Tate's Hell - a Different Florida Experience
Updated: Jul 7, 2019
For most traveling to St. George Island, the last major stretch of road before you reach the coast, is the drive on highway 65 through the Apalachicola National Forest and Tate’s Hell State Forest. When you’re driving that last 30 miles or so, have you ever wondered what Tate’s Hell is all about? In the nearly 20 years of going to St. George Island, I’ve always wanted to explore and learn more about the area. On our last trip, we were able to do just that!
Tate’s Hell is more than 200,000 acres of wetlands and timberlands located in Franklin County, Florida between the Apalachicola and Ocklockonee rivers. It was used heavily for timber production during the 1960s and 1970s when extensive tracts of pine plantations were established. The state of Florida began purchasing much of the state forest in 1994 to protect the Apalachicola Bay from severe freshwater runoff.
Where did Tate’s Hell get its name though? One local version of the legend says that a farmer by the name of Cebe Tate took his hunting dogs and shotgun and traveled into the swamp land in search of a panther that was killing his livestock. Another version of the legend says he went searching for a cow for his fiery Jewish mail-order bride from New York City who wouldn’t eat any of his pigs. The legend says that Tate was lost in the swamp for seven days and nights. During his time in the swamp he was bitten by a snake and drank the swamp water to quench his thirst. After wandering the swamp for a week, he finally emerged near Carrabelle, only living long enough to mumble the words, “My name is Cebe Tate, and I just came from Hell.” His adventure through the swamp took place in 1875, and it has been known as Tate’s Hell ever since.
Now that we live in Colorado, we’ve become quite an outdoor family that enjoys camping and hiking. I’d been really interested in doing some hiking in Tate’s Hell because it is one of the few places with hiking trails near St. George Island. We packed up a lunch for the family, left Sea Dunes where we were staying, and headed to Tate’s Hell.
There are two places to “hike” in Tate’s Hell: the Dwarf Cypress Boardwalk and the High Bluff Coastal Trail. We started with the easier one (or so we thought) and went to see the dwarf cypresses. One thing that you must know when traveling to see the dwarf cypresses in Tate’s Hell…don’t trust your GPS or Google Maps. Google Maps took us through forest roads (not dirt roads…literally forest roads where you’re dodging trees and driving through grass nearly as tall as our minivan!) to get to the Dwarf Cypress Boardwalk. Unfortunately, when we got to our “destination” it was a dead end. We could see the dwarf cypresses, and we could make out a boardwalk through the trees, but we were definitely in the wrong spot!
Once we backed out of the dead-end forest road for nearly a mile, we were able to backtrack and eventually we made it to the Dwarf Cypress Boardwalk.
As you can see, this “trail” is barely more than walking out of the parking lot to the boardwalk.
As you can see, the boardwalk is very well maintained, pet friendly and it would not surprise me if we were the only visitors that day. We had the place to ourselves on this beautiful day.
I don’t know what it was, but getting to the end of the boardwalk and seeing those dwarf cypress trees was very peaceful. I’m not sure if it was because we were probably the only people around for miles or because looking down on the tops of trees makes you feel like you’re on top of the world…haha.
For no known reason, most of the cypress trees in this bowl-shaped depression in the forest have never grown more than 15-feet tall (normal cypress trees can grow to be more than 100-feet tall). The trees are not genetically different than other cypress trees in the area, and the seeds from trees in this area will actually grow to normal heights in other areas. According to the Carrabelle Chamber of Commerce, there is a layer of hard clay in the soil in this area that may prevent the roots from growing deeper, thus stunting the growth of the trees.
After seeing the dwarf cypresses, we ventured back out of the woods back toward highway 98 to hike the High Bluffs. The trailhead, is located right off of the highway before you arrive in Carrabelle. There is a small parking lot. (To view a trail map, click here.) We started our hike at the East Trailhaed, and, as you can see, it is a very sandy trail, which makes things a little tougher.
The kids initially enjoyed walking the trail and moving some of the dead tree branches that blocked the rarely-used trail.
The trail is clearly marked with paint on the trees to make sure you are going in the right direction, and there are several benches along the trail so that you can take a rest.
We hiked about 1.5 miles in one direction on this trail in Tate’s Hell Forest, but the kids started to struggle. Admittedly, the bugs were really bad, and it was as hot as…well, you know (hehe). We decided to turn around and head back to the parking lot. Everyone was tired from a long day.
Overall, it was quite an experience in Tate’s Hell. From the crazy Google directions, to the blazing hot High Bluff trail to the tiny cypress trees, it was quite an experience. We definitely recommend checking out the Dwarf Cypress Boardwalk (make sure you have good directions), but we’re not sure the Coastal Bluffs Trail was worth it (especially since it could be as much as an 8.7 mile hike!).
Have you ever been to Tate’s Hell? What did you think? Tell us about it in the comment section below.