The section of the Gulf Coast Drive along Scenic Hwy 98 from Apalachicola to St. Marks is known as the Forgotten Coast. It lacks the pristine white sand beaches of the Emerald Coast between Pensacola Beach and Panama City Beach. The beaches are sandy and interrupted by numerous bayous and low land wildlife preserves. It also lacks high-rise tourist hotels and tourist traps common in locales along the Emerald Coast. It is an attractive and scenic drive for the traveler who likes discovering neat places off the beaten path. For RV campers the rates are generally less expensive and the places less crowded.
The first town east of Apalachicola is Eastpoint Florida, once “the historical landing and packing port of most of Apalachicola Bay’s oyster crop.” But it’s oyster harvesting days are gone – at least for the next five years. It is primarily a fishing community with a few tourist attractions. The main attractions would be their seafood market, a few dockside seafood bars, and charter fishing. It also anchors the mainland end of the Bryant Patton Bridge that provides travel to St. George Island known for its extensive uncrowded beaches on the Gulf and its natural beauty unspoiled by commercial development.
St. George Island
The town of St. George Island maintains a city park and large sand beach on the gulf side of the island. Since neither Apalachicola nor EastPoint has a decent sand beach, St. George’s beach is quite popular, but rarely crowded. Island visitors can stay at one of the inns on the island, rent a beach cottage, or a town home. While the island life is more casual and uncommercial, the town does offer some interesting galleries, boutiques, and beach wear shopping as well as some decent seafood restaurants.
The entire east end of the island is occupied by St. George Island State Park. As the park’s website states it offers several miles of undeveloped beaches on unspoiled barrier island and lots of opportunities for sunbathing, swimming, nature study, and other recreation. The park also has a decent modern RV campground that is often booked up solid due to its famous beach, remote island location and opportunities for kayaking, boating, fishing, hiking, and bird-watching. I recommend making advance reservations (far in advance) due to its popularity.
Going east of EastPoint along Scenic Highway 98
The next town east is Carrabelle, Florida. Carrabelle is located at the mouth of the Carrabelle River as it empties into the Gulf. Its’ location makes it a popular spot for recreational fishing in the river and charter fishing in the Gulf. The Carrabelle Bottle House is one of their interesting tourist attractions
On the western edge of town is the historic 103 feet high Crooked River Lighthouse, open for climbs, weather permitting, for a $5 fee. A short distance down the road, there’s a decent public beach with drive up picnic cabanas a short distance down the road. We’ve stopped there for lunch on a few occasions.
East of Carrabelle is Lanark Village, an ocean-side community of homes, condos, and rental properties. Just east of town is the Ho-Hum RV Park that is on the water. The sites are not spacious but level. We found the price reasonable and the washrooms adequate for our one night stay.
East of Lanark Scenic Highway 98 and Highway 319 split, with the latter going north and being the start of the Big Bend Scenic Byway. Hwy 319 goes through the town of SopChoppy. There’s a decent little reasonably-priced town RV park on the banks of the Ocklockonee River. This detour off the Scenic Highway is a good option for the RV traveler who is finding difficulty getting a reservations elsewhere. The SopChoppy Campground is not well known since the town is away from the coastal drive.
If you stay on Scenic Highway 98 along the Gulf shoreline the road crosses Ocklockonee Bay and goes to community of Panacea. RV travelers take note: just before the bridge is a nice little boondocking spot.
Panacea was well known at one time for its Panacea Mineral Springs Resort: “At the turn of the twentieth century, hundreds flocked to Panacea to bathe in the restorative “Cure-All” of the natural mineral springs. Panacea boomed with hotels, restaurants, health spas, baths, boardwalks, piers, and pavilions — until the Depression descended upon the country and a major hurricane hit in 1928.” In addition to seafood restaurants there’s some interesting attractions in the town: the Aquarium and Wakulla County Welcoming Center among them.
Panacea also has an RV park which has reasonable rates, but gets mixed reviews – some very positive five stars, yet others quite unhappy.
Panacea to Cedar Key
After Panacea, Hwy 98 moves away from the shoreline and from this point on the Gulf Drive runs parallel to the ocean but there will be no gulf views. The only way you can actually see the water is via one of many spur roads leading from Highway 98 run to towns, beaches, or fishing camps on the gulf itself. If your interest is in fishing, many of these communities would be of interest. However for the normal tourist or vacationer with a variety of interests, skip the side trips and head towards the Chiefland area.
Camping and Notable Attractions Between Panacea and Chiefland, Florida
Wildwood Golf and RV Resort – near Shell Point
We stayed there the first year of the new ownership when the RV park was only partially completed. The golf course had suffered lack of maintenance from the previous owner but had the makings of a half-way decent course. The RV park portion is brand new and has sewer, water, and electric hookups, plus Internet and cable. Some of the sites are paved, some gravel, but the gravel is decent grade and level. 2020 rates are $55 to $65 per night which considering the fact of decent, level sites with full hookups, Wi-Fi plus the amenity of free green fee that’s a decent price. There’s a decent sand beach at Shell Point about 10 miles away and easy access to the St. Marks bike trail.
Where Hwy 98 crosses the Wakulla River, turn South to the village of St. Marks, primarily a fishing community with a few cafes and some riverside parks. It is believed to be one of the oldest settlements and at times in its history was a significant seaport. The old fort is now a State Park museum. Not in town, but accessed via a nearby road is another historic site: the St. Marks Lighthouse. The campground in St. Marks is a fisherman’s camp and in our opinion not suitable for travelers.
Returning to Hwy 98 you soon cross the St. Marks River. There is a small but attractive campground with some RV hookups – Newport Campground – along side the river. However every time we’ve driven by it is always fully occupied.
As Hwy 98 travels further east and south towards Perry, Florida, it is quite a distance inland. Along this route there are a few spur roads that lead to fish camps and boat launches. Just south of Perry you can return to a gulf view drive by taking Hwy 400 south towards Adams Beach, a small fishing community with a park on the Gulf (but no sand beach). Then follow the Beach Road south you go through Keaton Beach. The beach itself is modest but has a nice pavilion and play area for kids. There’s another modest beach along the route called Hagens Cove Park. Continuing along Beach Road, the next community of any consequence is Steinhatchee.
The town is stretched along the Steinhatchee River just before it empties into the Gulf. There is no gulf sand beach here, but there are a number of tourist attractions, including some decent seafood restaurants, resorts and charter fishing operations. About 4 miles north of town along the river is a small scenic waterfall, a hiking trail, and a pleasant picnic area. (Steinhatchee Falls ). The river and area are popular with kayakers.
After Steinhatchee there is no beach road along the waterfront so you have to return north to Hwy 98. Traveling south through Cross City you’ll arrive at Fanning Springs State Park situated on a bend of the Suwanee River. It offers swimming in the warm water spring, a picnic ground, and kayaking (but no campground). Nearby is a private RV park (Suwanee River Bend RV park) whose rental rates are medium-priced ($38 – $48/nite) but includes water, electricity, and Wi-Fi. It is convenient to stores and restaurants, as well as the State Park, and the Nature Coast State Bike Trail which runs past the campground and connects the communities of Cross City, Trenton, Fanning Springs and Chiefland.
Chiefland is a pleasant community of about 2500 people with several restaurants, a Walmart, a shopping mall, some nice motels and a few RV parks. Worthwhile attractions in this area are Fanning Springs State Park, Manatee Springs State Park, and the attractive island community of Cedar Key on the Gulf. We also like the Chiefland Golf Course, and the Nature Coast Bike Trail that begins in Chiefland. The RV park we like best and recommend is Strawberry Fields located on the Eastern edge of town.