The wide canvas on which Wakulla County is painted is framed between the expansive wilderness of the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge along the eastern edge and the Apalachicola National Forest along the west. Riverways of spring-fed crystal blue or tannin blackwater snake their way down the canvas face before they empty into Apalachee Bay. Beneath in the watery coolness marine mammals and primitive reptiles cruise alongside the fishes and aquatic grasses. Stippled across the karst topography are springs, sinkholes and swallets, and sometimes spots where a river seems to simply vanish only to rise to the surface further downstream. Upward splendid birds hail the skies on delicate wing, sailing the unseen currents with grace. The major expanse of the Wakulla canvas is covered in seasonal shades of green – fern, forest, jade, moss, pine and shamrock. In the bright light of day, it is hard to discern the wildlife camouflaged by all this green. But if you look closely at the painting in the twilight or the breaking light of dawn, your eyes will see much more.Stretched across this multicolored tapestry through a protected corridor runs the Panhandle section of the Florida National Scenic Trail, a 1,400 mile hiking trail that begins at the Big Cypress National Preserve near Miami and ends in the Gulf Islands National Seashore at Pensacola Beach. Wakulla County is fortunate to have the trail run through it for approximately 70 miles. The Florida Trail built and maintained by volunteers in partnership with private and public land managers began nearly 50 years ago when Jim Kern, a hiking enthusiast envisioned a long-distance footpath through the Florida wilderness. Today, the Florida Trail passes through 75 different habitats and some of the most unique ecosystems in the United States.
You can easily step right into this incredible painting of Wakulla County and onto The Florida Trail at trailheads and entry points assessable either on the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge or in the Apalachicola National Forest. Many parts of the trail are perfect for leisurely day hikes and suited for beginners as well as seasoned backpackers. When our lazy summer hibernation breaks with the first hint of autumn coolness and shakes us from our air conditioned habitats is the time to follow the orange blazes and explore the Florida Trail.
Enter the Florida Trail, Section 31, as it passes through the Aucilla Wildlife Management Area and crosses the eastern boundary of the St. Marks Refuge. Hikers follow abandoned railroad beds built at the turn of the century and cross over old logging bridges along this part of the trail at the edge of the county line. The trail continues on into the Refuge, one of the oldest in the National Wildlife Refuge System, across a series of dikes constructed to hold freshwater for thousands of wintering waterfowl. There is an abundant variety of wildlife along the trail which meanders through a wide diversity of forest types and habitats and runs alongside salt marshes that hug the coastal shore. The Refuge rich in cultural history will transport hikers back in time as they pass by abandoned relics and visual reminders of long ago. There are many other delightful surprises and adventures that await discovery as hikers traverse the Refuge along the Florida Trail. Check with the Refuge Visitor Center (850.925.6121) before you go for additional information, regulations, prescribed burn schedule and hunting seasons.
Next the trail transitions seamlessly into the Apalachicola National Forest, the start of Florida Trail, Section 32, at the Carraway Cutoff trailhead near Medart. This begins one of the longest wilderness sections of the Florida Trail that stretches for 32 miles through Wakulla County before exiting to the west onwards for an additional 46 backwoods miles. This moderate section starts off across sandhills through longleaf pine and wiregrass before meeting up with the Sopchoppy River, one of Florida’s blackwater streams. The trail follows the winding river and leads hikers along high bluffs and in and out of ravines under a canopy of magnolia, live oak, American holly and slash pine trees. Visitors to this section will witness magnificent cypress trees with impressive knees growing in the river and may glimpse vegetation unique only to this region including rare terrestrial orchids and the carnivorous pitcher plant.
The trail then enters into a very unique natural feature named Bradwell Bay, one of the largest swamp forests in Florida, dense with titi thicket and hardwoods surrounded by pine and palmetto on the higher ground. The trek through this area has been rated as one of the 10 toughest hikes in the nation. The endangered red-cockaded woodpecker makes its home in the Bradwell Bay Wilderness Area as does the Florida black bear, Florida panther, American alligator, and a host of other wildlife. A large variety of flora including many beautiful and rare seasonal flowers grow in and around the swampland. On the west side of Bradwell Bay, the trail continues for a short stretch through the area of Smith Creek to the steephead ravines along the Ochlockonee River where the Florida Trail then crosses over a road bridge and exits Wakulla County.
There are many stretches of the Florida National Scenic Trail that I have hiked so far, but I have not trekked the entire trail through Wakulla County. The trail from Wakulla Beach through the Cathedral of Palms and Shepherd Springs is one of my favorite hikes, and the section that runs along the salt marshes around Purify Bay is another. I have not yet hiked to the extreme eastern side or to the extreme western side either. But beginning in October into early December, I will walk the entire length of the trail on successive day hikes through Section 31. “Apalachee Ambles,” a series of 8 Saturday or Sunday guided hikes organized by the Apalachee Chapter of the Florida Trail Association is free and open to the public. Says Howard Pardue who chairs the local FTA chapter, this series of hikes is a great opportunity to explore the natural beauty of North Florida wilderness and come to know and love the Florida Trail – and take your North Florida hiking from Good to Great!
The Apalachee Chapter also hosts regular educational seminars and training, and leads hiking and paddling trips throughout the year. Perhaps the most notorious expedition is the challenging “Bradwell Bay Swamp Stomp” where I will take my place come the first Saturday next March to slog my way for 8 miles through waist-high waters to earn my own extreme trail hiking, “bad lass” bragging rights.
For maps, to check trail conditions, local emergency contact information, and to access the current chapter newsletter and schedule of area trail activities, go to www.apalachee.floridatrail.org or call 1.877.HIKEFLA for additional information.
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