Posts Tagged ‘Port St. Joe’

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Now we come to my favorite part of the Florida Panhandle. The bump. It’s the part that sticks out into the Gulf. Way back it was very busy, as it’s where the mouth of the Apalachicola River is located. Like a smaller scale Mississippi River, it is, since it goes all the way up into Georgia. Lots of commerce up and down the river in the past. But now that it’s dammed up near the state line, not so much. Compared to other areas of the state, it’s hardly visited by tourists. There are less than 500 hotel rooms in Gulf County, for example.

Which is a major reason I like it so much. Big surprise. If there wasn’t anything to see, though, it wouldn’t do that much for me. But there are all sorts of historical and scenical and kitschy gems strewn throughout the region. The home of the Florida constitution and the grandfather of air conditioning. The most gorgeous bridge drive next to the Seven Mile Bridge. The world’s smallest police station. You’ll have to divert a ways off US 98 a few times to see everything; the route is very tentacular. But it’s worth it. Allow me to acquaint you with why I love this area so much. (see Google map)

I’d be afraid that doing so would lead to the area becoming overrun with tourists, but I just don’t see that happening. It’s too far out of the way, and there are no huge attractions to attract people. But an increase of visitors to the area would be nice.

When last we were on US 98, we were in Panama City. From here, you’ve got two options to continue east.

Firstly, you could take SR 22. In about 30 miles you’ll be in Wewahitchka, honeypot of the area. There’s a former state park up SR 71, and a former courthouse in town. If you go south on SR 71 for 24 miles, you’ll be in Port St. Joe, the current Gulf County seat. (see Google map)

Or, you stay on US 98. You’ll be going through Tyndall Air Force Base for a while, so I wouldn’t be speeding if I were you. Once past Tyndall, you’ll very shortly be in Mexico Beach, and enter Eastern Standard Time. Stop and look southwest-ish from the beach. About 3 and a half miles offshore is the shipwreck of the Vamar. Stroll around the beach, too, it’s a nice one. Very popular, and typical of the Emerald Coast beaches. (see Google map)

Onward to Port St. Joe! You’ll cross a big bridge, which I think crosses a canal or stream or somesuch. To the left is the former site of the St. Joe Paper Mill. It was the town’s major employer, and when it closed in the late ’90s, Port St. Joe went into a slump from which it’s still recovering. Even the old AN Railway offices got torn down a few years back. They’re promoting the tourist angle, and the St. Joe Company has changed over to real estate, promoting fancy developments in the area. If you want a small coastal town to get away and de-stress, you can’t do much better than Port St. Joe.

There are only two hotels I know of in the county. There’s a fancier one down the road, but I rather like the Port Inn. They have one of the most comfortable beds I’ve slept in, and though the rooms are small, they are cozy and have everything you need. Plus a pleasant breakfast, better than your standard continental.

You’ll have passed the chamber of commerce, where you can get info on stuff to do in the neighborhood. One must is the Constitution Convention Museum State Park. The town was where the Florida Constitution was worked on. They have a diorama with talking statues. It’s no Hall of Presidents, but you’ll learn about the history of it all, nonetheless.

Before you leave town, visit the Old St. Joseph Cemetery. St. Joseph was the town that was originally here, before it was wiped out through various calamities. (see Google map)

Going east on US 98, you’ll see St. Joseph Bay and the Gulf for a while. Then it’s mostly until you reach the next county seat (Franklin County’s, that is), Apalachicola. But you might want to turn right at SR 30A to get to St. Joseph Peninsula, so you can visit one of the two beachy state parks in the area. And some other stuff too.

First you’ll pass the Old Beacon Hill Lighthouse, near the local airport. It was moved here and converted into a private residence, so enjoy from a distance. Continue and follow the signs to St. Joseph Peninsula State Park.

Before you get there, though, you can see another lighthouse, the Cape San Blas Light. Also there’s old Coast Guard Headquarters next to it.

