St. Marks Lighthouse and National Wildlife Refuge

St Marks Lighthouse Sunset

It is hard to  believe that the beautiful, natural coastline situated along the northeastern area of the  Gulf of Mexico, is sometimes called “The Forgotten Coast.” In the crook of Florida’s Big Bend,  the shallow bay is rich with natural beauty and teeming with wildlife. Bounded by the Ochlockonee River to the west, the Econfina River to the east and directly open to the Gulf you will find the charming Apalachee Bay…named appropriately for one of the principal native tribes of Florida who held the region between the Aucilla and Ochlockonee rivers until the 1700’s.  Today the majority of this natural and undeveloped coast line is protected by the 275 sq. km St Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is 22 miles south of Tallahassee and contains  68,931 acres within the counties of Wakulla, Jefferson and Taylor  of which 17,746 is designated wilderness. Additionally included are 31,500 acres in the Gulf of Mexico.  Swamp forests are located throughout and the area provides home to a wide range of both terrestrial and aquatic animals serving as a nursery for fish, oysters and other marine life.  Man-made impoundments attract thousands of migratory birds, wading birds and shore birds.

At the north side of Apalachee Bay, just east of the St. Marks River sits the 82 ft high white conical tower of the St. Marks Lighthouse. In the 1820’s, the town of St. Marks, Florida was considered an important port receiving central Florida and Georgia agricultural products by wagon and shipping them out on boats bound for New Orleans or St. Augustine.  Dangerously shallow, the bay has an average depth of 3.0 meters. Easy to see why it was not uncommon for ships to become mired in the mud.   Florida’s territorial governor, William P. DuVal, stressed the need for a lighthouse in 1828 for this crucial port of commerce.  Shortly thereafter the Senate Committee on Commerce recognized St Marks as an official port of entry and appropriated funds for its construction. It did have a rocky start however as the first tower constructed by Winslow Lewis of Boston was not accepted by the St. Marks  Collector of Customs, Jesse H. Williams, as he refused to accept the hollow wall construction feeling they should be solid. Calvin Knowlton was engaged to rebuild the tower in 1831, and did so to the satisfaction of Mr. Williams. First Keeper, Samuel Crosby, performed the inaugural lighting of the whale-oil lamps for the first time that same year.

Winslow Lewis was brought in again when erosion threatened the tower in 1842 requiring  its relocation further inland away from the bay.  While the tower survived many storms, most especially the distructive  hurricane of September of 1843, it did not fare as well during the man-made storm of the Civil War. In 1865 Confederates were on duty near the tower to defend against Union attack. When a Federal fleet of 16 ships showed up off shore and began shelling, the Confederates attempted to blow up the tower rather than let it fall into Union hands and serve as a look out.

Considerably damaged, in September of 1866,  the tower was rebuilt at its present height of the 82 ft above sea level. It was officially re-lighted on January 8, 1867. Today the lighthouse is automated;  its 2,000 candlepower flashing beacon is an active navigational aid to sailors navigating Apalachee Bay and shines 15 nautical miles out to sea. The white conical tower and its black lantern room make an imposing and beautiful image against the Florida sky and graced with surrounding natural sabal palms and salt marsh grasses.  Just watch out for the mosquitoes and dragonflies if you stay for sunset in the summer!!


I find St. Marks Refuge and the Lighthouse one of the most natural and charming points in Florida. While the mission of the Refuge is to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds, endangered, and other wildlife species, there is plenty of opportunity to for recreation along this marvelous bay and its waterways. Whether you want to jump in a kayak or carry a camera, the opportunities are endless!! Come and enjoy Florida’s Natural Coast! Originally I visited because I was working on Florida Lighthouse calendars and wanted an image. I found much more and it is a destination to be revisited many times.

St Marks Lighthouse Shoot - Deciding Where to Stand

After arriving on site in the afternoon I explored the Appalachee Bay salt marsh on the west side of the lighthouse. Technically, there is a sign that says not to go onto that side, but I couldn’t help but want to see the lighthouse from that vantage point. And what a great natural view that is! The Gulf setting with the sabal palms and salt marsh really makes this the quintessential Florida Lighthouse. The sun was descending but still bright so I wandered with my camera to find where I wanted to stand when the sun splashed some late day color around, leaving the tripod standing alone for that determination.

