Permanent Vanlife is still about one year away, so I decided to get a feel for it, by planning multiple one-week trips in the van, throughout the US Southeast.
Part of a 7-day trip to the Florida Panhandle in my Ford Transit Van Build. Day 2
Besides enjoyment, the goal of these multi-day journeys is also to get a sense of Vanlife and to add or change part of the setup in the van, if necessary.
Early winter mornings are exquisitely beautiful, when the fog dances above the water and the mist of a waterfall cools your face. Steinhatchee Falls is such a place.
Only a short drive from my overnight campsite, I arrive around 7AM to meet an empty parking lot. This is not a heavy frequented park with little more to do than watch the falls. A short trail northward was difficult to find and not maintained; after a few hundred feet I return to the falls.
Immediately above the falls you’ll find the remains of Old Bellamy Road, the first major U.S. federal highway in early territorial Florida; migrants used this route into Florida, as early as the 1800’s. If you look closely, you can see where it continues, on the other side of the river.
Hagens Cove Park
A fairly remote park on the Gulf coast of Florida, offers great views of the Gulf and with low tide, extensive mud flats. On this February morning, I’m the only person here, exploring the watch tower and several pavilions. I wouldn’t mind spending the day here with some friends and a BBQ.
A few hundred yards to the north, there is another small park. It must be busy here in summer.
Hampton Sulphur Springs Resort
In 1908 the 70-room Hampton Springs Hotel opened its doors and flourished for many years, until the novelty of healing powers eventually disappeared.
The ruins of this miracle spring resort contain only remnants of the fountain, bathhouse and pool, but with a little imagination you can see the elaborate gardens, tennis courts and even a casino.
When I visited, I was again the only person there, except for the host, who lives on the property. The site has been unattended for many years and vandalism occurred. If some minimal maintenance is not done, this lovely part of history may soon be gone. It is a small park, with the ruins and a walking bridge over the river and a short trail. The pool is clearly visible and the accompanying foul smell will undoubtedly stay with you for the rest of the day.
St. Marks NWR & Lighthouse
St. Marks NWR is a great place to hike and see birds. I arrived here on an early winter morning with a nice breeze and decided to concentrate on the lighthouse area. With only a few other visitors around me, it was still possible to find quiet places to walk or sit, without being disturbed and let the wind blow around me while watching a flock of American Coots.
In the 1820’s, the town of St. Marks, was a major port with an early road to the then territorial capital of Tallahassee. Later improved upon by the Tallahassee Railroad Company, it would become the state’s first railroad.
With many ships running aground while navigating the Apalachee Bay and the St. Marks River, a lighthouse was built in 1831. The Lighthouse was automated in 1960 and remained an active aid to navigation for vessels on the Apalachee Bay until 2016.
The refuge was established in 1931 as a wintering ground for migratory birds and one of the oldest wildlife refuges in the United States.
Cathedral Palms Trail
An unassuming spot along the highway accommodates a few cars and is the starting point of this trail. A small kiosk in the woods behind it gives some basic info and before I know, I follow the blue blazes on the trees. It is a wide track and likely a former road through a fairly open forest. Soon the highway noise disappears and sounds of birds and wind blowing through the tree tops, will be my only companion.
My blue blazes change into orange and I am close to following the Florida trail.
A change of direction gets me on a narrow trail through trees and scrub palmettos; I encounter only a few wet spots that I easily circumvent. Joey on the contrary, wants to show me that mud on his paws, is an acceptable part of trail behavior. I know a bath is in his future.
After 2.5 miles a narrow, shabby boardwalk leads me to beautiful spring. The clear water and the flat surface can be enjoyed from a small bench, where I can relax for a few minutes and give some water to Joey. I thought, I already should have walked through the ‘cathedral’ of palms and decided to return to the van. I later become aware that these special palms were only about 0.2 mi further down the trail. That is certainly worth to come back to, a next time.
Butcher Pen Landing campsite
I don’t like arriving at my campsite in the dark, but a long day and few daylight hours caught me at the highway turnoff when the night fell. And only five more, uncertain miles to go on a one-track, unpaved, rough road. Than there was the battle of the two GPS’s, that led me in different directions. Fortunately I arrived at Butcher Pen Landing campground in one piece, but it was too late to explore the area. I was just glad that I made it.
- Steinhatchee Falls ➜ 29.746170, -83.342604
- Hagens Cove Park ➜ 29.772461, -83.579447
- Hampton Sulphur Springs Resort ➜ 30.081828, -83.660314
- St.Marks NWR Lighthouse ➜ 30.073740, -84.179615
- Cathedral Palms TH ➜ 30.121119, -84.315110
- Butcher Pen Landing campsite ➜ 29.803387, -84.967016
CATHEDRAL PALMS TRAIL
5.25 mi – Out & Back
I returned when I got to a beautiful natural spring, but if you continue another 0.2 mi, you’ll reach a cathedral-like forest of sable palms.