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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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?