives in the area around the little village of St. Marks, 18 miles south of the capital at the end of both Florida 363 and the Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail State Park.
After marching overland from Tampa Bay in 1528, the Spanish conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez and 300 men arrived at this strategic point at the confluence of the St. Marks and Wakulla rivers near the Gulf of Mexico. Because their only avenue back to Spain was by sea, they built and launched the first ships made by Europeans in the New World. Some 11 years later, Hernando de Soto and his 600 men arrived here after following Narvaez's route from Tampa. They marked the harbor entrance by hanging banners in the trees, then moved inland. Two wooden forts were built, one in 1679 and one in 1718, and a stone version was begun in 1739. The fort shifted among Spanish, British, and Native American hands until Gen. Andrew Jackson took it away from the Spanish in 1819.
Parts of the old Spanish bastion wall and Confederate earthworks built during the Civil War are in the San Marcos de Apalachee Historic State Park, reached by turning right at the end of Florida 363 in St. Marks and following the paved road. A museum built on the foundation of the old marine hospital contains exhibits and artifacts covering the area's history. The site is open Thursday through Monday from 9am to 5pm (closed New Year's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas). Entrance to the site is free; admission to the museum costs $2 (free for children 6 and under). For more information, contact the site at 1022 DeSoto Park Dr., Tallahassee, FL 32301 (tel. 850/922-6007; www.floridastateparks.org/sanmarcos).
De Soto's men marked the harbor entrance in what is now the St. Marks Lighthouse and National Wildlife Refuge ★, P.O. Box 68, St. Marks, FL 32355 (tel. 850/925-6121). Operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, this 65,000-acre preserve occupies much of the coast from the Aucilla River east of St. Marks to the Ochlockonee River west of Panacea; it's home to more species of birds than anyplace else in Florida except the Everglades. The visitor center is 3 1/2 miles south of U.S. 98 on Lighthouse Road (Fla. 59); turn south off U.S. 98 at Newport, about 2 miles east of St. Marks. Stop at the center for self-guided tour maps of the roads and hiking trails, some built atop levees running through the marshland.
Apalachicola National Forest
The largest of Florida's three national forests, this huge preserve encompasses 600,000 acres stretching from Tallahassee's outskirts southward to the Gulf Coast and westward some 70 miles to the Apalachicola River. Included is a variety of woodlands, rivers, streams, lakes, and caves populated by a host of wildlife. There are picnic areas with sheltered tables and grills, canoe and mountain bike trails, campgrounds with tent and RV sites, and a number of other facilities, some of them especially designed for visitors with disabilities.
The Leon Sinks Area is closest to Tallahassee, 5 1/2 miles south of Southeast Capital Circle on U.S. 319 near the Leon-Wakulla county line. Nature trails and boardwalks lead from one sinkhole (a lake formed when water erodes the underlying limestone) to another. The trails are open daily from 8am to 8pm.
A necessary stop before heading into this wilderness is the visitor center at the Wakulla Area Ranger District, 57 Taft Dr., Crawfordville, FL 32327 (tel. 850/926-3561; fax 850/926-1904), which provides information and sells topographic and canoe trail maps. The station is off U.S. 319, about 20 miles south of Tallahassee and 2 miles north of Crawfordville. It's open Monday through Thursday from 8am to 4:30pm, Friday from 8am to 4pm.