The Apalachicola National Forest

Our stops in the Apalachicola Forest area.

November 19 – December 8, 2019.

We spent almost 3 weeks wandering around the Apalachicola National Forest area. It is a beautiful forest of tall pines, palmetto bushes, cypress swamps, rivers, wildlife, and interesting geological phenomena. There are opportunities to boat, hike, fish, swim, picnic and, of course, camp. There are tons of campsites including hike-in camps, boat-in camps, paid camping, and our favorite – free camping – managed by several different federal and state organizations. We camped in 7 different places, kayaked twice, hiked a bit, and saw the sites in the surrounding area. Here is our journey…

Big Gully Landing

This was our first stop in the Apalachicola NF. We had hoped to stay a few days and kayak but shortly after we turned onto the road leading to our camping spot we had van troubles (see our last post “Vannymoon” to catch up on all our van woes). The road to the kayak put-in was rough so even after the van was fixed we decided that we didn’t want to chance any more van problems running the gauntlet to the landing.

The undeveloped campsite at the landing had room for maybe one or two campers. We ended up at a pull-off on the road leading to the landing.

The road to Big Gully Landing was too bumpy for us to navigate.
View of Equaloxic Creek from the landing at Big Gully.
Sunset from our camp spot at Big Gully.

Florida River Island

After days of van trouble, we decided to just take a big breath, exhale, and relax for a bit. Florida River Island is a free permitted Florida Water District campground just on the edge of the National Forest. We got our free permit online the morning we wanted to camp. The site had only been open for a little over a week after being closed for nearly 14 months due to Hurricane Michael damage. Evidence of the hurricane was everywhere from downed fences to impassable trails.

There are 10 campsites that could be reserved – 4 for RVs and 6 for tents. The RV sites each had a concrete pad, grill, and fire ring. There was the type of pit toilet that makes me glad we have our own potty in the van. We were the only ones there.

The main camp area at River Island was a big field with 4 RV sites and 2 tent sites.
Our camping spot at River Island.
We tried to hike around the River Island but the hiking trail was blocked by downed trees.

Brown House Hunt Camp/Forest Road 367

Our next spot was chosen because of its proximity to the Leon Sinks Geological Area where we wanted to hike.

I was expecting Brown House Hunt camp to be a big empty field along the road. My expectations were met except for the empty part. It was just a few days before Thanksgiving when open gun season started in the National Forest – and the hunters were poised. The camp was mostly unoccupied but full of fifth wheels, tents, and tables. There were also several empty dog pens. I didn’t feel comfortable stopping there so we turned around and ended up at a pull-off on Forest Road 367. This would be the last time we would legally be able to just camp along the road. After the shooting started on Thanksgiving the forest service wanted everyone in designated campgrounds.

The pull-off from the road we spent the night at.
Driving down Forest Road 367.

Leon Sinks Geological Area

Leon Sinks Geological Area was the only real big hike we did in the forest besides just walking down forest roads. A 5-mile trail leads past wet and dry sinkholes and through a cypress swamp. It was $5 to do the hike but we got in for half price with our National Parks pass.

Water passing through the limestone under the Leon Sinks area has created many sinkholes and caves. The area of eroded limestone is called karst. Many of the sinkholes here are dry. This sink, Hammock Sink, was filled with clear water.
Looking into Big Dismal Sink in the karst at Leon Sinks. Divers have found a network of underground caves running through the Upper Floridian Aquifer.
Hiking trail at Leon Sinks.
A couple of the large depressions at Leon Sinks are swampy during heavy rainfall, making good habitats for cyprus trees.
More cyprus knees at Leon Sinks.

Revell’s Landing

We spent a few days outside of the forest – one of those days at a paid campground where we got showers – Nice! On Thanksgiving day we went back into the woods. I had several campsites for us to check out. What I didn’t realize was that Thanksgiving was family reunion day in the forest. The first site we tried (Porter Lake) was super easy to get to right off the main road – and it was packed with what looked like a budding party. I found our next stop (Whitehead Landing) on a Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Map – apparently an outdated version. The campsite was closed. We went on down the road to Revell’s Landing. There was a sign on the main road that said “Davis” pointing in the direction of the campsite. Another family reunion? Perhaps they could squeeze us in? Another David sign ended up pointing right and we turned left. The campsite/landing (basically an open field with a port-a-potty) had maybe a half dozen campers already in it (Davis overflow or hunters, maybe?). We nosed our way in between campers and picked a spot that felt out of the way.

