Northwest Florida area parks

Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge Zoological Park in Crestivew

Albert the black bear in his new habitat. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge is hosting a grand opening of their zoological park on Saturday, June 15, 2013.

Located at 5262 Deer Springs Dr, Crestview, the park’s regular hours are from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults and $6 for children ages 2-10.
The concession stand has snacks, soft drinks, and water available for purchase.

Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge Zoological Park is home to over 100 animals from all around the world including tigers, monkeys, antelope, wolves, tortoises, and lemurs.  Shaded picnic areas are provided.  Zoo keepers will be available for animal presentations and questions.

Meet their new mystery zoo family member and enter the contest to name him! For more information, call (850) 682-3949.

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Explore the wonders of river, bay and gulf habitats at Apalachicola Environmental Education and Training Center

A large mural depicts life in the many ecosystems. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

The Apalachicola Environmental Education and Training Center is nestled along Apalachicola Bay amidst scrub live oaks and saw palmetto. It features 18,000 square feet of learning space, including two working wet and dry research laboratories. Representing the river, bay and gulf habitats found in Apalachicola, the center features three large walk-around tanks that hold more than 1,000 gallons and house a variety of native plant and aquatic life.

The Apalachicola River, Bay and coastal ecosystems are vast and diverse. Successfully managing such diversity is complex effort managed by several State and federal agencies. In 1979 the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR) was formed to manage the more than 234,715 acres spanning across Franklin, Gulf and Calhoun counties in Northwest Florida.

ANERR includes the lower 52 miles of the Apalachicola River and floodplain, as well as most of Apalachicola Bay. It includes lands managed by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Florida Park Service, Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFWMD) and Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas (CAMA).

ANERR has a tremendous variety of recreational opportunities, including boating, canoeing, kayaking, fishing, hiking, camping, swimming, picnicking, and wildlife viewing. Some of these opportunities, such as visiting the beach or swimming are most accessible by visiting one of the area’s State Parks or National Wildlife Refuges. However many can be enjoyed on your own just by going to the nearest boat ramp or dock. Click here to continue

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Explore the natural beauty of Blackwater River State Forest

A view of Hurricane Lake in the Blackwater River State Forest. Lori Ceier/Walton OutdoorsBoasting more than 210,000 acres of long leaf pine forests, lakes, streams and rivers, Blackwater River State Forest is a great place to explore nature. As one of the largest and oldest State forests in Florida, it is chock full of recreational for anyone who enjoys exploring the outdoors.

Located in the northwest corner of the Florida Panhandle, straddling Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties, Blackwater River State Forest has a long history. In 1936, the State of Florida took over managing the forest, and it became an official State Forest in 1955. Restoration of the original long leaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem has been ongoing since, and many of the original species of fauna and flora are returning. Long leaf/wiregrass ecosystems include gopher tortoise, indigo snakes, red cockaded woodpecker and a wide variety of other unique species. Click here to continue

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Explore the Panhandle Butterfly House in Navarre

Interpretive kiosks educate the visitor at the Panhandle Butterfly House. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Interpretive kiosks educate the visitor at the Panhandle Butterfly House. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Curious about the magical life of a butterfly? Learn all about these amazing insects as you explore the Panhandle Butterfly House in Navarre, Florida. The interactive facility will entertain and educate as you watch the colorful insects in action. Walk along the flowering pathways inside and outside the house, and you will have the opportunity to witness all phases of the butterflies’ life. You will also learn what types of plants are butterfly favorites such as milkweed, blanket flower, fennel, parsley.

Starting April 19, 2013 the Butterfly House is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Thursday, Friday and Saturday through Labor Day weekend. Tours for groups of 10 or more are available Monday through Wednesday and can be reserve at Click here to learn more.

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Explore nature at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Brackish water estuaries are host to a variety of migratory birds. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Eighty-year-old refuge a step back into old Florida

Imagine…. 68,000 acres of pristine Florida shoreline preserved for wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation. Sounds to good to be true, then you should head over to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge and step back time into the real Florida.

Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, St. Marks NWR was established back in 1931 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds. Located between the Ocholockonee and Aucilla Rivers along the Gulf coast of Northwest Florida, the refuge is home to abundant and rare wildlife that thrive within the coastal marshes, islands, tidal creeks, swamps and pristine upland forests.

The broad range of wildlife varies from month to month, for best viewing opportunities, click here.

The refuge has four geographical units:

St. Marks is home to the headquarters and new education center. A seven-mile scenic drive through fresh and brackish water will lead you to a historic lighthouse built in 1832, which is still in use. The Florida Trail runs through this section offering hiking and birding opportunities. Boat ramps, picnic tables and scenery make for an extraordinary nature experience.

