America’s Gulf Coast is lined with miles of pristine, white sandy beaches lapped by the turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico’s shallow continental shelf. The persistently warm weather and beautiful beaches attract tourists in droves, but we haven’t come for a tan.
A Tale of Two Coasts
The aggressive rumble emanating from the exhaust pipes of Flo’s 2014 Indian Roadmaster breaks the thick, humid silence of this May morning in Tallahassee, FL. A second later the cacophony is joined by the more muted tones of my 2015 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited. These big American luxury touring machines will be our companions for the next few days as we trace the coastlines of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. It may seem odd for a couple of guys not yet 30 to be riding heavyweight touring rigs, but you’re never too young to be comfortable!
We roll out of Tallahassee and make a beeline toward the Gulf on State Route 363. It’s not long before we enter St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The road continues south through lush coastal wetlands. Palm trees line the way as we gradually become aware of a salt smell in the air. The tarmac runs out at St. Marks Lighthouse, the second oldest in the state. We shut off the bikes and the quiet returns in an instant, only occasionally disturbed by the cries of sea birds. It’s a Monday morning and St. Marks is all but deserted.
The refuge was established in 1931, making it one of the oldest in the country. At 68,000 acres, it’s home to a variety of wildlife, especially birds. In fact, St. Marks is one of the “gateways” to the Great Florida Birding Trail, which mimics much of our route.
The climbing sun reminds us we have many miles yet to go, so we fire up the bikes and turn to the west. Highway 98 tracks along the Gulf Coast, just a stone’s throw from the water in many places. The Harley and Indian effortlessly devour the miles as we take in the sights of Florida’s Forgotten Coast. Despite possessing the same beautiful beaches found elsewhere in the state, tourism has yet to take hold on this stretch of shoreline. The residents of tiny towns like Carrabelle and Eastpoint generally derive their livelihoods from fishing the Gulf, not by entertaining visitors.
The pace of life here is slow. Shrimp boats leave and return with the same ebb and flow as the tide. Traffic is sparse and the shoreline is dotted with fishing shacks, RV parks, and empty beaches. The bikes thunder on as we enjoy the peaceful scene.
Motorcycles & Gear
2015 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited
2014 Indian Roadmaster
Helmets: Schuberth C3, Schuberth C3 Pro
Jackets: Joe Rocket Classic ‘92, Speed and Strength Rust and Redemption
Pants: uglyBROS, Rokker Revolution
Boots: TCX X-Rap, Stylmartin Indian
Gloves: REV’IT! Sand Pro, Held Airstream II
The coastline turns north near Port St. Joe, and so do we. As the hours and miles roll by, the water plays hide and seek—at times hidden behind trees, sometimes sweeping right up to the road. As we approach Tyndall Air Force Base the road wanders inland and is flanked by young pine forests. We can’t see much of the base itself as we ride through, but just past Tyndall we hear the telltale sound of fighter jets overhead. A pair of F-22 Raptors soon wing into view as they dance through the skies.
Somewhere after Tyndall we transition from Florida’s Forgotten Coast to the Emerald Coast. Both live up to their names, with Emerald Coast beaches boasting fine white sand and clear, bluish-green water. Jokingly referred to as the “Redneck Riviera,” this span of coastline has certainly not been forgotten. Traffic tightens up and the seaside development increases exponentially as we wind our way to our day’s end at Destin’s Beachside Inn.
Subsequent to the explosion and sinking of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig on April 20, 2010, this area, and most of the Gulf Coast, was devastated by the biggest oil spill in U.S. history. Today, you’d never know it happened. There’s no trace of petroleum to be found. The recovery is remarkable.
Dauphin Island Detour
The Harley and Indian clear their throats early in the morning and we rejoin U.S. 98 continuing west. Before long, we cross a bridge onto Navarre Beach. A few miles in and the Gulf Islands National Seashore slows the speed limit to 20 mph, but it’s totally worth it! The road is mostly deserted with sand dunes rising on our right and the crystal blue waters of the Gulf splashing lazily on the beach to our left. The sight is intoxicating. We’ve left the massive hotels and beachfront homes of the Emerald Coast and are now witness to the seashore’s natural state.