The next day we finally went kayaking! But then after our paddle back at the van when I saw a child walk in front of the van into the forest with a compound bow I thought we might give the hunters some space and move on.

Our camp spot at Revell’s Landing.
Looking from the boat launch at Revell’s Landing at the a spur off the Ochlockonee River.
We had lots of obstructions on this part of the river.
Cormorant drying its wings.

Hitchcock Lake Campground

This was more like it! There were maybe a dozen spots around a loop. Some sites were very private and some big and open. There was a boat launch and the river looked very inviting. There were two very clean port-a-potties. And the place was completely unoccupied – no hunters, no family reunions.

This ended up being our base camp for 4 days while we kayaked, explored the area, and dealt with campervan problems.

Camp spot at Hitchcock Lake.
Kayaking Hitchcock Lake.
At times the cypress knees were over the heads of us kayak paddlers.
This dog followed us as we kayaked down the river. Notice the orange collar. His owner who was hunting was nearby but I think his dog would have rather been kayaking with us.
The beaks of these limpkins have a gap just before the tip that helps them “tweeze” apple snails from their shells.
Limpkin posing.

Takes Hell State Forest/Ralph G. Kendrick Boardwalk at Dwarf Cypress Stand

We weren’t planning on going to Tates Hell State Forest but then I heard (one of) the legend(s). Here is a synopsis –

After some bad times, Cebe Tate made a pact with a local medicine man for good fortune. The only stipulation was that he stayed out of the tiny cypress forest and give him a pig every year.

So, of course, you know what happened – after three years of good times Cebe didn’t pony up the pig. The medicine man warned him that not only would his good fortune cease but he would go through hell. The bad times came right away – his father died of malaria, the pine trees gave very little sap, the sugar cane was stunted, and the scrub cattle began to disappear. The pigs, on the other hand, more than doubled their numbers.

Not so bad, right? Well unless you don’t eat pork. A year later Cebe married a mail-order bride. Being of the Jewish faith pork was not on her diet so Cebe went looking for those now elusive scrub cows. Armed with a shotgun and accompanied by his dogs he ventured into the swamp. The dogs took off after a panther and Cebe soon lost his gun in the mud.

He had been lost in the swamp for 7 days and nights when in order to escape the relentless bugs he wandered into the dwarf cypress grove protected by the Medicine man’s magic. Here he fell asleep.

He awoke when he was bitten by a snake. Delirious from drinking the murky swamp water he ran blindly through the swamp until he finally saw the edge. Once clear of the mud and snarled trees he fell to the ground and in his last breath he gasped, “My name is Cebe Tate and I’ve just come through hell!”

View of spooky dwarf cypress from overhead.
Boardwalk stretches into the Dwarf Cyprus trees.

Cotton Landing Campground

This was our jumping-off point to drive to Fort Walton Beach for our van recall (see “Vannymoon” post for the details on this). The river looked like another good kayaking adventure but we had to keep moving so we gave it a miss.

We were the only campers. There was room for maybe 3 or 4 campers and like Hitchcock Lake, the port-a-potties were super clean.

We ended up here a second night on our return to Fort Walton Beach after a campsite hunt fail, quickly fading light, and weird sound coming from the van (see “Vannymoon”). This time there was one other rig. We met a young Canadian couple traveling in a converted short bus and had them over for drinks and a nice chat about traveling.

Camping spot at Cotton Landing.
View of Kennedy Creek from the boat launch at Cotton Landing. It looked like perfect kayaking water – too bad we had to keep moving.

Smith Creek Landing/Forest Road 124

Smith Creek Landing was our campsite location fail. Google maps took us down Forest Road 124 right to a big pile of dirt blocking the road. This happens – no big deal – but if I had only zoomed into the map a bit more I would have seen that there was an alternate road leading to the campsite. Anyways we scrambled to find another spot which ended up Cotton Landing (see above).

We thought Cotton Landing was going to be our last night in the forest but then we got booted out of an urban boondocking location in the city of Apalachicola by the police (possibly another story for another day). It was dark and the easiest thing to do was to return to the closest site we were familiar with which was the road that led nowhere – Forest Road 124. I had seen spots along 124 I thought would do when we had driven down it the day before. It wasn’t perfectly legal since it was open gun season so we just hoped there weren’t any crazy hunters traipsing around the forest in the middle of the night who would mistake Ballena Blanca for a big white deer.

Where we spent the night on Forest Road 124.

Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve Nature Center

The Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve is another one of the entities that manage a portion of the land in the Apalachicola National Forest area. And they have a great Nature Center. Here we learned about the Apalachicola Bay estuary and how water upstream in the watershed affects the water of the bay. We were very interested to learn that this watershed starts in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and continues downstream 541 miles, passing through Lake Lanier where we learned to sail, and our favorite home base Atlanta.

Not sure we’ll ever quit learning cool things about Monarch butterflies. How do their sesame-sized brains help them navigate from their winter home in Michoacan, Mexico to the northern US and back? One of their antennae tells them where the sun is in the sky. The other antenna tells them what time of day it is. If you are heading back south in the morning, the sun should be ahead on your left. In the afternoon it should be ahead on your right. Here, microscopes are set up to magnify Monarch parts.
Bones at the Nature Center.
Nature walk.
Reduced scale of the Appalachicola Watershed. Note the mile marker on the right. Two rivers ultimately feed the Appalachicola. One is the Chattahoochee, which starts in northern Georgia, running just west of Atlanta and going on to define the Georgia/Alabama border. The other is the Flint River, which starts under Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, and runs south.

We really just scratched the surface of the Apalachicola NF. To see some more the camping and recreation opportunities in the area click here for a pdf of The Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve’s Road Map to Recreation which contains lots of info about what to do in the area and a great map of the Apalachicola River and Bay Basin. You can also stop by the Center and pick up a paper copy.

Have you camped in any of the 154 National Forest in the US? Do you have a favorite camping spot?

10 thoughts on “The Apalachicola National Forest

    1. So glad it’s helpful. The panhandle is not too far from you – perhaps you need a little bit of a getaway!

  1. Fantastic guide! Thank you! I especially liked the fact that you added a map at the top. If we end up heading west this year, we will certainly stop in Apalachicola National Forest and I will refer back to your helpful information or try to remember Hitchcock Lake, as that seemed to be your (and my) favorite campsite, based on your collection and description.

    Sorry hunting season was affecting you so much. It’s still going on here in Osceola National Forest until January 19th, I believe, but luckily there has been room in the designated NF campgrounds and the shooting has only been “bad” during the weekends. Maya hates it!

    1. Thanks! Don’t you mean when (not if) you go out west (and catch up with us in Arizona). I like the map too. I think I am going to do one for all the beach camping on the Texas Gulf Coast too!

      Another thing I liked about Hitchcock Lake was it’s close proximity to the town of Carrabelle (tell you about that next post). Cotton Landing was also nice (probably because no one was there) but a little farther from the main road. And I liked Florida River Island because it was very easy to get to.

      It didn’t seem like we heard to many guns after that first weekend – but maybe we got used to it. Poor Maya – the world can be a noisy place.

  2. Apalachicola National Forest has wonderful places to explore. General gun season is from Thanksgiving to early February, so I stay out diring that time. The rest of the year is open except late April- June when the yellow flies are out.

    1. It was great spending time in the forest. I wish we had had more opportunities to kayak, but I just guess we will have to go back someday. Glad we missed the yellow fly season!

  3. I had a life altering experience camping on a secluded ridge off the blue ridge parkway , early September I was looking for a safe place to spend two weeks away from my high risk of death if I contract covid 19 ,there were campers on either end of the grassy ridge enjoying the
    long weekend . I was alone fo r the next three days until a forest ranger came by and told me I had to leave , I talked to him about the need to separate our selfs from the risks and our America right to spend two weeks free of charge in our national forests . this seemed to upset him that I talked to him man to man , I packed up my camp prepared to leave when three trucks with 5 armed men two federal officers who wore no forest insignias all armed , gave me a citation , America is FUBAR.

    1. When dealing with folks in uniform best course of action is always yes sir or maam and move on asap. Then hopefully they find some real problems and forget all about you.

      1. Yes, I agree. If you live the van/traveling life you are going to get the knock sometime. We got the knock a couple of times in Mexico – their police carry really big guns. Despite our limited Spanish we tried to be polite and moved on when we were asked.

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