Along the coastline of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is a rich estuary environment with scattered small beaches, tidal creeks, and islands, fed by major rivers and fringed by coastal pine forests and palm hammocks.
But the refuge extends well inland, too. Extensive pine flatwoods surround depression marshes and cypress-lined ponds where the refuge boundaries touch surrounding public lands like the Apalachicola National Forest and Ochlockonee River State Park.
Location: St. Marks
Trailhead: 30.163435, -84.155153
Address: 1255 Lighthouse Rd, St. Marks
Fees: $5 vehicle, $1 bicycle or pedestrian
Restrooms: at the visitor center and Tower Pond
Land manager: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Open sunrise to sunset. The gate on Lighthouse Rd opens at 6 AM and closes after dark. Be alert to alligators along the refuge trails as they are a common sight.
Entry fees only apply in the St. Marks Unit (east of the St. Marks River), where the Visitor Center is located.
National Park Passes and Federal Duck Stamps are honored for admission. An annual pass for the refuge can be purchased for $25.
The main access to St. Marks NWR is from Lighthouse Road in Newport along US 98. From Tallahassee, take SR 363 south to Wakulla. Turn left on SR 267. At the T with US 98, turn left.
A prominent entrance sign points to Lighthouse Road just after you cross the St. Marks River on the highway bridge. Continue 3.7 miles to the Visitor Center, stopping at the fee station to pay your entrance fee.
The refuge encompasses three separate units. Each unit has its own separate access points and trailheads, all of which are off of US 98.
The directions above are for the St. Marks Unit. It is the primary unit and is the most heavily visited, thanks to its historic lighthouse and access to a broad array of hiking and multi-use trails. It is also the only unit to charge an entrance fee.
The Panacea Unit is along US 98, surrounding Otter Lake and stretching northwest to Ochlockonee Bay and Sopchoppy. It borders both sides of Surf Road and touches the boundary of Ochlockonee River State Park.
The Aucilla Unit bounds the Aucilla River at the county line between Wakulla and Jefferson counties along US 98. It includes river access and a very wild segment of the Florida Trail at the eastern edge of the refuge. Boat ramp fees apply at the Aucilla River.
Ancient habitation sites are an important reason why St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge protects this coastline. Human history runs deep along the Big Bend, with some of the earliest artwork in the Americas discovered along the Aucilla River.
Shell mounds within the estuary have yielded artifacts from the Archaic Period and the Weeden Island Period. The Tower Pond Trail walks through layers of archeological deposits from four different time periods.
Built in 1831, the St. Marks Lighthouse played an important role during the Civil War. It is a National Register property that opens on occasion for tours.
During the Civil War, local families boiled seawater to make salt for Confederate troops. Remains of these salt-making operations still sit on high ground in the estuaries.
Timber and Railroads
In 1837, one of Florida’s earliest railroads, the Tallahassee to St. Marks, connected to the town of Port Leon along the Wakulla River.
A bustling port, Port Leon became the county seat of Wakulla County in 1843. Six months later, both the town and the coastal portion of the railroad were wiped out by a hurricane and storm surge.
Established in the early 1900s for logging the cypress and pine out of this region, the Live Oak, Perry & Gulf Railroad extended east to the logging community of Flintrock.
Once the bounty of the forests were tapped out, the community evaporated and the railroad closed down operations. The Florida Trail follows part of the railroad route.
Pines that were not removed were tapped for naval stores, including turpentine. To establish the refuge in the 1930s, the federal government bought a swath of pine flatwoods along the Wakulla River from Phillips Turpentine Company.
Civilian Conservation Corps
The levees you walk at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge today are there because of the backbreaking labor of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
The men of Camp BF-1 built the infrastructure for what was then called the St. Marks Migratory Bird Refuge. BF-1 was one of the few segregated camps of African-Americans in the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Opening in 1933 in Newport, the camp closed briefly in 1934 because of an outbreak of malaria. Both yellow fever and malaria plagued Florida swamps until active management of wetlands for mosquito control came along.
Reopening farther away from the swamps in Woodville, the camp continued to provide its workers a steady income as they built the impoundments, firebreaks, levees, and dams you see at the refuge today.
Camp BF-1 closed in 1942 with the onset of World War II. Most of the land-based infrastructure that the CCC workers built – with picks and shovels, and limited heavy equipment – remains.