Get back on 30A and keep going west. The road curves and you’ll pass a rock wall, then you’ll be heading north. Speed limit is reduced, but that gives you more time to appreciate the view of the Gulf. Eventually you’ll reach the state park.

There’s camping and cabins available here, which makes it a great place to spend the night. I can only imagine how gorgeous the sunrises and sunsets are. Plus this is another area that’s far away from big city lights, so the night sky is probably as lovely as it is at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. But arrange ahead, space can be booked long in advance.

Returning the way you came, you can go back to US 98, or visit Indian Pass Trading Post and Post Office. It’s historic, and a fully operational convenience store and partial restaurant. I think you can catch a boat to St. Vincent Island somewhere around here too. Heading east from here on 30A will get you to Apalachicola, but it’s slow and residential, so you might want to retrace your way towards Port St. Joe to get back on US 98. (see Google map)

Next post, on to Apalachicola. See you on the road!

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The Apalachicola Northern Railroad Company office was in Port St. Joe, in the Panhandle, about 20 miles west of Apalachicola. I took the top photo of the building in March 2008. It was demolished two months before I returned in November 2010, after the St. Joe Company moved their headquarters to Bay County. Another piece of state history lost, alas. The building is included in “A Guide to Florida’s Historic Architecture”. An article about the demolition can be found here.

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I was debating with myself about how to do travel posts. They’ve been reminiscences up until now. But I tend towards the meandery, which mayn’t be how a lot of folks travel. So I decided to focus more on roads, and talk about offshoots where appropriate. Here goes!

Had to start with my favorite part of the state, the Panhandle. I define it as west of Tallahassee ; conventionally it’s further west, on the other side of the Apalachicola River. I was going to do US 90 first, but there’s a lot there, and could run into several posts, so let’s begin with State Road 20.

It surprised me that SR 20 was in the Panhandle. Having lived in Gainesville for years, I thought it only ran from there to Palatka. Apparently it’s hidden for much of its length between G’ville and Tally. The things you find out when you travel.

So, starting in Tallahassee, go west. In 10 to 15 miles (depending on where you start), you’ll come to the entry road for Lake Talquin State Park. The lake was created when the Ochlockonee River was dammed up in the 1920s. It was ostensibly named for the two cities it’s between, Tallahassee and Quincy. Yet if you look at a map, you’ll see that it’s more between Tallahassee and Hosford. Quincy is the larger city, though, and maybe the namers didn’t like the sound of “Lake Talhos” or “Lake Hostal”. It’s a nice park, and I can see it being especially popular with boaters.

Old Fort Braden School

Get back on SR 20 and head west. Less than a mile on the left is the Fort Braden Community Center, which used to be the Fort Braden School. It was built in the 1920s and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I’ve seen so many buildings listed on the Register that are dilapidated or gone, and it’s nice to see ones that are not only being preserved, but actively used.

The next stretch of SR 20 I haven’t travelled myself, so I have to rely on Google Street View. Which is where I found that about 8 miles past the Old Fort Braden School is a major bridge over the Ochlockonee River. The dam that formed Lake Talquin is just to the northeast. There was an older bridge to the southwest as late as 1975, but there appears to be no trace of it now. It must have been demolished when they built the new one.

After the bridge, the scenery changes and becomes one of the reasons I love the Panhandle. People who don’t know better think Florida is all beaches, theme parks and overdevelopment. But there are vast undeveloped areas of the state, and they’re likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. If you enjoy driving not to get somewhere, but to relax and soak in the sights, there are roads aplenty for it in Northwest Florida.

Nine miles past the Ochlockonee River bridge is Hosford, which I mentioned previously. Having driven between there and Hosford, I can speak more knowledgeably about this stretch. Not much to see in Hosford, though there is a nicely restored old church.

