Interstate 10 in Florida is 362 miles along Northern Florida's panhandle. It's the eastern end of the 2,460-mile Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway which runs all the way to Los Angeles, California. It's part of one of only three coast-to-coast interstate highways in America (the other two are I-80 and I-90). Some major cities that I-10 passes through in Florida include Pensacola, Tallahassee, Lake City and Jacksonville. Florida's section of I-10 begins in west of Pensacola at Exit 7A, and ends smack dab in downtown Jacksonville, and hooks onto I-95.
Northern Florida is resplendent in natural springs, just off the road, loads of lush state parks, and quite a few historic sites to hit up. The local flavor at either end of the trip is very much a beach-vibe. You start in Jacksonville on the Atlantic Ocean, and end in Pensacola along the Gulf of Mexico. Sandwiched in the middle are inland Floridian towns that boast hidden swimming holes, forested hiking trails, and a few notable places that boast of old Floridian history. This road trip is family-friendly and has a little something for everyone.
General Trip Overview
This I-10 road trip along Northern Florida's panhandle will take you from Jacksonville to Olustee and White Springs. There are a few stops to make in Live Oak, then head down to Madison and Tallahassee, and plan to spend some time in both places as there's a lot to do in each. From there, you'll drive through Bristol, Marianna and Chipley, then Bonifay, Vernon and Ponce de Leon. Afterwards it's a quick drive from DeFuniak to Crestview, Holt and the historic town of Bagdad. Lastly, finish up your trip along the Gulf with a visit to Pensacola and Gulf Breeze.
What to see/can’t miss
One of the best zoos in northern Florida is the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens. There's actually quite a lot of fun, family-friendly attractions to do in Jacksonville, but this guide is about the best attractions along I-10, so once you're out of the city hit up the 5-acre Olustee Battlefield Historic State Park, which memorializes the site of Florida's only Civil War battle, and every February hundreds of historical reenactors converge to reenact the battle on the 13th and 14th. The next few parks on I-10 offer loads of hiking trails, rafting and stunning Florida scenery. Starting with Big Shoals State Park, where you can see the largest whitewater rapids the Suwannee River has to offer, or 733-acre Peacock Springs State Park, which boasts 9 sinkholes and two beautiful spring-fed swimming holes, surrounded by Cypress trees. Also, if you're traveling I-10 through north-central Florida you don't wanna miss a chance to visit the Suwannee River State Park, which still features Civil War construction along the riverfront, but one of the coolest spots here is only a short 1/4 mile hike past the ranger station to a bluff that provides a scenic overlook to where the Withlacoochee River and the Suwannee River join, and head to the Gulf. There's amazing backcountry canoeing offered here and places to camp (or rent a cabin).
Next up: Four Freedoms Monument. Located in the center of the town of Madison, commissioned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to commemorate his 1941 State of the Union Address in which he discussed the "Four Freedoms" that are fundamental: Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. A great stop to explain these concepts to your kids. Just down the road is the 188-acre Letchworth-Love Mounds Archaeological State Park. Here you can see a 46-foot high Native American ceremonial earthwork mound. It's the state's talles prehistoric mound, built between 1100 and 1800 years ago. When you're in Tallahassee, the Old Florida State Capitol is a pretty rad building to visit, built in the 1800s. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but there are three other buildings in the Capitol Complex worth checking out as well, they include the House and Senate chambers and a very sizable, 22-story Executive Office Building. Then, if the family can handle a little more history, Torreya State Park offers some of the most scenic views in northwestern Florida. It's over 13,000 acres of tall bluffs that look out over the Apalachicola River, and there are 19th century historical buildings to explore, as well as plenty of camping, cabins and even a yurt if you wanna spend the night.
Now that you're well into Northwest Florida, check out Florida Caverns State Park, located in the Panhandle, ner Marianna, this is one of only a few state parks in Forida that features dry, air-filled caves. It's also the only state park that offers cave tours. Nearby is Falling Waters State Park, where you can expect to see wildlife on this 171 acre park. But the main showpiece is a 73-foot tall waterfall, the highest waterfall in Florida. After you hop back in the car head to Bagdad Village Historic District, for a drive through an authentic historic village that features 143 historic buildings. Then, after all that nature and history, you come to Pensacola, Florida's panhandle playground. Treat the family to a little fun at Sam's Fun City & Surf City, an amusement park with water slides and a 750' endless river, arcade games and carnival-type food. Or there's also Fast Eddie's Fun Center, not as big as Fun City and Surf City, but just as fun, especially for littler kids. There are go-kart tracks, tropical mini-golf and an arcade.
