BY JACKIE KOLK PHOTOGRAPHY BY HAROLD BRAMTON
“I just came from Hell.” Legend has it those were Cebe Tate’s last words when he stumbled out of the swamp in 1875 after getting lost for seven days hunting for a panther that was killing his livestock. Ever since, the area in Franklin County between Eastpoint and Carrabelle has been called Tate’s Hell. Weird tales have been told by others who ventured into Tate’s Hell. Hunters have come across ground seemingly covered in snakes. Stories were told of a creek that flowed one way and then another and of cows eaten by alligators. Folklore has it that it took two years to find a plane after it crashed in Tate’s Hell. Even today, a search of the internet finds visitors describing the forest as desolate, mysterious, eerie, and forbidding, but most see it as an outdoorsman’s heaven, scenic, a hidden gem, beautiful, and unique.
It is also described as one of the most unusual landscapes in Florida. In some places, you cannot see the sky due to the impenetrable vegetation.
Over the last century, large landowners attempted to drain the swamps to grow trees on the land. Roads and ditches were built and the hydrology altered in the early 1990’s. It looked like the area would be subdivided and developed. The state claimed this was “Florida’s Last Wilderness” but no one seemed to be able to find the money to buy the land for conservation and recreation. On January 20, 1991, the Tampa Tribune reported “Salesmen Hawking Rare Slice of Florida.” Some said nothing like it was left in Florida. In 1994, at the prodding of the Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, newspapers across the state, and private citizens, the state began purchasing land to protect the swamps and watershed. Today we have the 202,000-acre Tate’s Hell State Forest. Its creeks, woods, savannahs, and trails provide room for adventures. The restoration of the ecosystem is now an objective of the State Forest Service.
“TATE’S HELL IS STILL LARGELY UNKNOWN EVEN THOUGH IT IS THE SECOND LARGEST STATE FOREST IN FLORIDA.”
Tate’s Hell is still largely unknown even though it is the second largest state forest in Florida. Guide books on hiking, kayaking and so on, make almost no mention of it, even though recreational opportunities abound. These include birding, hunting, fishing, primitive camping, miles of hiking trails, and 145 miles of off-road vehicle trails. The High Bluff Coastal Hiking Trail loops through the forest, with the trail head on Highway 98, four miles west of Carrabelle. Much of the area drains into Apalachicola Bay and the forest includes frontage on the Apalachicola, Ochlockonee, New, and Crooked Rivers, and Whiskey George Creek. Black bears, eagles, gopher tortoises, otters, bobcats, gray fox, alligators, rattlesnakes, and several endangered or threatened species live here. But for me, the dwarf cypress dome and the boardwalk that leads to it, are the real prize. Over 150 years old, the dwarf cypress trees stretch as far as the eye can see. Cypress can tower overhead at 120 feet tall, but none reach much more than 15 feet in height here. Some of these trees are more than 300 years old. The long boardwalk starts at ground level and rises up and up, ending in an observation tower. Reportedly, the dwarf cypress are no different genetically than larger pond cypress. It is presumed that a layer of hard clay with very low nutrients near the surface limits the growth of the trees. When you reach the end of the boardwalk, you are high above the cypress forest. The quiet is noticeable.
And getting there is half the fun! From Panama City take Highway 98 east to Apalachicola. Then, travel seven miles east of the Apalachicola Bridge, through Eastpoint, past Highway 65. Turn north on John Allen Road and drive 5.5 miles on an unpaved road. To find the dwarf cypress, turn left on Dry Bridge Road. Don’t give up! There are no signs until you get to Dry Bridge Road. The road may be impassable after heavy rain. But keep an eye out for bears as you drive! If you are ready for a good meal after venturing into Tate’s Hell, The Grill at St. James Bay Golf Resort is just east of Carrabelle.
For more information, see: Jahoda, Gloria. The Other Florida. Florida Classics Library, 1984. Womack, Marlene. “Fear Shrouded Tate’s Hell Swamp.” News Herald, 18 Jan. 2004. “Swamped in Tate’s Hell.” Florida Trend, July 1991. Tate’s Hell Carrabelle Tract. 1990, CARL Project Assessment Or stop at the State Forest Headquarters, 290 Airport Road, Carrabelle
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