Dating back to 1656, Mission San Luis is truly one of Florida’s great archeological treasures. It’s the only restored Spanish mission site of a string of missions that once stretched from St. Augustine to Pensacola, where Spanish settlers in period garb go about their daily duties of tending the friary, looking after the church, minding the fort, and raising crops (and children) in the village.
The reconstructed Apalachee council house is one of my favorite structures anywhere: it looks like a giant wooden volcano, complete with smoke curling out of the top. Managed by the Department of State, this archeological site belongs to the people of Florida, and admission is free—although if you are coming to tour the entire site and not just walk the Julia Munroe Woodward Nature Trail, please do follow their suggested donation. It’s well worth the immersion in history that you’ll receive.
Length: 0.3 miles
Lat-Long: 30.450993, -84.318922
Fees / Permits: $5 adults, $3 seniors 65+, $2 ages 6-17, Free for under 6, members, and active military
Good for: archeology, birding, geology, history
Bug factor: low
Restroom: At the visitor center as well as near the former visitor center
Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
This trail is particularly steep, and there are portions with roots sticking out of the footpath, so watch your footing. Be aware that poison ivy may grow along the edges of the footpath. The nature trail is not wheelchair accessible, but the rest of the grounds are.
For more information, visit the Mission San Luis website.
From the junction of US 27 (Monroe St) and US 90 in downtown Tallahassee, follow US 90 (W Tennessee Street) west for 2.6 miles to the brand new entrance on the right at 2100 W Tennessee Street. Enter the property through the new visitor center. Be sure to check out the exhibits before you roam the mission site!
Your hike starts at the “Julia Munroe Woodward Nature Trail” sign back against a limestone wall at the edge of a grassy area near the reconstructed Spanish village, past the village gardens. A short stile steps you the wall and into the woods, where the trail clings to the steep slopes of this tall Tallahassee hill— the tallest hill in the region, chosen as both meeting place for the Apalachee and later the site of the Spanish mission.
For a short distance, the trail stays close to the wall, losing elevation as it heads deeper into this lush slope forest. Blue blazes mark the trail, but the footpath is well-worn—you won’t lose track of it, and in fact, you can see places where water seeps across the trail when the water table is high. Birdsong fills the air.
The trail is deeply shaded, dense with water oak, magnolia, and hickory, and drops down the slope rapidly. In the understory, you’ll see many short trees with glossy leaves and bright red berries—the yaupon holly, which the Timucua used to prepare their “black drink,” cassina, used to purge before ceremonies and battles. Woodlands phlox peeps up amongst the southern lady ferns.
After 0.1 mile, the trail jogs sharply left, and you reach a sinkhole. This low spot is where water from the seepage springs above percolates and disappears. Just uphill from the sinkhole are a variety of structures created over the years to keep water from the seeps where people could make use of it. The first one you pass is the spring house, on the right. While the spring house no longer has a roof, you can see water inside the foundation; it’s fenced in so you don’t take a plunge. A former brick well and pump house provided water for the latter-day settlers who lived here, perhaps as early as the Randolph plantation that occupied the hilltop in the 1860s. In earlier times, the Timucua and Spanish settlers would have walked down the hill to obtain water. Since most of the trees in these woods are relatively young, it’s unlikely the slope was heavily forested a century ago.
Beyond the pump house, there is a bench sitting up on a high perch up the hill on your left, a good place to quietly sit and watch (and listen) for warblers and other songbirds that flit around the seepage springs. The trail makes a sharp jog to the left before beginning its last steep ascent through a segment marked as the Via Cubierta (“covered way”) where – while the fortress was occupied – soldiers had a way to walk down to the springs beneath some sort of roof or canopy. Loblolly pines rise well overhead, and roots snake through the footpath, providing virtual stairs for climbing up the steep slope. Mulberry shades the footpath with its massive leaves. Reaching the open grassy hilltop, the trail emerges just below the reconstructed fortress walls.