The word “Florida” typically conjures up images of sandy beaches and palm trees, but Tallahassee isn’t your average destination in the Sunshine State. Florida’s Capital City is more Southern Charm and less South Beach—from its personality and people to its landscape. It is forests, gardens, limestone sinks, springs and lakes. I’m embarrassed to say I had never experienced much of Tallahassee’s native beauty, but my wife, Ashley, convinced me it was time to get off the couch and go exploring. We embarked on a month-long outdoor odyssey, vowing to spend each weekend outside.
Week 1: Leon Sinks
Known for its unusual landscape of limestone caverns, sinkholes and tunnels, the Leon Sinks Geological Area is a beautiful hidden gem located in the Apalachicola National Forest, a primordial landscape filled with tall pines above and the spiked green fronds of palmetto bushes below.
Ashley decided the sinks would make for a great afternoon hike, since it consisted of three hiking trails, together less than five miles long. Ash grabbed my hand as we walked under the ancient pines, the trail rising and falling with the hills and dips of the land, and the breeze gently rustling the leaves above us. The forest was thick with towering pines, yet sunny gold rays managed to pierce through the canopy. We walked on boardwalks through cypress-filled ponds, and past several limestone rock formations jutting up from the ground. But nothing compared to seeing the turquoise water-filled sinks, or sinkholes that have become beautiful pools.
“Wow,” Ashley said as we gazed down at the gigantic Big Dismal Sink. “The shadows from the trees make these look like geodes.”
I could see what she meant; the water sparkled in the sun, and shades of cerulean and sapphire could be seen on a smooth, glassy surface.
“To think, these have been here my entire life,” I remarked to Ashley, sheepishly. She looked at me with an “I told you so” smirk.
Week 2: Maclay Gardens
For the second weekend of our odyssey, Ashley wanted to do something a little different. Tucked in the very heart of Northeast Tallahassee, Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park—known for its beautiful gardens, brick walkways, nature trails, lake and the Maclay House—isn’t an ordinary state park. Although the tall hedges and stately trees would have made this park gorgeous year-round, we managed to hit Maclay Gardens at just the right time: high blooming season in mid-late March. The brilliant colors of purple, white and red azaleas filled the garden grounds, the gardens of which made for a nice casual stroll on a sunny day. Ashley, who makes our own home beautiful with her green thumb, was completely in her element. When we found the secret garden filled with yellow and purple annuals, Ashley said, “It’s like something from a fairytale.”
From the Maclay House, we turned to see the reflection pool with Lake Hall mirrored in its waters. We walked closer to the pool and looked at each other’s reflections, smiling at our reversed selves. While the lush gardens could have us wandering for hours, we heard the call of Lake Hall, and decide to hike along a rustic, nature trail around the lake. With every step, it became clear that we found a quiet, natural oasis in the form of a perfect urban escape.
Week 3: Lafayette Passage Trail
There was stillness to the air as the kayaks we rented from The Wilderness Way slowly made their way through the Lafayette Passage Paddling Trail on our third weekend out—our paddles dipping into the water made the only sound. We started the tranquil trail, a 7.8-mile excursion through cypress-filled lakes, on the eastern end of the Lower Lake Lafayette. We floated along through the reeds with ease as we followed the lake’s edge. Now and then, a dragonfly would hum along and land on the tip of my kayak before flittering off into the shorelines.
“Now, this is peace,” I said, briefly breaking the natural silence.
When we entered Lake Lafayette, we spotted several types of waterfowl, like ducks and gallinules, resting and wading near the banks. At times, the cypress trees along the trail formed natural barriers around us, as if the trees were guiding us along. Ash stopped paddling so she could snap a few photos of the cypress limbs that had formed a canopy above us. A simple pleasure close to town, where nature surrounds you—the marks of a great trail.
Week 4: Wakulla Springs
Our final destination for the last weekend of the month was Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, located just 14 miles south of Tallahassee. Made famous for being the on-location filming spot in the early 1940s Tarzan movies, these days, the spring is the true star of the show.
We decided to brave the cool waters and jump off the high dive into the aquamarine and seafoam-tinted spring, which is so large it looks like a lake. Even in the cooler months, the spring maintains a firm 72-degree temperature. With my toes curled around the edge of the wooden platform, I looked down at the blue abyss of the Wakulla Springs Cave submersed below, took a deep breath and closed my eyes before jumping. I surfaced quickly, yelling and laughing, “Ashley, jump! It’s your turn and the water is great!”
She splashed down and yelled out—a few colorful metaphors escaping her lips. I gave her a little hug and we swam back to shore—me for another dive, and Ashley to watch.
We drove back toward Tallahassee with the windows down and the sun setting into the pine trees along the road. Ashley propped her feet on the dash and smiled, her eyes closing and her hair damp as she took a deep breath of fresh air.
“This is better than a weekend on the couch, isn’t it?” Ashley said, with that same sly smile, knowing she’s right.
“Yep, you’re right. I think I’m a true native now,” I replied.
We had an entire month of outdoor excursions, but realized we had more to see—more paddling trails, more parks and more hiking to do. The more you explore the Capital City, the more little secrets and hidden gems you find among the pines.
So, if you’re looking for a place to start your outdoor adventure in Tallahassee, these four will get you started: