On the Florida panhandle near the Gulf of Mexico, there’s a landscape so mystifying and diverse, so beautiful and unsettling, that it inspired a story about the natural world’s evolution over man.
It’s the 68,000-acre St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge, and it inspired author Jeff VanderMeer to make it the location for the strange “Area X” in his 2014 novel Annihilation, and recent film Annihilation. It’s located 20 miles south of Tallahassee, and anyone can safely visit it without worrying about a “Shimmer” affecting their genetic makeup.
VanderMeer writes for Weird Fiction Review that Area X is based on his annual hikes through the refuge: “It is a landscape and a series of transitional ecosystems that have enchanted me, fascinated me, and at times scared me. I’ve seen a Florida panther in that place, and turned a corner right into the gaze of a bobcat, been charged by a wild boar, seen dolphins swimming up the brackish marsh canals at high tide, and had to jump over an alligator on a raised path with water on either side. It’s a place where you need to live in the moment, and yet can also, by doing so, be transported deep into memory and catharsis.’’
Though filmmaker Alex Garland had wanted to use the St. Mark’s Refuge to shoot Annihilation, early screen tests revealed that the vegetation was so thick it caused a loss of depth perception on film.
“In a way it’s good the movie wasn’t shot on location,” VanderMeer told the Tampa Bay Times. “The wilderness here is so fragile. That area I love is so environmentally sensitive.”
Production was later moved to the south of England, but anyone can easily visit the inspiration for Area X by stopping at St. Mark’s Refuge. Established in 1931 as a winter habitat for migratory birds, it’s one of the oldest National Wildlife Refuges in the country and claims 43 miles of shore on Florida’s northwest coast. There’s a diverse array of plant and wildlife thanks to the several different habitats, including swamps, pine forests, coastal marshes, and estuaries. Download the Audubon Bird Guide before hitting the woods.
How to Get There
If you’re traveling from out of town, it’s easiest to rent a car from Tallahassee International Airport and take the scenic half-hour drive.
The refuge is open year-round during daylight hours, and each season brings out different species. The best way to experience the refuge is by hike, just like VanderMeer does. About a mile south of the Visitor’s Center, where you can park your $5, you’ll see signs for the entrance to St. Marks Wildlife Primitive Walking Trails including the Stoney Bayou trail (6.5 miles) and the Deep Creek trail (12 miles).
Following old dirt tram roads, both hikes take you through changing landscapes like coastal salt marshes, dense canopied forests, and swamps where you’ll usually see some alligators.
Sandra Friend, travel writer and publisher of FloridaHikes.com tells Inverse that hikers should “be cautious of alligators anywhere and everywhere in the refuge.”
You’ll likely see these creatures along with wading birds and exotic plants in the freshwater marshes, which can have sawgrass that grows up to ten feet.
What other creatures can you expect to encounter? In addition to being a refuge for migratory birds, St. Mark’s is home to bobcats, Florida black bears, and white-tailed deer (sans flowers sprouting from their antlers). And since the refuge is located within the historic range of the longleaf pine belt, a diverse ecosystem consisting of sand hills, flatlands, and savannas, it is home to 34 amphibian species and 38 reptile species, so be on the lookout for flatlands salamanders, eastern indigo snakes, and gopher tortoises. Rare insects and one of the largest populations of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers, a species the refuge has been actively working to support since the 1980s, are all here.
Once you’ve completed hiking the Primitive Trails and you’re back on Lighthouse Road, take that road all the way to its end. When you hit the shore, you’ll notice the lighthouse that’s referenced in both the novel and film. The St. Mark’s Lighthouse is one of Florida’s oldest, originally built in 1831 and rebuilt in 1842. Though it’s currently not open to visitors due to ongoing restoration, that shouldn’t stop you from checking it out. VanderMeer hadn’t been inside the lighthouse either when he wrote Annihilation, it was just that darn inspiring a sight.
Though you can visit St. Mark’s Wildlife Refuge year round, Friend recommends the winter months. “Florida is a winter hiking state, with October through April our prime time. October brings colorful wildflowers and migrating monarch butterflies.”
Whenever you decide to visit, make sure to let someone on the outside know where you’re going should you disappear into Area X.