Located about 25 miles south of Tallahassee, the coast near the St Marks Lighthouse in the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge offers ample opportunity to test or practice your paddling skills. The coastal environment ranges from protected estuaries to the open Gulf of Mexico. The water depth is quite shallow, sometimes only one to two feet up to 1/2 mile off shore. A few large freshwater impoundments are open seasonally in the interior of the refuge, offering a chance for the paddler to observe a full spectrum of wildlife.
Eagles, osprey, sandpipers, herons, etc. abound. Alligators are also abundant in the freshwater and brackish areas of the park. Manatee are present year round in this area and are frequently observed from the in areas from the lighthouse to the upper reaches of the St Marks and Wakulla rivers.
Kayaks are most frequently launched from the area adjacent to the lighthouse parking lot. This is an excellent launch if the tide is high enough. In the event of low tide, Launching is easier from the boat ramp about 1/2 mile northeast of the lighthouse.
An excellent route to paddle is to head ENE after rounding the lighthouse point and visit Palmetto Island. This is a 1/2 half acre island about 4.2 miles from the lighthouse. The clarity of the water allows the paddler to observe the grass beds and oyster bars along the shallow coast. Caution is required to avoid running aground at low tide. Occasionally you may have to paddle up to 1/2 mile off the visible shore line to float your kayak.
Palmetto Island, located at N 30.05.077 W084.06.835, is crescent shaped, with a sand and spartina grass beach area for landing on the Gulf side and a marsh area on the mainland facing side. It resembles the image of a desert island, with a few palm trees for shade and sparse patches of salt tolerant grasses. It is a comfortable place to stretch your legs and have a light lunch under the shade of the palm trees.
If paddling in this area during the tide changes, caution should be used when passing the mouths of the sloughs. Occasionally when the winds and tides are in opposite directions, standing waves are formed that could challenge the unaware.
Another interesting route to paddle, especially on an incoming tide, is to head north from the lighthouse area toward Pelican Point. Oyster bars are frequent in this shallow area. Passing Pelican Point, bear right and the channel will narrow into the salt marsh. Fishing can be excellent here, but power boaters in shallow draft craft are present.
It is also possible to paddle up the St. Marks River from the launch point. This paddle will maximize your opportunity to spot a manatee.
Within the refuge is a small visitor center with restroom facilities and information about the wildlife frequently seen. Hiking trails, picnic areas, wildlife observation towers, and rest rooms are located along lighthouse road leading to the launch area.
There are no rest rooms at the launch or lighthouse.
The community of St Marks has a full service marina and several seafood restaurants. The Riverside Cafe is one of my favorites. Along Woodville Highway, the Kast Net restaurant is another family owned and operated restaurant with very good food.
Just south of Tallahassee, on the east side of Woodville Highway is the Wilderness Way Outfitters shop. This is a full service outfitter run by great people.
A $5.00 per vehicle entry fee or a $15.00 per vehicle visitors pass is requred for entrance to the refuge.
Drive south from Tallahassee, FL on State Road 363 (Woodville Highway) to US 98. Turn left on US 98 and go about 5 miles to the St Marks River bridge. After crossing the bridge go about 400 yards and turn right on Lighthouse Road. This is clearly marked with signs to the refuge visitor center and the lighthouse.
St. Marks Naational Wildlifew Refuge
PO Box 68
St Marks, Florida 32355