Click here to continue.

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Explore natural wonders along the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve’s Garden of Eden Trail

Panoramic view of the Apalachicola River. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Get on your hiking boots, grab on to your trekking poles and head out to the Garden of Eden Trail. This 3.3 mi. steephead ravine and bluff in Bristol is one of Northwest Florida’s most beautiful hikes.

Situated adjacent to the Apalachicola River in Bristol, Florida, the trail is located within the Apalachicola Bluffs and Ravines Preserve. Owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy, the trail is open to the public for hiking from dawn to dusk, year-round.

The Trail begins along a restored long leaf pine/wiregrass upland area. Like most of Northwest Florida, this area was once cleared by timber production years ago. In 1985, the Nature Conservancy started restoration of this sandhill area, and today it boasts an abundance of long leaf, wiregrass and turkey oak. Click here to continue

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Enjoy the natural beauty of Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park

Anhinga suns itself at Wakullla Springs State Park. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Bring your camera and watch nature put on a spectacular show

Interested in viewing wildlife from the comfort of a pontoon boat? Head over to Wakulla Springs and watch nature put on a spectacular show at this beautiful Florida State park.

Weather permitting, this family oriented park offers guided riverboat tours 365 days a year. The 40-60 minute journey takes visitors on a three mile loop downstream and back among majestic bald cypress trees, elegant wading birds and toothy alligators. You might even spot a manatee or two during the winter months at this park chock full of wildlife. Cost of the tour is $8 for adults (13 years old and up), $5 for children (ages 3-12); under the age of three there is no charge. On those rare days (usually in late winter or early spring) when has a crystal clear quality, the ancient remains of great mastodons can be seen resting on the basin’s steep sandy slopes. Click here to continue

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A variety of nature trails await the explorer at Conservation Park in Panama City Beach

Boardwalks span over the wetlands at Conservation Park. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Looking for a great park to explore and hike a new trail? Then head over to the newly completed Conservation Park in Panama City Beach for a great little nature trek.

With more than 22 miles of trails, the newly completed Conservation Park in Panama City offers a variety of choices suited for both the bicyclist and hiker. There are several marked trails along with way finding kiosks to point the hiker in the right direction. More than a mile of boardwalks offer overlooks into the wetland areas with great views of pond cypress trees towering above. The park also boasts shaded picnic areas, an outdoor amphitheater, restrooms and ADA access. Click here to continue

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Something for everyone at St. Andrews State Park in Panama City Beach

A view of the Gulf from one of the trails at St. Andrews State Park. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

One of Florida’s top 10 parks chock full of adventure

It doesn’t take long to understand why St. Andrews State Park is consistently named one of the top ten parks in the State of Florida. With more than 1,200 acres to explore, this park offers something for everyone to enjoy.

For the nature lover, St. Andrews is host to salt marshes, sand pine scrub and rolling sand dunes along more than 1 ½ miles of beach on the Gulf of Mexico. The marsh areas are home to nesting snowy egrets, great egrets, blue herons and little blue herons. The park’s shoreline is the perfect habitat for nesting shorebirds as well such as least terns and snowy plovers. Other fauna commonly found in the park include white-tailed deer, gopher tortoise, raccoon, coyote, alligator, marsh rabbit and cottontail rabbit. Click here to continue

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Enjoy fern-covered ancient sinkholes at Falling Waters State Park

Self guided tour

Depending on what time of year you visit Falling Waters State Park, you may or may not view a cascading waterfall into a 100-foot deep ancient sinkhole, as the waterfall is dependent on the ground seepage from rainfall.

However, if you are a nature lover, don’t let the lack of a waterfall deter your interest in visiting this 173-acre State Park, as the geological wonders of the gigantic sinkholes are perhaps the most interesting feature this park provides. Click here to continue

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Paddle, hike, picnic and bird watch at Rocky Bayou State Park in Niceville

A view of Rocky Bayou from picnic area.Self guided tour

Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park, known by most as Rocky Bayou State Park sets nestled along State Road 20 in Niceville along Rocky Bayou. The park boasts 357 acres of wooded walking trails of sand pine scrub, longleaf pine, sand hill forests, pine flat woods and wetlands.

More than 100 different species of birds may be spotted in the diverse area, including kingfishers, ospreys, warblers and woodpeckers. Along one of the walking/biking trails, you will find an interpretive kiosk, which visually describes some of the many birds that can be found in the park.  Click to continue

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Rustic and diverse St. Joseph State Park a favorite for summertime scalloping

St. Joesph Bay a perfect habitat for birds, turtles and scallops.

St. Joesph Bay a perfect habitat for birds, turtles and scallops.

