Taylor County is in the Big Bend of Florida—where the state curves and wraps around the Gulf of Mexico. The county has picturesque fishing villages and towns, such as Steinhatchee and Keaton Beach. And for Heaven’s sake, call it STEEN-hatch-ee. If you say it like a German beer STEIN, you’ll be marked an outsider and snickered at (did I just say that?!) With its undeveloped coastline (the longest in the entire state!) Taylor County is the best place for outdoor and eco-tourism adventures.
Founded in 1856, Taylor County was named in honor of Zachary Taylor, the twelfth president of the United States.
1. A Deep-rooted History (literally!)
The roots of Taylor County are connected to trees. The county once provided timber to much of the world, earning the title “Tree Capital of the South.” At the 13-acre Forest Capital Museum State Park, visitors can explore a Cracker Homestead and learn how north Florida settlers lived at the turn of the century. You can see the grooves that wheels of covered wagons cut into the rocks of the Steinhatchee River as they crossed at the falls. This is a spot where you can reach out and touch the footsteps of our ancestors. I don’t know about you, but adventures like that give me chills!
In October, the park is filled with thousands of visitors for the Florida Forest Festival, a tribute to the history of the logging trade. The 2022 event will mark the festival’s unbelievable 70th year! Festivities begin early in October with events every weekend; a beauty pageant, a “Little King & Queen” pageant, followed by a carnival, Strut Your Mutt contest, a 5K run, and the King Tree Parade.
That sounds like quite a festival, right? And yet, the people of Taylor County are just getting warmed up! The World’s Largest Free Fish Fry starts at noon on the final Saturday and serves over 5,000 catfish dinners.
Adventures abound all day:
- arts and crafts booths
- heavy equipment exhibits
- lumberjack shows
- chain saw and crosscut saw competitions
- military vehicle show
- classic car show
The music stage schedules bands to perform from 12:30 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. And the best part of these adventures? They are all free!
2. Go with the Flow
With four rivers flowing through the county, you have plenty of choices for fishing adventures, including inshore and offshore saltwater fishing and river fishing. The Steinhatchee River defines one county boundary. The Gulf of Mexico marks the edge of another. The Econfina River begins in the county’s northern border and flows through to the south edge, dumping into the Gulf.
Pronounced “ee-con-fee-nee,” Econfina is the Native American word for “natural bridge.” And it is a bridge through the forests of oak, palm, and pine leading to the salt marshes. The area provides nearly 15 miles of hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding trails. Keep your eyes open for wildlife sightings of deer, bobcats, and birds. I heard it was THE best place for trout on the coast, but shhh…you didn’t hear that from me!
Plus, an abundance of creeks, springs, and access to the Apalachee Bay ensure enough variety for a month! Florida anglers from all parts of the state come here for the chance to hook a trophy sea trout, grouper, or redfish.
Wet a line
Fishing on the Steinhatchee River is best in the fall when spotted sea trout invade the River from the Gulf. You can learn about the “hot spots” by asking locals and at marinas and bait shops.
The mouth of the Aucilla River has seagrass beds and oyster bars, tide channels, and deep holes. In other words—fish heaven! The Aucilla has Spanish mackerel, flounder, tarpon, redfish, and sea trout. Drop in a line and fish your day away.
All these water adventures do have a requirement in common—you need a boat! Of course, you can bring your own equipment. Or you can contact one of the area marinas or outfitters and rent exactly what you need. There are even clear kayaks, which would be a bonus during manatee season! Or you can book a charter and, as an old Greyhound commercial used to say, “sit back and leave the driving to us.”
Feel free to “catch” more than fish. Shrimp, blue crabs, and stone crabs are abundant in pristine water. Bring your rod and reel or use the charter’s equipment. You’re sure to enjoy your adventures! Interesting Tip: Many anglers return for boar and deer hunting in the winter.
3. Outdoor Adventures on a Side-by-Side
Maybe you don’t know what a side-by-side is—I didn’t know the term, but when I saw what I was being picked up in, I immediately knew what they were! These fast little 4-wheelers have their seats beside each other rather than behind the driver like a motorcycle.
Fiddler’s Restaurant and Resort General Manager, Donovan Wulf, made this happen. He called in friends with side-by-sides, and away we went! Flying down the backroads and on the shoulders of main roads, are unique adventures! The county has several roads known as “the road to nowhere.” Most of the paths we took led through water at one point or another, so don’t try this in a car! Pro Tip: Leave your good camera back in your room. Your cell phone and a GoPro are all you need, and you don’t want to spend the day worrying about keeping your good camera high and dry! Besides, the noise of a group of side-by-sides will scare off all but the most persistent birds.
4. Explore and Soak Up History
Perry is the county seat and was incorporated in 1903. Historical buildings include the oldest remaining public building in Taylor County—The Old Taylor County Jail. Perry has several historic churches; one, the Catholic Church of The Immaculate Conception, was built in 1918; First Methodist was constructed in 1899. The old railroad station, built in 1918, now houses a florist, gift shop, and coffee shop. And the tracks next to the station? Still in use!