Where to eat
Metro Diner is a local North Central Florida diner chain that specializes in American breakfasts, but they also have lunch and dinner. The Charleston shrimp grits, breakfast pie and fried chicken and waffle are consistent favorites. The Brown Lantern in Live Oak has a fantastic southern atmosphere, and is a local staple for a great pub lunch and dinner. If you need a caffeine fix, head to Tallahassee's Pony Espresso, great coffee and free wifi! When you've got seafood on the brain, hit up Barnacle Bill's Seafood Restaurant, a Tallahassee fixture for 30 years, specializing in fried fish, oysters and grouper sandwiches. If you're more into meat than seafood then, Mustang Grill's what you're looking for. It's located within an RV park, and close to a nearby Holiday Inn. This place is affordable, and the service is prompt. Order the chicken tortuga, it's their most popular dish.
But, c'mon every now and then all you really want is a good burger and fries. Well, head to Ed's Restaurant in DeFuniak, it prides itself on being "Home of the Pub Burger!" They also specialize in fried chicken and have a good selection fo salads. Or there's also Lily's Cafe, also in DeFuniak Springs. This is a highly popular restaurant, which hs a great reputation for service and food (Tip: The pancakes and turkey sandwich are local favorites). There's also Wings of Fire in Crestview, which boasts 11 different types of wing sauce. When you're ready for some fun with your food, head over to Shoal River Lanes for bowling and pizza (they also have more pub grub like onion rings and fried pickles). Lastly, finish up your culinary tour of I-10 with dinner at Flounders Chowder House, which has a fantastic seafood pub atmosphere (Tip: the Flounder's Classic Stuffed Flounder is their speciality).
Where to stay
There are quite a few options along I-10. You'll never be without a chain motel of course, but if you want to avoid chains and experience more of a local atmosphere, then here are a few sure-fire bets for accommodations along I-10. First up, Deerwood Inn & Campground, which is a simple roadside motel that's just 16 miles from Suwannee River State Park. There's an RV park and campground on site, along with a picnic area, outdoor pool and BBQ area. Or there's Cabot Lodge Tallahassee, which has a great southern atmosphere, cocktail reception and a complimentary deluxe hot breakfasts. Rooms come with minifridges, microwaves and of course wifi. Hilten Motel Crestview is another no-frills, roadside motel with the same in-room amenities as Cabot Lodge. Once you reach the Gulf, there's loads of beachside motels, but one of the best for cost is Margaritaville Beach Hotel, a totally laid back hotel that was inspired by Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville" song. It's located on over 800 feet of Gulf Coast beach, and just a short drive to Pensacola Beach Boulevard.
Insider Tips/Hidden gems
I-10 is also home to loads of hidden spring-fed swimming spots, these are a few of the best-kept secrets for spring-hopping throughout the Florida Panhandle. Cypress Springs is a beautiful oasis in Northwest Florida, where you can swim, picnic, snorkel, and even fish. Little ones will have fun swinging on the rope swings. Another great park for springs is Ponce De Leon Springs State Park, a 625-acre park that features a sizeable spring that produces 14 million gallons of pure water every day. The water temperature is 68-degrees all year long, and all Florida state parks are open from 8am til sundown every single day. Vortex Springs is a privately-run swimming and dive hole, which is considered one of Florida's Gulf Coast's best springs. It produces 28 million galons of water every day, and also enjoys temperatures of 68 degrees. If you're into cavern diving, there's one 50 feet below the surface, and an even deeper cave dive at 115 feet below.
Best time of year to visit
It really depends on what you want to do when you visit Florida's panhandle. The concensus is that May and mid-September through October are usually the best times to visit Northeast, Northcentral and Northwest Florida. This is the most temperate time of year, not too hot, not too cold. June through August is generally pretty humid, as well as the beginning of September until it starts to cool down. If you don't mind a little chill in the air, from November through March, the evenings can be chilly, and the morning's can see frost on the ground. But, the good part of visiting the Panhandle during winter is that you'll avoid crowds at most of the major attractions, especially those along I-10. Also, staying in the Panhandle during winter allows visitors to avoid high seasonal rates, which can get quite pricey, especially along the Gulf, near Destin and Sarasota. If you're interested in beaching it in the Panhandle, but want to avoid crowds, want an affordable place to stay, and don't mind the Gulf being on the cooler side, then May is perfect. Another time of year to avoid crowds but still enjoy the warmth is mid-September to late October. Although the air is cooler, you don't have to deal with the humidity and the Gulf is still warm for swimming.
Worst time to travel
March through Mid April is usually the time when throngs of college kids descend upon the Gulf for Spring Break and if you're traveling with your family it can be a bit unpleasant. Beaches are crowded, the streets are overrun with college kids on mopeds and evening meals are often disturbed by partying co-eds who drink quite heavily, especially in the Panhandle's beach towns.