Self guided tour
At the north end of the 17-mile St. Joseph Peninsula, just past Cape San Blas, you will find a unique Florida State Park with 6 miles of pristine beaches nestled along enormous sand dunes.

Properly known as the T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, folks call this popular State Park St. Joseph Park for short.

Considered part of the “Forgotten Coast,” in the Port St. Joe area of the Florida Panhandle, you will experience three nature trails and a wilderness preserve to explore.

There are10 unique plant communities, including hammocks, pine woods, and lowland marsh areas.

As a coastal barrier peninsula, St. Joseph provides excellent opportunities for bird watching with more than 240 species sighted in the park.

Click here to continue

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Explore the natural beauty of St. Joseph Bay Buffer Preserve

As we explore Florida’s beautiful coastlines, we often take for granted the pristine areas that remain intact. With ever expanding urban and commercial growth, it is comforting to know some of the best of our coastal landscapes have been set aside for protection as aquatic preserves.

In the State of Florida, there are 41 of these special places with more than 2.2 million acres preserved by the Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Coastal and Aquatic Managed Areas (OCAMA).  OCAMA manages these aquatic preserves in coordination with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, three National Estuarine Research Reserves and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Click here to continue

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Ponce De Leon State Park offers a perfect place for a picnic and a cool swim

poncespring1

Just outside the Walton County line is one of the coolest places to take a dip in a spring, Ponce de Leon Springs State Park. As the water stays a constant 68 degrees Fahrenheit year-round, both locals and visitors enjoy this nature-made swimming pool, which is a convergence of two underground water flows, producing 14 million gallons of water daily.

Click here to continue

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Explore under and above the earth at Florida Caverns State Park

Boasting more than 1,300 acres, the Florida Caverns State Park has a much to offer visitors interested in the exploring the outdoors.

The caverns are the biggest draw to the park, with 32 caves nestled within the park; the largest open to the public for exploration.

The main cavern contains several rooms with dazzling formations of stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and other fascinating features including a towering formation called the “wedding cake.” Some other formations are shaped like ribbons and drapes, gently rippling down from the walls of the cavern. With a constant 65 degrees and 100 percent humidity, the cavern is an eerily stunning experience, and not to be missed.

Cavern tours are given every hour from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm CST Thursday through Monday, but not on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Florida Caverns State Park has a rich and long history as its beginnings date back to the early 1930s. The Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) developed the cave – removing stones, widened passages and also working on the visitor’s center that was completed in 1942. Back then, the Corps workers made $1.00/day for their labors during the Depression. Read more

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Explore military history at Fort Pickens

A cannon replica watches over Pensacola Bay at Fort Pickens. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Step back in time at historic barrier island fort

Located at the western end of Santa Rosa Island, Fort Pickens is an American military history relic. The largest of four forts built to defend Pensacola Bay and its navy yard from 1829 – 1947, the fort is located within magnificent Gulf Islands National Seashore, located in Mississippi and Florida.

Fort Pickens was built using a state-of-the-art European castle design, which was already proven successful along the east coast during the war of 1812. Built with skilled masons and slave labor with more than 2 ½ million locally supplied bricks, the fort held its defenses from wooden warships and cannons firing round balls. However, even the best design could not keep up with the swift development of weapon technology. Ten concrete gun batteries were built from the 1890s through the 1940s, each a response to a new threat. Atomic bombs, guided missiles, and long-range bombers made such forts obsolete by the end of World War II and the Army eventually abandoned the fort.

Moisture forms stalactites on the interior bricks of Fort Pickens. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Fort Pickens became part of a popular Florida State Park until the creation of Gulf Islands National Seashore in 1971. Following extensive repairs by the National Park Service, the fort was reopened in 1976. Click here for map.

Fort Pickens Area is open daily 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. The fort has ranger-guided tours at 2 p.m. daily. Self-guided tours are from 8 a.m. until sunset. The Fort Pickens Area also boasts beautiful hiking trails. Click here to read more

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Explore the life of flutterbys at the Panhandle Butterfly House

Interpretive kiosks educate the visitor at the Panhandle Butterfly House. Lori Ceier/Walton Outdoors

Curious about the magical life of a butterfly? Learn all about these amazing insects as you explore the Panhandle Butterfly House in Navarre, Florida. The interactive facility will entertain and educate as you watch the colorful insects in action. Walk along the flowering pathways inside and outside the house, and you will have the opportunity to witness all phases of the butterflies’ life. You will also learn what types of plants are butterfly favorites such as milkweed, blanket flower, fennel, parsley.

Starting April 19, 2013 the Butterfly House is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Thursday, Friday and Saturday through Labor Day weekend. Tours for groups of 10 or more are available Monday through Wednesday and can be reserve at www.panhandlebutterflyhouse.org.

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