The Perry Post Office has a story to tell too. During the Depression, the post office was built in 1935 to create jobs for the local workers. It also received a government grant for Florida artist George Snow Hill to paint a mural inside. When the new Perry Post Office was built in 1987, “Cypress Logging” was relocated to the new building.
Oh, and doughnuts. You have to try the doughnuts at Johnson’s Bakery; I admit it, that was the real reason for the detour to Perry! We won’t talk about their cookies—I was “gifted” an assortment. I tried to resist; I really did. I said, “Please, no! I don’t need all those calories.” My host, Dawn, suggested that they would make a nice breakfast the next day. I remember, I laughed in her face, and exclaimed, “Those cookies won’t make it back to Steinhatchee!!” Thirty miles into the 38-mile trip, the box was empty. I’m weak—those cookies were calling my name! That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Steinhatchee is a fishing town. It is a town where life revolves around the river and the Gulf. In the 1930s, it was sponge boats; after WWII, when disease killed most of the sponges, there was a shift to commercial and recreational fishing; today, the mix includes the hospitality industry. A large boat ramp and plenty of parking are available for visitors. Steinhatchee is at the center of the Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail. After a full day of adventures, visitors will find a selection of restaurants for dinner and lots of choices for lodging.
The tiny town of Jena is just across the river from the town of Steinhatchee. Ok, technically, it is in Dixie County. Go anyway; they won’t mind a bit! Jena has a large public boat launch, boat rentals, and restaurants serving up delicious local seafood. Who Dat is right on the Steinhatchee, so you not only have a great meal, you also have a great view!
5. Catch Your Supper
Fishing captains are easy to find in fishing villages. Based on my vast fishing experience of two trips, I can recommend a couple! I recommend Captain Pat McGriff even though we never made it past the no-wake zone. We had engine trouble, and although Capt. McGriff got the motor restarted, troubleshooting told him it was likely the alternator. He expressed concern that it might not start to get us back if we went out for the day. Capt. McGriff made the difficult decision to call off the charter. It cost him a day’s pay but earned him much more in goodwill in the long run.
I had better luck with Capt. Champ Klein of Salty Tails Charters. We got off to an early start on our inshore expedition. We had perfect weather even though it was cold enough to wear my pj’s under my clothes (What? I packed for November in Florida–not for 43º and windy!) Lesson learned—thermals don’t take up a lot of space, and you just never know!
You’d think living three blocks from the beach, I’d be an old pro at fishing. You’d be wrong. But Capt. Champ showed me how to cast and “read” the water. He was patient (even after I let fish eat my shrimp without reeling them in) and continued to bait my line with shrimp. I told him I could do that, but he claimed it was his “job.” I hope he feels the same way about opening scallops—I didn’t have to be asked twice to come back for this summer’s scallop season! Capt. Champ, me, bags of scallops, and a knife! It’s a plan! Interesting Fact: Scallop comes from the French word for shell, “escalope.” The first to document this delicacy was Marco Polo in 1280!
Before you start feeling bad for those beautiful scallops, let me tell you—they’re dying anyway, so you may as well eat them! Scallops live only a year or so before dying or being eaten by a crab, octopus, a shell-crushing fish, or, well, me! And scallops are prolific—a single scallop produces more than a million eggs! Capt. Champ calls scalloping adventures “Underwater Easter egg hunts.” My basket is already packed!
6. Have Your Fish Cooked
Several local restaurants will cook your fillets once you have caught your limit and cleaned your fish. Fiddler’s chef asked me how I wanted mine cooked. I was with friends, one didn’t like fish, and the other only liked fried. I told the chef, fry some of it and, since I couldn’t decide between blackened and grilled, surprise me! I guess the chef couldn’t decide either, so he prepared it all three ways! I have to say grilled gets my vote! YUM! That trout…it was good all three ways, but grilled…OMG! I’m drooling now, just thinking about it!
7. Eat More Crab
Kathi’s Crab Shack is a local fixture. Eat there, and you’ll know why! Arrive after the lunch crowd leaves, so you get a little extra attention. Be sure to ask what’s available that isn’t on the menu. Kathi’s owners spend their days fishing and crabbing, so you may get some tasty surprises! Like some of the best tuna sashimi anywhere. And shrimp cakes—even better than their crab cakes! The drink menu is like reading the flavors at an ice cream stand—you can’t try just one! Plus, they have live music every weekend in the covered outside bar.
8. Music by the River
On weekends there is live music at Fiddler’s Restaurant and Resort’s riverfront deck. A large seating area and an outside bar wraps around the back of the restaurant. There is a bar out front too, beside the billiards room, that serves “bar food” like hamburgers and hot dogs.
9. Visit a Waterfall
Yes, I know it’s Florida. Notice I didn’t say “breathtaking waterfall!” *giggles* But there is a waterfall—Steinhatchee Falls. And it is Florida’s widest waterfall. The falls pour over a series of limestone rocks, creating rapids. The fall’s height depends on the amount of rainfall in recent weeks. The dirt road in is accessible by car or a 3.3-mile multi-use trail.