St Marks Sunset-Wide Angle View with Sun-Black and White

While getting a little closer gives more detail of the lighthouse and grounds,  this wide angle view shows the sun relative to the lighthouse. I liked the black and white mood and so went ahead and converted it. While shooting these sunset shots from the salt marsh side, we were inundated with giant dragonflies and mosquitoes. Ultimately, we had to abort staying for the after sunset glow in favor of running for the truck! In converting this image I noted a bunch of sensor dust to clean up. Then I remembered the hordes of huge dragonflies. I feared they might show up and I think they did as little dark smudges here and there. They made work along with great memories of being there.

St Marks is also a Wildlife Refuge - Warning Alligators Sign

St Marks Lighthouse is part of St Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Here you see some warning for one of the resident species.

St Marks Wildlife Refuge

Scenic marsh grasses to the east of the lighthouse.

St Marks - Lush landscape - Gulfside

Succulent ground cover along the Gulf (Apalachee Bay) side of the lighthouse.

St Marks Ibis on the Gulf side

Waiting for sundown for the lighthouse shots, I wandered the coast and the sun beautifully lit this Florida Scene populated with three Ibis. I made a card out of this image and used a dragonfly for a decorative element on the back since they were a part of the scene too!

St Marks - Shell with friends

Standing around in the mucky marsh, there was plenty of life going on like this hermit crab home adorned with barnacles and other shells.

St Marks - Bird Tracks

At times we heard a splash or two and I’m certain an alligator swam off when we first set foot in the marsh. Feeling pretty sure these tracks are of a bird, heron maybe, dragging something. Or something?

Visit St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge!


~ by Judy on October 27, 2013.

10 Responses to “St. Marks Lighthouse and National Wildlife Refuge”

  1. Tremendous images of this area and I really want one of those alligator signs! 🙂

  2. In my head I was adding sails to your lighthouse to make it a windmill. And then I was thinking how much like the Norfolk Broads, which also edge onto the shore in places. Even the ibis didn’t seem too out of place (though we get the iridescing ‘glossy’ variety). Then I saw the sign warning of alligators! But beautiful photos, informative text. I ask, tongue-in-cheek, do you do travel brochures? 🙂

    • Wondering about your reference, I looked up images of Norfolk Broads and see exactly what you mean….conical brick towers with windmills on top and by the water with marsh grasses. I love windmills actually!! Thanks for pointing the way to some interesting scenes.

      • It’s as close as we have in UK to your Florida landscapes. And on a hot, sticky, stormy day, with every kind of biting fly sucking your blood, it’s easy to believe this is the Everglades. Herons, white egret, glossy ibis, and bitterns. Snakes too, But no alligators!

      • I have to say it does sound like the Everglades!! Who knew!!

      • It’s also extremely busy in the summer with louts on motor-launches, and the yatching fraternity. Alas, there is no such place as paradise.

  3. Now I’m curious. Through all my boating years, I knew about the “cut” necessary across those bay waters, because the ICW has that big gap in it. I never once thought, “Why doesn’t the ICW run through there?” I suppose I just assumed construction was difficult. Now, I’m wondering if preservation efforts also played a role.

    The photos are marvelous. I’ve been in Apalachicola and Cedar Key, but I’ve never really explored that area. It may need to be put on my road trip list!

    • I think the answer is in this Wikipedia excerpt on the ICW:

      “The waterway consists of three non-contiguous segments: the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, extending from Brownsville, Texas, east to Carrabelle, Florida; a second section of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, beginning at Tarpon Springs, Florida, and extending south to Fort Myers; and the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, extending from Key West, Florida, to Norfolk, Virginia (milepost 0.0). These segments were intended to be connected via a dredged waterway from St. Marks to Tarpon Springs and the Cross Florida Barge Canal across northern Florida, but these projects were never completed due to environmental concerns. Additional canals and bays extend a navigable waterway to Boston, Massachusetts.”

      Apalachicola Bay appears to be part of the ICW but not Apalachee Bay by St. Marks.

      I always remember how confused I was when first boating on my favourite nautical expression ‘ Red Right Returning.’ I would wonder why the red markers were on the right when we weren’t returning to port…seems home was in Brownsville, Texas as regards ICW. I actually love the marine highways and all the beautiful markers and beacons.

      We have visted Cedar Key also and it seems like a little piece of New England sitting on the Florida Gulf. Have you visited Steinhatchee..another interesting Florida town along the Gulf? We found our way there on one rainy evening with TS Faye dogging us as were traveling home from Mobile Bay (by car). The hotel we found was vacant as everyone had departed due to weather. Our room was behind the restaurant and I remember so clearly the drenched ground and dismal light with thousands of frogs croaking…it was most eerie. Like Lovecraft-Derleth ‘s ‘Lurker at the Threshold!’

  4. this looks beautiful 🙂

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