St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

St. Marks Unit

Directions: From US 98 in Newport follow signs on CR 59 for 3.7 miles to the Refuge Nature Center. The road winds 6.5 miles from a mixed hardwood/pine forest at the Visitor’s Center across a vast salt marsh dotted with large manmade pools to the historic St. Marks Lighthouse on Apalachee Bay.

Description: Covering more than 68,000 acres of land and 31,000 acres of bay, the Refuge is internationally recognized for its more than 300 species of birds.  The Refuge also has strong ties to a rich cultural past and is home to the St. Marks Lighthouse, which was built in 1832 and is still in use today. Excellent birding at Refuge ponds along the road.  Outstanding nature trails and viewing platforms.  Excellent migratory waterfowl viewing in fall and winter months.  Wildflowers in spring and fall plus Monarch and other butterfly migration in fall.  Visit the Nature Center first for information and to check the daily bird sightings for unusual species.

Activities: Birding, hiking, fishing, bicycling, boating, kayaking, nature photography, wildlife viewing.

“¨Facilities:  Nature center, book/gift store, bathrooms, drinking water, classroom, picnic areas, boat ramps.

Minimum time to allow: One hour.
Fee: Yes.
Golden Eagle passport accepted.
Hours: Sunrise to sunset. Arrive early or late for best wildlife viewing.
Contact: P: 850-925-6121
saintmarks@fws.gov
fws.gov/saintmarks

Return to the Byway (US 98) and head west.  The Wakulla County Newport Park on the north side of the road almost directly opposite the road to the Refuge offers camping, picnic facilities, bathrooms, a boat
launch, and a boardwalk on the St. Marks River.  A marker at the park entrance notes that the old town of Magnolia was established about two miles from the park.  Boat rentals are available on the northwest side
of the river (look for the painted Manatee on the roof).  In the 1800s the St. Marks River provided the basis for a lucrative cotton transport business, which in turn supported the establishment of five towns along
the river bank.  Newport (originally called New Port when it was founded to replace Port Leon following a disastrous hurricane) became an economic center with as many as 1,500 inhabitants and a dozen large
stores, warehouses, wharves, and stills.  Newport was designated the county seat in 1844.  In 1846 the Wakulla Hotel was built next to a sulfur spring (at a site on Plank Road one mile north from the intersection with US 98) and was marketed as a health resort for the allegedly medicinal quality of the mineral water.  The town was seriously damaged during the Civil War.  Once Florida’s second largest
city, Newport had fewer than 30 residents by 1872.  Newport revived for a few years during World War II when PT boats were built near there on the St. Marks River.

From the river continue west on the Coastal Highway for 2.5 miles to the intersection with Port Leon Drive (SR 363).  Turn left (south) on the Byway to visit the City of St. Marks, Tallahassee-St. Marks Historic Railroad Trail State Park, and Fort San Marcos de Apalache.

Skipper Bay Road, Panacea Unit

Approximately 1.8 miles farther south on US 98 you will reach the turnoff on the left to Skipper Bay Road, a graded but very narrow and unpaved lane leading to Skipper Bay. Roughly 1 mile down this road, look carefully to see a number of “cat-faced” turpentine trees. Some actually still have the tin drains attached and are the best surviving remnant along the Byway of the important turpentine and naval stores industry that once characterized the area. Skipper Bay Road continues over a small bridge with views of a vast salt marsh full of Fiddler Crabs and then enters a hardwood hammock of giant oaks draped in moss before ending at Skipper Bay, which once was the site of one of the area’s several mullet seineyards. Caution: this road is beautiful, but it is deeply rutted in places and should not be attempted in rainy weather. There are no public facilities, just magnificent views of Old Florida scenery.

Bottoms Road, Panacea Unit

Continue along the Byway on US 98 for 2 miles and turn left onto Bottoms Road just before entering the town of Panacea. Only 2.5 miles long, this road passes through the Refuge along Dickerson Bay and offers fantastic marsh views. This is an excellent birding spot where you may find large congregations of White Pelicans in winter, Marsh Hawks in the fall, Marsh Wrens, Clapper Rails, and a wide variety of shore birds in spring. In summer you might even spot a Roseate Spoonbill. Birding or not, the view alone is worth the drive. A boat ramp at the end of the road offers fishermen direct access to the Bay. You can also park there and walk along the beach or road. At nightӬBottoms Road is a great place for star-gazing.