The only thing we knew we really wanted to do in Tallahassee was visit the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. I knew I wanted to go in the morning for the best lighting and the first day it rained so we decided to go for the next morning.
We went early but not too early. There was no line or anything to get in and it was a really easy drive. The visitor center was closed, as was the lighthouse, but everything else was open.
Our first stop was the Tower Pond area where we did the short hike (super short, more of a walk) to the viewing deck. We saw an alligator here but that was it.
It was also really cold right here. The Tower Pond Trailhead is at the same parking area so we decided to do that since it wasn’t that long either.
It’s a pretty flat trail through the pine woods and around Tower Pond. There was a birding blind that we stopped at then just watched some birds on the dike side of the pond.
The trail is just a 1.1 mile loop so you end right on the trail you started on. As we were leaving the Tower Pond Trail some other people told us there were some gators just before the Tower Pond area. Obviously we had to go look for them.
When we did find them we got to see a whole gaggle of the cutest little baby gators! There were five or six babies and their mom just hanging out on the shore, doing a little swimming and they were SO CUTE! I love them.
Also, just in case you’re wondering, a group of alligators is actually called a congregation (same for crocodiles).
After maybe ten minutes watching the babies we headed down the road to see what else was there. We turned in at the boat launch and walked the short Cedar Point Trail to a nice little beachy area.
Finally we made it to the lighthouse. It wasn’t open so we couldn’t go in but we did get to see a heron and some muddy water.
We didn’t spend much time here but it looked like a nice lighthouse from the outside I suppose. From here we just headed back out and decided to stop at Wakulla Springs State Park on our way back to the AirBnb.
We, uhh, didn’t love it. But we also weren’t there to swim (I get my dislike for water activities from both of them). We walked a little bit of trail and it just wasn’t that great.
The wildlife refuge was definitely the highlight of the day but it was still just ok compared to our trip to Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge a couple years before.
Where is the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge?
The St. Marks Wildlife Refuge is on the coast of the panhandle. It’s about 35 minutes from Tallahassee, an hour and a half from Apalachicola and just over two hours from Panama City.
What kind of wildlife is at the St. marks Wildlife Refuge?
There are tons of critters that you can see at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge but it’s not guaranteed, of course. It is wildlife after all. Here are some animals that call the refuge home.
- Florida Black Bears
- Southern Bald Eagles
- Eastern Indigo Snake
- Peregrine Falcon
- Frosted Flatwoods Salamander
How long is the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge drive?
The main scenic drive at St. Marks is right around 7 miles one way. It isn’t a loop so you’ll have a second chance to make stops on your way back out.
Between roads, hikes, levees, trails, and all that, there are more than 150 miles of paths of some sort in the refuge for visitor enjoyment. Most people stick to the main road on a short visit, though.
How much is the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge?
The daily entrance fee is $6 per vehicle but if you have a national park pass, that will get you in. An annual pass for just the refuge is available for $25 as well. There is a $2 entrance fee for the lighthouse if it’s open and you want to go in.
When is the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge open?
The refuge is open everyday during daylight hours. The gate on Lighthouse Road opens at 6AM.
Things to do at the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge
While the main scenic drive is short, there is plenty to do along the way from hiking to biking and birding to boating. Whatever you like to do outdoors, you can probably do it here. In addition to what I’ve listed below, you can hunt, fish, and join interpretive programs as well.
Visit the St. Marks Lighthouse
At the end of the scenic drive you’ll find the St. Marks Lighthouse. As of right now (July 2021) lighthouse tours are still cancelled, but they are usually running the first Friday and following Saturday of every month as well as every Tuesday.
I’m not sure if that means the first Friday and Saturday or first Friday and second Saturday though. To be sure of when it’s open before you visit, you can all 850 925 6121.
Drive the scenic road
The scenic road is how you access any trails, the lighthouse, or levees. It’s 6.5ish miles from beginning to end and has plenty of wildlife spotting opportunities.
Any of the roads and levees along this road can also be hiked. The whole road is paved so any car can do it. You’ll want to drive slow to keep an eye out for wildlife.
If you see any wildlife along the road, pull over before getting out to look at it, don’t just stop in the road because it’s annoying and just not safe.
Do some birding
This is a great place to go birding in Florida! There are so many birds you can see here, it’s crazy. We didn’t see tons of variety this time (shocker if you’ve ready any of my shelling posts from this trip) but there were still a lot.
Here are some of the birds at St. Marks Wildlife Refuge: (full list here)
- Red throated loon
- Common loon
- Brown pelican
- Great blue heron
- Tricolored heron
- Least bittern
- White ibis
- Glossy ibis
- American kestrel
- Wild turkey
- Green heron
- Wood stork
- Roseate spoonbill
- Tundra swan
- Canada goose
- Black scoter
- Bald eagle
- Golden eagle
- Red-tailed hawk
Hike the Tower Pond Trail
This was a nice hike. It’s easy and a little bit longer than the next two. It was a little confusing but most of the side trails end and you just back track out to the main one.
This is a 1.1 mile trail with a whopping 13 feet of elevation gain. It takes you around a nice pond that is great for birdwatching. You may see some alligators as well.
One of the little side trails even takes you to a birding blind so you can hide and watch or photograph birds without them seeing you.
Hike the short Headquarters Pond Trail
This short trail takes you to a little gazebo overlooking Headquarters Pond. This is a good spot to look for birds. You can also see a sign warning about alligators with braille on it but the braille is flat. Super helpful.
Walk the Cedar Point Trail
This is a nice and short trail, just half a mile, just before the lighthouse by the Saltwater boat ramp. It only has three feet of elevation change and takes you to a nice little beachy area. It’s not super exciting but I liked it.
What to bring to the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge
Sunscreen – If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen. I like the Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch a lot AND it’s reef safe! If you’re sensitive to fragrance though, it’s not a good choice. I also like the same one but specifically for your face.
Long sleeve shirt – A long sleeve shirt will help protect you from mosquitos. This is a must for a summer visit, but not 100% necessary for January and February, but it would be helpful.
Good hiking shoes – If you’re sticking to boardwalks and other dry trails, Chacos will be good. If you want to go in the water or flooded areas, you’ll want closed toe shoes so you don’t get cut by sawgrass. Chaco Odysseys with socks are my favorite for hiking in Florida.
Is the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge worth it?
Mostly. We really didn’t see a whole lot. The baby gators were the highlight for sure. The hikes were nice. We may have just been unlucky and didn’t see much but it’s not my favorite of the wildlife refuges I’ve been to in Florida so far.
If you have some time in Tallahassee and want to do something outside, this would be a good option. The trails weren’t super busy which was nice. It’s not at the top of my Florida bucket list, but it’s got a spot on there.
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Have you been to the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge? What did you think of it? What wildlife did you see there?