Along this coastline 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.
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Location: St. Marks
Trailhead: 30.163435, -84.155153
Address: 1255 Lighthouse Rd, St. Marks FL 32355
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 – Otter Lake (Panacea), St. Marks, and Aucilla River (Wakulla) – each with its own separate access points and trailheads.
Of these, the St. Marks Unit 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. Boat ramp fees also apply at the Aucilla River.
Wildlife at St. Marks
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
Short nature trails let you sample the habitats found along the Big Bend coast. All of these trails can be accessed from Lighthouse Road. The Visitor Center has an accessible boardwalk and overlook over Plum Orchard Pond.
Starting adjacent to the Visitor Center at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the Plum Orchard Pond Trail is an easy half mile loop that takes you out along Plum Orchard Pond, a great birding stop.
At St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, the Tower Pond Trail loops a mile through vast impoundments and marshes along the Gulf of Mexico, providing scenic panoramas and great birding.
A windswept walk along the Gulf of Mexico, the Lighthouse Levee Trail provides scenic panoramas of both the Gulf and marsh impoundments near the St. Marks Lighthouse.
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 NWR
The Florida Trail crosses all of St. Marks NWR 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.
14.3 miles. Hugging the Big Bend coastline, this hike through Aucilla WMA and St. Marks NWR offers some of the most breathtaking panoramas you’ll find along the Florida Trail, and a profusion of wildlife.
As far as we know, St. Marks NWR 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.
See our photos of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
9 miles. Endearingly scenic, surprisingly rugged in places, and unlike any other piece of the Florida Trail statewide, this trek along the Aucilla River showcases some of Florida’s top natural features in one hike.
4.4 miles. Winding through a geologically weird and archaeologically significant part of Florida, the most fascinating segment of the Florida Trail is the Aucilla Sinks