10. Escape to the Beach
Keaton Beach is a long, peaceful drive from Steinhatchee. On my first trip, I spotted a couple of eagles (cue “brake hard & swerve right!”) I’ve taken better eagle portraits, but my heart still fills to bursting whenever I spot our National Bird! Keaton Beach Pier provides a perfect lookout. And you may just spot an otter changing ponds and running right across the road! Keaton Beach attracts anglers, too. Just take a peek at my very first saltwater catch!
The small beach is peaceful, and there is a playground for the little ones. I hope one day they park a hot dog or an ice cream truck out there!
11. Get Out Your Life List
Birders will have a field day (pun intended) in Taylor County. There have been over 260 rare species of birds sighted here. The Nature Coast has a variety of habitats, so it attracts a remarkable variety of bird species. One of the best spots is Hickory Mound Impoundment near the town of Perry. It is a part of the Big Bend Wildlife Management Area. The unpaved access roads are bumpy, so go slow until you connect with the WMA roads. The drive is sooo worth it! The pond and surrounding wildflowers attract butterflies, blue- and green-winged teals, hooded mergansers, buffleheads, herons, egrets, ospreys, kites, and bald eagles. Hard-packed roads for biking and hiking and hiking-only trails allow access to the area, dependent upon tide levels.
The 60-miles of coastline and marshes are home to clappers, plovers, and wading birds. The public park at Keaton Beach is a perfect starting point. Further south is the “premier shorebird location on Florida’s Gulf Coast.” Hagen’s Cove (just follow the signs from CR 361) has an observation tower offering spectacular views while you are spotting sandpipers, reddish egrets, and herons.
More hiking trails parallel the banks of the Aucilla River. The Aucilla Sinks Trail winds along between sinkholes where the river disappears and reappears for eight miles along the limestone riverbed. The trail gives hikers a view of the area’s unique geology.
12. Shoot the Sunset with the Locals
Ask anyone, “Where is the best place to take sunset pictures?” Without hesitation, you will be told, “The parking lot at Roy’s Restaurant!” I arrived early and was amazed that the parking lot was magically filled with cars, trucks, golf carts, a couple of bicycles, and a motorcycle just minutes before the sunset! Like me, some were taking photos, while most were just enjoying the view.
13. Visit Dancing Waters’ Chapel
The popularity of destination weddings continues to grow. If you want to say your “I dos” in Old Florida, this gothic chapel with 12-foot stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings would be hard to top. Dancing Waters’ Chapel is set on 35 acres; you have options for the ceremony and the reception. It’s also a beautiful place to simply visit and walk around if you aren’t getting married. It would also be a special place for a proposal. Just sayin’. Insider Tip: Just past the Chapel, you’ll spot a house with a sign declaring that former President Jimmy Carter and his wife visited often. They especially liked Hagen’s Cove.
14. Big Bend Waters
Kayaking is another adventure visitors seek. The Big Bend Saltwater Paddling Trail gives you miles of solitude. It is the perfect place for birdwatching and gives you an insider’s peek at old Florida.
15. But Where Can You Spend the Night?
There are so many choices for lodging. You only need to decide if you want to stay in a rustic cabin, a modern motel, a condo, a house, an upscale resort, or your camper.
Oh, and then there is the choice of where you want to stay. River view? Beachfront? Secluded in the woods?
16. Fiddler’s Riverside
Fiddler’s Restaurant and Resort is a one-stop-shop for a tourist! They can hook you up with a great room, cottage, house at Steinhatchee Landing, or even an RV space. The restaurant serves delicious food from the menu. Most nights, they have a buffet—like Taco Tuesday and Seafood Friday. There is a gift shop with the usual “touristy” items as well as clothing, swimwear, and the necessities you may have forgotten to pack. If it is an adventure you seek, they can also hook you up with the right outfitter or guide for anything that catches your interest!
17. Fish for Fun(ds)
Fishing tournaments sound like tons of fun. But when you talk about thousands of dollars in prize money…well… let’s go fish!
There is a tournament almost every month of the year, and some months have two, and one even has four!
18. Annual Events
You already know all about the Florida Forest Festival in October. There are only three festival-free months in Taylor! They have such a variety; you’re sure to find just the thing to tempt you.
- Fiddler Crab Festival-February
- Big Ben Brewfest-March
- Florida State Bluegrass Festival-April
- Taylor County Chili Challenge-April
- Fourth of July Celebration-July
- Smokin’ in the Pines BBQ Festival-September
- Florida Forest Festival-October
- Trunk or Treat & Costume Contest-October
- Downtown Christmas & Santa’s Little Helper Parade-December
I guess I can sum up Taylor County best by stealing a line from one of their brochures. Taylor County offers visitors and residents, old or new, a lot. They say that when you ask people who live there what they’re doing for vacation, they reply, “Why go on vacation when I have paradise right in my own backyard!” Yep. They’re right. And I’m overdue for another trip to paradise!