En español | The Sunshine State's abundant natural attractions go far beyond beaches, palm trees and the Everglades. Take a four-day spin on roads less traveled to view Northwest Florida's “Forgotten Coast,” south of Panama City, to find inland springs, waterfalls, migrating monarch butterflies and stalactite-crowned caverns. You can even pet a wolf. Stay in affordable lodgings with that fast-disappearing Old Florida feel.
Day 1: Tallahassee to Wakulla Springs (43 miles)
Cruise from the state capital south to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge via Route 61 or 363. It's so nature-focused that there are no food concessions (pack a picnic or try locally popular fried mullet at nearby Posey's Steam Room & Oyster Bar). Established as a sanctuary for migrating birds in 1931, St. Marks’ more than 70,000 acres are home to 200-plus species, as well as an October celebration of monarch butterflies that stop here en route to Mexico.
You can walk on trails, fish or try the GPS Adventure Trail, a scavenger hunt (grandkids will love it). Up the road, take a plunge or a boat ride at Wakulla Springs. North America's largest freshwater spring, surrounded by a cypress swamp, is a cool 68-70 degrees year-round. Swim in designated areas to steer clear of gators (a big-tire wheelchair is available, as are wheelchair-accessible tour craft), or scuba dive in sinkholes. Keep eyes peeled for curious manatees.
For a late lunch or sweet treat, snag a stool in the old-fashioned soda fountain with 70-foot marble counter, billed as the world's longest, at The Lodge at Wakulla Springs.
Where to Stay: The Spanish Mission-style Lodge at Wakulla Springs, dating to the ‘30s, is a Florida landmark. It's embellished with ceiling paintings of local wildlife, cypress panels and an art deco elevator. Comfortable rooms with vintage furnishings have no TVs. Senior rates during slow times start at about $100, double, for bed and breakfast. Dine in the restaurant on old-timey Country Captain curried chicken and rice, topped off with chocolate-covered key lime pie.
Day 2: Wakulla Springs to St. George Island (80 miles)
Head west along the Big Bend Scenic Byway, enjoying views of unspoiled Gulf coastline and pine forests. Stop for lunch in Apalachicola to savor a North Florida specialty: some of the more succulent oysters you'll ever slurp. You're spoiled for choice when it comes to eating bivalves, fresh or fried. Apalachicola Seafood Grill & Steaks is famed for its seafood gumbo, and the waterside deck at Up the Creek Raw Bar is popular, too. Cross a bridge to reach 22-mile-long St. George Island, where you can walk on trails, go birding, fish off the pier or simply bask on stunning white-sand beaches — and not a high-rise in sight. Dine under tiki torches at Blue Parrot Ocean Front Café, serving Gulf shrimp, grouper and mahi-mahi.
Where to Stay: The St. George Inn, with rocking chairs on its wraparound porches, is pet-friendly and offers Facebook specials for about $100, as well as $69-$99 rates from the week after Thanksgiving until the week before Christmas.
Day 3: St. George Island to Tallahassee (210 miles)
Drive 2 1/2 hours inland, mostly on the Big Bend Scenic Byway, to Falling Waters State Park in Chipley. There you'll find a viewing platform overlooking the state's tallest waterfall, about 70 feet high. If it's Saturday, you can add a 15-mile detour to the Seacrest Wolf Preserve for a prebooked $35 Wolf Encounter. Visitors learn about this diminishing species, enter a habitat to interact with friendly wolf “ambassadors” and even howl along with the 30-strong pack.
Another unusual experience awaits at Florida Caverns State Park near Marianna. See the only dry cave in Florida with organized tours. An audiovisual viewing in the visitor center is perfect for those who don't wish to cope with dark and slippery conditions — and the occasional bat. Finish the day in Tallahassee at wheelchair-accessible Backwoods Crossing, where the tomato and lettuce in your salad likely came from its adjoining gardens and the crab cakes win raves.
Where to Stay: Tallahassee has multiple chain hotels with rates less than $75. Or splurge on a night in the Governors Inn or the Park Avenue Inn. Both are intimate, elegant and in the downtown historic district. They can sometimes be booked for less than $150, including breakfast. Vibrant Tallahassee, home to Florida State and Florida A&M universities, is worth a longer stay if you have time.
Day 4: Tallahassee
This park-dotted city, whose streets are lined with live oaks dripping Spanish moss, attracts outdoor enthusiasts and boasts more than 500 miles of biking and walking trails (find them on trailahassee.com). It also has a most unusual wildlife experience. Ride a zip line 62 feet in the air over animal life in a cypress swamp at the 52-acre Tallahassee Museum, which is more like a zoo/wildlife refuge than its name implies. From a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk, you'll see endangered Florida panthers, red wolves, foxes, bears and guest animals from other places. Participate in a daily “animal encounter” that might include a gator, armadillo or bird of prey.
Kayakers and photo buffs praise kayak ecotours on nearby lakes and rivers offered by Harry Smith Outdoors. Toast the end of your trip on a patio in the Railroad Art District with a cold brew and a hot homemade-sausage hoagie. They're served out of a red caboose at the Crum Box Gastgarten.