Fort Gadsden site

And here’s one of those offshoots I was talking about. If you continue south on SR 65 for about 35 miles through the Apalachicola National Forest, and follow the signs, you’ll wind up at Fort Gadsden, one of the most remote National Historic Landmarks in the state. It’s the site of two forts, one built by the British, one by Americans. There’s not even ruins left above ground, so there’s little to see in the historic sense. If you want to get away from it all, and have a relaxing picnic along the Apalachicola River, this is definitely a place to go. Should the spirit move you, drive south 23 miles until you get to US 98. Turn right (west), and you’ll reach Apalachicola pretty quickly. Turn left, and you’ll be in Carrabelle in short order. It’s also the section of US 98 I like the most.

Yes, it is a rather extreme detour. But Fort Gadsden is so out-of-the-way, and the drive so nice from the north or the south, I decided to include it.

Back to SR 20. Continuing west is just road and trees and lots of time for thinking. In about 12 minutes (depending on how fast you drive), you’ll be in Bristol, the county seat for Liberty County. This is the least densely populated county in the state. It’s also one of three in the Panhandle that has neither Gulf shoreline or shares a border with another state. There’s not much to see there. The courthouse is nice enough, but nothing special. Unlike the one in the next county over.

There’s two offshoots in this area, but I’ll discuss them later.

Up to this point, the terrain is fairly level. Now you hit one of the hillier parts of the state as you head west. Which gives you a good view of the 1.5 mile-long Trammell Bridge, which crosses the Apalachicola River. The river is also the divider between Eastern Standard Time and Central Time, so adjust your watches accordingly. Unlike the bridge across the Ochlockonee River a ways back, the old bridge here was preserved and is still in use. So instead of a lane each way, both lanes on the old bridge go west, while the new bridge carries traffic east.

Old Calhoun County Courthouse

In no time at all, you’ll be in the county seat of Calhoun County, Blountstown. Which has one of my favorite old courthouses in the state, which is on the NRHP. It’s Romanesque Revival and very angular, looking more like a church than a courthouse. It’s a couple of blocks away from the current courthouse, which is modern and incredibly drab by comparison.

You’ll also find the Panhandle Pioneer Settlement further west, inside Sam Atkins Park. It’s a living history museum, but don’t know much else. The only time I’ve been there, it was late, an hour or so before sunset. That’s not a good time for taking photographs, and honestly, museums aren’t my thing. Especially living history museums. But if you like that stuff, it did look like there was a lot to see.

The two offshoots. One north and on the east side of the Apalachicola River (Torreya State Park), the other south and on the west side (the city of Wewahitchka). Each is also halfway between SR 20 and another major road. First, Torreya.

Gregory House, in Torreya State Park

From Bristol, go north on SR 12. It’s about 13 miles. The route to the park is not well marked, so use this for reference. And it’s really hilly, so be sure your car is in good shape. Once you get to the park, go to the Gregory House, which is the visitor center. It’s a very old house that used to be on the other side of the river, but was moved to its current location years ago by the CCC. Behind it is a view unlike any you’d expect to see in Florida. You’ll be standing on a bluff overlooking the Apalachicola River 150 feet below. Stretching out before you is miles and miles of forest. The unique topography created a microclimatic area. And with plant seeds and such brought down the river from further north, the ecology is different than anywhere else in the state. I like to go there in the fall because you can actually see a large amount of leaf-color change. It’s not like Maine or Vermont, as it doesn’t have those kind of trees. Still, for Florida it’s pretty amazing. I’ve learned to call the park first, though, because sometimes the color change doesn’t happen quite when you’d expect. The park’s especially interesting to me because it falls under several categories that I like: it’s a state park, on the NRHP, and a National Natural Landmark.

Old Gulf County Courthouse

Now for Wewahitchka. From Blountstown, go south on SR 71. This one’s easy. Stay on SR 71 and you’ll go right through Wewahitchka. Before you get there, you’ll pass a former state park, Dead Lakes. It’s run by Gulf County now. Don’t know what it’s like, because I couldn’t really find it. Anyway, Wewahitchka. One of those on my list of “places with weird names I wanted to visit.” It’s got one historic spot I know of, the old Gulf County Courthouse. The town is known for its honey. The movie “Ulee’s Gold” was filmed in the area.

If you keep going south, you’ll cross the Intracoastal Waterway and wind up in Port St. Joe. I recommend visiting there, but I’ll go into it more when I talk about US 98 in another post.

OK, back to Blountstown. Westward is another large chunk of road I’ve not traversed. I like the looks of this bridge over the Chipola River, east of Clarksville. The next 30 miles or so has nothing specifically noteworthy, just mellow driving.

Moss Hill Church03
Moss Hill Church

Once you get to SR 77, you have the option of continuing west, or going north for the last offshoot. If the latter, take SR 77 north, then SR 279 north. On the right after about 6 miles, you’ll find Moss Hill Church. It was built in 1857, so it’s one of the oldest churches in Washington County. I’m always amazed when I find extant wooden buildings this old in Florida, what with the humidity and hurricanes and all. It’s made of heart of pine, which explains a lot. Our ancestors, they knew how to build to last on a budget.

Back on SR 20, go west another 12 miles and you’ll reach the SR 79 intersection. I’ve travelled the rest of this stretch, but from the other direction. There’s another big bridge, this one over the Choctawhatchee River. From this point on, it’s mostly forest, with occasional spots of civilization. Which is another thing I like about the Panhandle. You’ll have these nice isolated stretches, and every 10 or 15 miles there’s a town or city where you can avail yourself of necessities.

There are a couple of long bridges across Choctawhatchee Bay which will get you to US 98.

Before you get to Niceville, you’ll pass by Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park. I’ve not much to say about it, unfortunately. When I visited, I discovered I’d lost my Florida State Park pass. Fortunately, I was still able to get the stamp for my State Park passport, and I’d seen all the state parks I wanted to on that particular trip, so it wasn’t a big deal. And I replaced the pass when I got home, so it was all good.

Niceville is, as it’s name would indicated, nice. I’d always wanted to visit, as I had several friends who were from there. It’s close to some great beaches, so there’s that.

If you go a bit further west on SR 85, then south on SR 397, you’ll be in Valparaiso, and you can visit the Heritage Museum of Northwest Florida. It’s small, so shouldn’t take up too much time. You can also visit the Air Force Armament Museum on Eglin Air Force Base, which envelops Niceville and Valparaiso.

So that’s it. And remember to value what’s been, cherish what is, look forward to what’s to be.

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Had some vacay time to use, so decided a couple of weeks ago to take this past Monday off. I really wanted to go up west of Tallahassee, and in Tallahassee, but wasn’t sure the weather would cooperate. Fortunately, it did and then some. It was in the upper 20’s in the morning, but warmed up to the high 50’s/low 60’s, which is just about perfect to me.

One minor downer was I dropped my digital camera in a river on the first day. Not completely, fortunately. I was trying to get shot of the Victory Bridges and Woodruff Dam in Chattahoochee. I stepped out on a small projection of sand and stones in the Apalachicola River. It turned out to be more sand than stone, and I sunk in over a foot. In trying to extricate myself, and not lose my sneakers, I lost my balance and the camera lens went in the water. When I got it out, the lens wouldn’t retract completely, and when it finally did, it wouldn’t come out. After some shaking, I got it to mostly function. The dial at the top to turn it on and off and change settings was sticking too. It was touch and go, but seemed to be ok.

The next day it was even more difficult to turn the dial, but as it warmed up, it got easier, so maybe it was ice. Rest of the trip was fairly lovely.

Favorite part? I’d say most of day 2, driving through the Apalachicola National Forest, seeing the Fort Gadsden site, driving along the Gulf Coast Highway (what I call US 319/US 98 between Port St. Joe and St. Teresa), and Carrabelle. Very little traffic, so a very relaxing drive. I can’t recommend the area too highly.

Google links below to the routes I travelled:

Day 1Day 2Day 3

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