Florida's Big Bend Scenic Byway
Most people have never heard of the Big Bend National Scenic Byway in Florida but it passes through some of the state's most natural and non commercialized areas. Included in the byway are parts of four counties, three state parks, a National Forest, a National Wildlife Refuge, and several small coastal fishing villages. It is basically a loop tour with a few spurs, one of which goes to the town of Apalachicola, the largest along the byway. Another spur goes northward through a national forest and a state forest. A third ends at a lighthouse. And the fourth passes along a barrier island. Although the byway is not filled with high-rise hotels and elaborate development, there are plenty of places to stay and eat and enjoy.
The 220-mile long Big Bend Scenic Byway is accessible from Apalachicola in the west, Tallahassee in the north, or Newport in the east. It includes State Route 65 from the Franklin and Liberty County line to US 98 and SR 30 at the coast. It spurs to the west on US 98 to include Apalachicola. Another spur includes St. George Island via the bridge across Apalachicola Bay on SR 300 The byway goes eastward along the coast to Carrabelle, past Bald Point State Park, Panacea, and Newport. Then one spur goes south on CR 59 to the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Lighthouse. From Newport the corridor forms a loop that starts northwest on SR 267/CR 2203, north on SR 263, west on SR 20, south on CR 375 to the town of Sopchoppy, then south on CR 299 to US 319 until it connects once more with US 98 at the coast.
The minimally-traveled roads along the coast have sweeping turns and the forest roads are mostly long and straight. But there are plenty of things along the way for which to stop. The southwestern part of the byway consists of Franklin County with Apalachicola, Eastpoint, and St. George Island being the major population areas. Franklin County harvests more than 90% of Florida's oysters and 10% of the oysters consumed in the nation. So, if seafood is a passion, this is the place to visit.
Riverfront Park Apalachicola 010
Apalachicola Bay fisherman 002
The town of Apalachicola, the first spur along the byway, has many restaurants, shops, and historic spots to visit. Once the third largest port on the Gulf of Mexico, Apalachicola's diverse and colorful past is still evident. There are over nine hundred historic homes and buildings in the National Historic District. The Apalachicola River and Bay provide great fishing opportunities for both fresh and salt water fishing enthusiasts. Outdoorsmen can explore the seemingly endless bays and waterways by kayak or canoe.
Big Bend Scenic Byway Eastpoint 008
Back on the byway heading back eastward, cross the five-mile long bridge over East Bay and the mouth of the Apalachicola River and enter Eastpoint, one of several fishing towns along the coast. Many of the oysterman harvest their catch and bring it here for processing. Stop at Captain Snook's for a taste of that fresh seafood.
Another spur is to the 28-mile long barrier island of St. George. SR 300 crosses the four-mile bridge over Apalachicola Bay to St. George Island. It affords a great view of the bay. Stop by the prominent Cape St. George Lighthouse at the intersection of SR 300 and Gulf Beach Drive. Visitors can climb to the top for good views of the island. There is also parking and access to the beach.
St George Island Lighthouse 006
Several rental companies have properties along on the beach or bay side. At the eastern end of the island is St. George State Park with nine miles of undeveloped shoreline, large sand dunes, forested areas, and salt marshes. There is a series of hiking trails, boardwalks, and observation platforms. Bird watching is a popular activity here.
Retrace the route back to US 98 and continue eastward through Eastpoint toward Carrabelle along St. George Sound. At SR 65, go northward along this spur which separates the Apalachicola River Wildlife and Environmental Area and Tate's Hell State Forest. The road has little traffic but has great scenery. Return to US 98 by backtracking.
On US 98 go eastward and stop by the 112-year old, 103-feet tall Crooked River Lighthouse. It guided boats through East Pass between the barrier islands of Dog and St. George. Visitors can climb the 138 steps to the top only on Saturdays and Sundays. This part of US 98 passes along the southern boundary of the 200,000-acre Tate's Hell State Forest. There are more than 800 miles of roads built to carry on the management of the forest operations. Most are dirt and gravel and not for motorcycles or new cars.
Crooked River Lighthouse Carrabelle Florida 002
Carrabelle River at sunrise 004
Carrabelle has a couple campgrounds. One, the Carrabelle Beach RV Park, has rental cabins that would afford good access to the Big Bend Scenic Byway and attractions long the route. The beach along this portion of the byway served as a training ground for the amphibious assault on Normandy Beach during World War II. The Camp Gordon Johnston WW II Museum is dedicated to that time in Carrabelle's history.
For golfers, or another good option for accommodations, the St. James Bay Resort, is located in Carrabelle. The golf course is Audubon certified, which means the natural environment was minimally disturbed during its design. The accommodations are low-rise condominiums and villas with the Crooked River Grill on site.
Past Carrabelle the loop route splits at US 98 and 319. The northern portion (US319) goes through the Apalachicola National Forest past Fort Braden and comes near Interstate 10 and Tallahassee. Then it takes a southern bend through the Wakulla State Forest toward Newport and the last spur to St. Marks. The other part of the split (US 98) continues along the coast past Alligator Point and Bald Point State Park and across the Ochlockonee River. Alligator Point, where Ochlockonee Bay meets Apalachee Bay, has other rental properties, and would be an ideal stopover for visitors wanting a more isolated destination. Bald Point State Park has over 4000 acres and offers a multitude of land and water activities and is a popular destination for birding and wildlife viewing. Each fall, bald eagles and migrating birds, along with monarch butterflies, stop over during their trip south for the winter.
Bald Point State Park Florida 003
The southern part of the loop route continues through the town of Panacea, and toward Newport, where the two portions of the loop join. A spur southward from the split goes to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and Lighthouse. The refuge is one of the oldest in the country and was established in 1931 as a wintering ground for migratory birds and encompasses 68,000 acres. The St. Marks Lighthouse is the second oldest in the state. It was completed in 1831, but in 1842 was moved because of erosion. In 1960 the light was automated and is still active. Retrace the route back to Newport, which is the easternmost point of the byway.
The Big Bend Scenic Byway can be divided into coastal and forest portions. The coastal traces US 98 from Apalachicola to St. Marks. The forest consists of the SR 65 spur and the eastern loop. Each is distinctive, but scenic. The byway is less commercial and less developed that many parts of Florida, but that makes the Big Bend Scenic Byway a special place.