Back-Road Trip: Highway 98 (Tallahassee to Apalachicola)

Plug these detour-worthy destinations into your GPS

Photo: Courtesy of Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce

The route: Start in Tallahassee and head south on FL 363 for about fifteen miles before hanging a right onto US 98-W to Apalachicola.

Built in 1933, this rural length of Highway 98 in the Panhandle winds travelers through the heart of old Florida and for the bulk of the scenic 60-mile run hugs the Gulf of Mexico. Dubbed the “Forgotten Coast” by locals—it was left off the tourist maps back in the nineties—this quiet stretch managed to avoid the Sunshine State condo craze. Instead, there’s the Apalachicola National Forest, St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge, Tate’s Hell State Forest, and Wakulla Springs State Park. And closer to Apalachicola, in Franklin County, where more than 85% of the land is either state or federally protected, you’ll find pristine marshlands, unspoiled sugar-white beaches, and some of the best oysters in the country.

If you go, plug these detour-worthy destinations into your GPS.

Wakulla Springs State Park: Just off FL-363, south of Tallahassee, take a right onto Bloxham Cutoff Road and follow signs to the park. Home to one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world, the park offers glass bottom boat tours, and in warmer months, you can swim with the manatees or cannonball off the dive platform into the crystal clear waters. Visit the Wakulla Springs Lodge. Built in 1937, the Mediterranean Revival meets Art Deco building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

T-n-T Hideaway: To paddle the Wakulla River seek out this third-generation family-run outfitter. (T-n-T will be on your left just before you cross the river on 98, headed west.) They carry stand-up paddleboards, kayaks, canoes, and offer guided eco-tours.

Carrabelle Beach: Though 98 sticks close to the shoreline there isn’t a wealth of beach access along the route. Dip your toes into the Gulf via this sleepy strip of sand about a mile and a half from downtown Carabelle. Pack a lunch and catch some shade at the retro-1950s beachside picnic pavilion.

St. George Island: Nearing Eastpoint, veer left onto FL-300 to cross Apalachicola Bay onto St. George Island. (The view from the bridge alone is worth the trip.) 28-miles long, just 2 miles across at its widest point, this quiet narrow spit is one of the state’s last inhabited yet unspoiled barrier islands. Cruise to St. George Island State Park on the east end of the island, where you’ll discover 9-miles of wild windswept beach. This time of year, there’s a good chance you’ll have the place to yourself. There are two natural boat ramps for easy access to Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf if you’re looking to paddle or wet a line.

Hungry? Time to start thinking about those famous Apalachicola oysters. Apalachicola Bay produces ninety percent of Florida oysters and is one of the last places in the country where they’re still hauled in using tongers. These oysters are rich, plump, salty, and sweet.

On St. George, slurp down a dozen or two of the briny bivalves at Eddy Teach’s Raw Bar—served raw, steamed, or grilled. Wash’em down with a (cheap) ice-cold beer. Post meal, make your way to the beachside tiki bar at the Blue Parrot Oceanfront Café and order a classic Rum Runner or the Sand Blaster, an in-house invention of mango, blackberry, lime juice, and rum. Your pups are welcome at both establishments.

Apalachicola: Get back on 98 and continue west to this historic fishing hamlet. “Apalach,” as the locals call it, is old Florida at its finest, with a working waterfront, primeval salt marshes, oaks and Spanish moss, a busy little downtown, and beautifully restored homes.

Downtown: Book a room at the Gibson Inn. You’re going to want to relax here and stay awhile. Then head out on foot to explore the rest of town. Pop in locally owned Downtown Books and Purl for everything from bestselling beach reads to Florida field guides. And you can’t go wrong with either the Owl Cafe or Caroline’s River Dining, which is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

More oysters? Boss Oyster is a sure bet. The riverside seafood shack has in-house oystermen to guarantee freshness. Watch them pull your bivalves off the boat and straight into the kitchen from your seat on the deck. Or hit Papa Joe’s. No outdoor dining here, but you’ll feel right at home at the neighborhood bar, where there are oysters aplenty.

Cast a line: Apalachicola offers prime sport fishing opportunities too. And nobody knows the local water quite as well as Tommy and Chris Robinson and their team at Robinson Brothers Guide Service.

Remember to leave time to explore the region on your own. Maybe even turn off that GPS for a while. Sometimes wrong turns yield the best discoveries.

More Back-Road Trips:
>Outer Banks Scenic Byway
>Mississippi Delta’s Blues Highway