Wildlife at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
Birders find St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge a compelling destination, as it’s easy to take fabulous photographs of wading birds from the trails on the refuge levees. You’ll also see a large number of alligators.
In October, the refuge celebrates the annual monarch butterfly migration. Thousands of butterflies cover blooming shrubs as they stop for a meal before winging their way across the Gulf of Mexico to their final destination in Mexico.
Hiking at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
Short nature trails let you sample the habitats found along the Big Bend. All of these trails can be accessed from Lighthouse Rd. The Visitor Center has an accessible boardwalk and overlook over Plum Orchard Pond.
The Primitive Trails are a series of marked loops off Lighthouse Road that lead hikers along forest roads and levees. The Deep Creek Trail makes a 12 mile loop, while the Stoney Bayou Trail is a 6.5 mile loop.
Both are excellent choices for wildlife watching and some of the best panoramas views you’ll find by foot along the Big Bend coastline. Both trails can also be biked. A portion of both the Deep Creek and Stoney Bayou Trails shares the coastal route with the Florida Trail.
The Florida Trail at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
The Florida Trail crosses all of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge east-west, providing the only backpacking experience in America within an National Wildlife Refuge. The views from this coastal section of the Florida Trail are simply outstanding.
Thanks to many trailheads easily accessed from US 98, day hiking portions of the Florida Trail in the refuge is easy to do. These are segments of the Florida Trail which we describe in detail.
Bicycling at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
In both the St. Marks and Otter Lake Units, cyclists have an extensive network of forest roads and levees open to them for riding.
Surfaces range from hard-packed limestone to grassy. Water does flow across some forest roads in places. Fat tires are recommended.
While it does not touch the refuge itself, the 16-mile Tallahassee-St. Marks Trail ends within sight of it, on the far shore of the St. Marks River.
This north-south paved trail connects to the Coastal Trail, a new route east-west paralleling US 98 from St. Marks to Medart that offers entry points to forest road rides within the refuge.
The 13-mile Ochlockonee Bay Bike Trail runs through the refuge between Sopchoppy and Mashes Sands Park, a paved ribbon that also provides forest road access for fat-tire enthusiasts.
Paddling at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
Paddlers on the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail follow the coastline along the refuge for 50 miles between Ochlockonee Bay and the Aucilla River.
At the eastern end, kayakers can access the trail from the Lower Aucilla River launch. On the western side, the maps suggest starting from Bald Point State Park to paddle across the mouth of Ochlockonee Bay and reach the coastline eastbound.
Paddlers can also access the trail from Mashes Sands Park, Dickerson Bay, Spring Creek, Wakulla Beach, and the St. Marks Lighthouse.
There are several campsites in the refuge and a couple of commercial campgrounds along the paddling route. If you use refuge campsites, they must be reserved.
Expect windy crossings on the larger bays. On the maps, this portion of the statewide paddling trail is part of Segment 5, Crooked River / St. Marks.
Camping at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
The refuge itself does not have a campground. However, there is a popular county park campground just across from the main gate along US 98 in Newport. Newport Park tends to get busy in the wintertime. Tents, campers, and small RVs are welcome.
There is a simple bathhouse, a boat ramp leading to the St. Marks River, a boardwalk with river views, and an excellent local seafood restaurant, Outz Too, within walking distance. To reserve a site, call 850-745-7780.
If Newport Park is full, the next nearest place to camp is Shell Island Fish Camp, 440 Shell Island Rd, in St. Marks. Call 850-925-6226 for reservations.
We’ve stayed here many times. In addition to tent and RV sites, they have tiny cabins, roomy cabins, and a small motel that caters to anglers.
If you are hiking the Florida Trail, they can assist you with the crossing of the St. Marks River, which must be done by boat.
As far as we know, St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is the only National Wildlife Refuge with backcountry campsites. To use them requires a special permit in advance and you must follow very specific rules for use.
Campsites are located along the Florida National Scenic Trail, which crosses the entire refuge east-west. Some of these are shared with paddlers using the Florida Circumnavigational Saltwater Paddling Trail.
Each campsite offers benches and a fire ring. You must bring potable water with you as most surface sources in the refuge are salty or brackish.
Expect intense mosquitoes and/or gnats at Pinhook River, Ring Dike, and Marsh Point campsites, as these are located right along the estuary.
See our photos of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.