Sand, Sun, & Fun In "The Real Florida"
Photos in collaboration with Quin Schrock
Some destinations are known for iconic visuals. They occupy permanent spots on our bucket lists, grace the pages of coffee table books and travel magazines, and enjoy household name recognition. But the places that stick with me long after I've returned home, are the ones that catch me off guard. Places that defy expectation, highjack my senses, and captivate my imagination. Where the air, people, and tea are all just a little bit sweeter, and unexpected adventure abounds. Welcome to Northern Florida.
Distinctly separate from Orlando’s manufactured experiences, or Miami’s clubbing culture, Northern Florida is where quiet sandy stretches line calm, emerald waters; local swimming holes defy logic with their otherworldly blue hues; and country roads proudly welcome you to “The Real Florida.” When you’re here, it isn’t about vast iconic landscapes that make you feel small, it’s about the small details that make you feel alive.
The beach was obscured by sand dunes as we pulled into a vacant parking lot adjacent to Pensacola Beach. I stayed in the van to change while Quin left to explore. When he finally returned it was with a signature flurry of energy that I knew all too well - he liked what he’d seen!
Some may satirically refer to it as the “Redneck Riviera,” but Florida’s Emerald Coast is home to some of the Sunshine State’s best-kept secrets. Pensacola is built to cater to tourists in search of a classic beach vacation, and all the amenities that accompany that, but you don’t have to go far to find solitude. The entire stretch of coastline along the Florida Panhandle between Pensacola and Navarre Beach is scattered with empty stretches of sugar white sand beaches, calm turquoise water, and hidden state parks. If you’ve ever wanted a slice of paradise all to yourself, this place is as close as you’re likely to come in the lower 48.
My first morning in Navarre, I beat the sun to the beach. Standing waist deep in the warm water, a quarter mile of empty white sand on either side of me, I watched as the sun slid up over the horizon. Just as I was about to grab my camera from the beach I saw them. A pair of dolphins slowly dancing through the shallows a few feet in front of me. I was consumed in the magic of the moment.
That was three years ago, on my very first solo photography assignment. But the experience stuck with me long after I returned home. And I found myself thinking about the Emerald Coast a lot more often than I expected. Still, I never expected to be back. Standing on the cool powdery white sand for the second time, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the crazy journey that brought me back to this small town in northern Florida. I’d been all over the world since then, and yet, it was my brief visit to this remote corner of Florida that had left a lasting impression.
Milton & The Blackwater River
The Blackwater River is one of the only pristine sand rivers left in the United States. Because of that, it is now largely protected in two designated areas - Blackwater River State Forest, and Blackwater River STate Park. While the water may not be blessed with the same brilliant blue hue as the springs farther east, the clear, cool water is safe for swimming (no Alligators!), making it a refreshing escape from the heat. You can float it, canoe it, fish it, and even camp out on the soft sand beaches that line the shores . . . Just don’t rush it!
When I first moved to Seattle, it was so quiet at night that I couldn't sleep. The silent nights have grown on me, but I will always be drawn to places where darkness is thick with the pulsating glow of fireflies and the hypnotizing chatter of a million creatures chirping, squawking, and rumbling lullabies to each other. Where afternoon thunderstorms roll in and then disappear like clockwork. And golden sunrises are as reliable as the distant roosters calling. Give me a tree house in the middle of it all, and I might never leave!
Coldwater Gardens offers a number of different accommodations, from tent camping on the riverbed, to glamping in yurts, and luxury treehouses. I rarely talk about places to stay, because it’s not a priority for me when I travel. I don’t generally spend a lot of time at resorts or hotels, and at the end of the day I kind of feel like a bed is a bed. But Coldwater Garden is not just a place to sleep. It’s an experience, one I won’t soon forget.
Madison Blue Springs State Park
Walking excitedly down the boardwalk to the first spring on our itinerary, I had no idea what to expect. I’d seen so many photos, but was trying to manage my expectations. Morale was already a little low that morning. On the drive over, I’d discovered that we were too late in the season to see the Manatees. A fact that was apparently common knowledge to everyone but me.
Turning the corner, the first thing I saw was yellow caution tape. The main staircase and entrance down to the water was under construction and completely closed off. Maybe it was the caution tape, maybe we were intimidated by the scuba divers, or the fact that we weren’t quite sure if it was even open, but for whatever reason we left without swimming. In hindsight it was probably a mistake. But now there’s just one more thing to go back for!
I heard the truck before I saw it. The bass reverberated through the van as we waited to pick up our paddle board from the rental shop. Finally, a huge black truck with giant chrome rims rolled into view. It slowed down momentarily before continuing down the sandy road toward the springs. The bed of the truck was filled to the brim with half-dressed teenagers brandishing an arsenal of what was possibly every inflatable toy available that side of the Mississippi. We had been traveling through the south for a little over a week, but it wasn’t until Ginnie Springs that I knew I was in for a different type of cultural experience.
Ginnie Springs is its own world. It’s like an all ages summer camp where anything goes, and competing interests manage to seamlessly coexist. There’s volleyball, river floating, scuba diving, and copious amounts of drinking. It’s a quiet retreat into nature, and a block party all at once. But for all Ginnie Spring’s eclectic charm, there are two things I can pretty much guarantee; you’ll have fun, and the water will blow your mind.
Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park
Just down the road from Ginnie Springs, Blue Spring State Park is equally beautiful. If I had to choose just one spring to visit—which I wouldn’t recommend—then Blue Springs with its “Cool Blue” Gatorade colored water and conveniently placed observation deck would probably be it. Plus, because it’s a state park, as opposed to privately owned like Ginnie Springs, you can enjoy it for a fraction of the cost.
The beautiful natural springs in Florida are a critical habitat for a number of different species, and an important clean water resource. As always, if you are lucky enough to visit them, please leave no trace and take only photos. If you’d like to learn more about the springs, their aquatic ecology, or ways you can help preserve them, the Florida Springs Institute is an excilent resource!
It might sound dramatic to say that we drove across the entire country just to see Devils Den, but it wouldn’t be too far from the truth. Resembling one of the underground cenotes that the Yucatan Peninsula is so famous for, photographs of Devil’s Den have been popping up on social media for years. Eventually curiosity got the best of us. Was there really a cenote in the middle of Florida? The answer of course is yes. Yes there is.
Devil’s Den is a privately owned scuba training center - and the operators are pretty intense about keeping it that way. It’s only open to scuba divers and snorkelers - not swimmers, casual visitors, children under 6 years old, or photographers there fore the “gram” (only kind of joking). So if you plan on visiting, and you want to get a photo of your experience, be prepared to spend a pretty penny on gear and entrance fees. Also, and I cannot stress this enough: GET THERE EARLY! Like before it opens early. And don’t go on a weekend unless you have to.