Legend says that, back in 1875, that Cebe Tate came staggering into Carrabelle out of this enormous swamp along the Gulf Coast after being lost for days, perhaps a week, and only lived long enough to say, “My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell.”
That hasn’t kept hunters, anglers, and other curious folks from poking around almost 315 square miles of where the rainfall on the Apalachicola National Forest forms tannic streams and curvaceous creeks and sheet-flow swamps that drain to the Gulf of Mexico.
It certainly didn’t keep Florida’s big paper companies from trying to tame the swamp, building a network of forest roads in the 1960s and 1970s to plant rows of slash pine among the cypress.
When the state of Florida took it off their hands in the mid-1990s, it was to protect the fisheries and oyster beds of Apalachicola Bay from the added phosphorous and nitrogen draining off these tree farms.
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Address: 290 Airport Rd, Carrabelle FL 32322
Fees: $2 per person day use fee at some entry points
Restrooms: Varies, but often available at trailheads where a fee is charged.
Land manager: Florida Forestry Service
Leashed dogs welcome. Where applicable, day use fees are payable at a self-pay station at the trailhead. Allowed uses varies by entry point but including boating, hiking, hunting, fishing, and designated primitive campsites.
The forest is laced with a network of rough and sometimes flooded forest roads established by the timber companies. 4WD may be needed in certain places.
Primitive campsites can be reserved in advance. Fee is $10 per site, up to 5 people. Your food must be protected from bears, as they are common here.
Forest headquarters is off US 98 near the end of Airport Rd, between Carrabelle Beach and Carrabelle. Access points to the forest are primarily off US 98 and SR 65. Watch for signage. See the forest map for specific directions, but be aware that some roads shown on it do not go through. Do not trust Google Maps navigation in this forest.
About the Forest
Surprisingly, the forest is one massive piece of public land. More than half of it is swamp, and much of it still shows how industry disrupted the natural habitats once thriving here.
Pine plantations are very much in evidence when you drive on the network of forest roads in the swamp, with slash pines marching right through cypress strands.
But there are also prairies, bayheads, and unusually, bowls of dwarf cypress that bear an eerie resemblance to those found in Big Cypress and Everglades National Park.
Biking and Equestrian Use
While there are no established bike trails, you are certainly welcome to ride the many miles of forest roads within the forest.
Equestrians can ride them too, but it’s tougher to find a place to park a horse trailer than it is to pull a car off a forest road.
It’s not hard to get turned around in here, so be sure you have a map and your bearings. Don’t trust Google Maps to find your way.
Because of its cypress strands, Tate’s Hell is definitely a place to spot swallow-tailed kites. Bald eagles and red-cockaded woodpeckers are reported here as well.
Birders will find many migratory species during the winter months, with 145 different species recorded on eBird.
A concrete ramp is at Cash Creek off SR 65 north of Eastpoint.
Otherwise, boater access is primarily hand-launches for canoes and kayaks and a few unpaved ramps, available at Womack Creek, Rock Landing, Gully Branch, and Trout Creek.
Boaters can also launch in Carrabelle to cruise up Crooked River as far as their draft will allow them to go. Having taken a trip up it for an hour or so, we can tell you its name is well-earned.
Camping is only allowed at designated campsites, and a permit must be obtained in advance. Contact the forest for how to obtain one.
While Cash Creek Campground and Womack Creek Campground can be accessed by roads, most of the 53 campsites within the forest are meant for paddlers and boaters.
They are located along Deep Creek, the New River, Crooked River, and Womack Creek.
Hikers have two destinations in the forest. The primary one is the High Bluff Coastal Hiking Trail.
It is notable for its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico and for the fact that the trail crosses ancient sand dunes topped with scrub plants.
It is made up of two loops that connect two separate trailheads off US 98. Hike 3.5 miles, 5.5 miles, or the full 8.7 miles.
The other location is a nature trail that showcases a stand of dwarf cypress. The Ralph Kendrick Boardwalk isn’t very long, but it offers great views down into the cypress swamp.
Discover the beauty of the Forgotten Coast by hiking one or both loops through coastal scrub protected atop high dunes inside Tate’s Hell State Forest
Seasonal hunting is a major reason that people go wandering through the forest roads of Tate’s Hell State Forest. Hunters can set up hunt camps within the forest during deer season. A spring turkey season is also open each year.
Paddlers can make the most of this enormous state forest because of more than half of it being under water.
New River is a primary destination for paddlers, especially since it provides so many options for designated primitive campsites along its length.
In all, there are more than a half-dozen named creeks and streams you can access, plus the Crooked River, totaling more than 35 miles of waterways.
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Noted for its botanical beauty, the Apalachicola National Forest is the largest National Forest in Florida, sweeping south and west of Tallahassee.
A UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve blankets nearly a quarter million miles of marine basin on Florida’s Forgotten Coast
Blessed with brilliant white quartz sand, St. George Island State Park is a sparkling, quiet getaway protecting nearly 2,000 acres of coastal habitats on a barrier island between Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.