Explore Florida's Wild Panhandle On This Under-The-Radar Coastal Road Trip

With the sheer amount of gorgeous scenery all over Florida, sometimes a road trip is the perfect way to travel through this southern state. Even still, it can be hard to nail down an itinerary. From Florida's best beaches and vibrant cities to traversing through nature preserves, road trips in the Sunshine State can have something for everyone.

While destinations like Miami and Orlando are major tourist draws, the Florida panhandle still has incredible beaches, marshlands, and charming small towns. A road trip in this part of the state can take you to quite a few hidden gems. Big Bend Scenic Byway on Highway 98 is one of six nationally recognized scenic roads in Florida. What makes this byway special is that it has somehow stayed under the radar. In fact, it incorporates what is often called Florida's Forgotten Coast. Start the journey in Apalachicola. This coastal town is historic as well, featuring 19th-century buildings like the Raney House Museum. Learn about how wealthy families of the era spent their days at this home-turned-museum free of charge.

Enjoy white sand beaches at St. George Island

From Apalachicola, enjoy the ocean views as you head east along Highway 98. To learn about the unique and important marshy ecosystems found along the Big Bend Scenic Byway, check out the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve. See fossils and exhibits on how industries affect the area at the reserve's Nature Center. The Nature Center also includes an outdoor boardwalk, allowing you to immerse yourself in Florida's nature.

After visiting the reserve, take a slight detour south from Highway 98 to St. George Island. As the connecting highway nears the island, you'll quickly see the St. George Island Lighthouse (also called Cape St. George Light). The original 19th-century lighthouse collapsed in 2005. What could be salvaged was reconstructed into a new lighthouse, which now allows visitors to climb its 92 stairs and take in amazing views. The accompanying museum takes you through the history of the lighthouse and its keepers over the centuries. Another claim to fame for this little island is its beaches, especially those at St. George Island State Park. The seemingly untouched white sand and wildlife here make it one of the top-ranked beach vacation spots in America.

Walk in marshlands at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Back on mainland Florida and further west of St. George Island is Carrabelle. This quaint town is surrounded by water and lush designated state and national forests, making the town's visitors feel like true explorers. Delve into these forested wetlands on hiking trails throughout Tate's Hell State Forest, where you can even camp overnight. Carrabelle itself is a historic maritime town that tourists have been enjoying since the late 19th century. Its docks and marinas are still filled with boats, large and small. You will likely spot some fully operating seafood boats, as well.

Wrap up your Big Bend Scenic Byway road trip at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Over 200 species of birds come and go at this sanctuary, including ospreys, ibises, Great Blue Herons, and bald eagles. Mammals like deer and black bears live here, too. You can explore the amazing biodiversity of this refuge on your own or book a tour from October through March. Check for these dates on the calendar. Additionally, the area's lighthouse is still working just as it has been since 1842. Weave through the marshlands along Lighthouse Road to find it.