Beaches in the Big Bend are rare, since this stretch of shoreline is defined by coastal estuaries and there is a lack of barrier islands. Still, in the sweep of the shallows of the Gulf of Mexico between Apalachicola and Cedar Key, you’ll find slim ribbons and tiny patches of beach.
Where Ochlockonee Bay meets the Gulf, Bald Point State Park protects the tip of the peninsula. Off the beaten track, it’s a quiet place, perfect for a seaside stroll with a bit of estuarine exploration and shady coastal hammocks thrown in for good measure. Sweeping views, colorful blossoms, and scurrying shorebirds add to the fun.
Location: Alligator Point
Length: 1.7 miles
Fees / Permits: $4 per vehicle
Bug Factor: Moderate
Open sunrise to sunset daily. Dogs are not permitted on the beach.
Sunscreen and a hat are suggested for this hike, since the majority of the walk is in full sun. Carry insect repellant; you may need it in the estuary.
From Tallahassee, follow US 319 to US 98 at Medart. Drive west on US 98 through Panacea to Ochlocknee Bay, crossing the bay on a long bridge. Continue one mile to SR 370, the road to Alligator Point. Follow this road for 3 miles to the turnoff for Bald Point Road. Follow Bald Point Road into the park entrance.
Surrendering yourself to the coast of the Big Bend means tuning into both tiny details and panoramic landscapes. Here at Bald Point State Park, wildflowers put on a perpetual show. Summer means splashes of purple and white, coming from runners of morning-glory with a parade of blossoms, and members of the pea family blazing in the sun.
The hike begins at the first parking area after the main gate. A sidewalk leads through the coastal scrub, past restrooms and pretty picnic shelters to a boardwalk protecting the dunes. The core beauty of this park is its solitude; you may encounter other visitors walking the sandy strand or soaking in the sun, but they will be few. It is remote and calm here, with the sounds of cicadas, shorebirds and surf echoing in your ears.
Shimmering schools of baitfish lie close to the surface of the sea as you exit the boardwalk and turn left to walk along the firm sands. The shorebirds put up a perpetual chatter as your shoes squeak on the sand – perhaps you’d rather walk barefoot? Fishing boats lie at anchor a mile or more offshore in the mouth of Ochlocknee Bay.
It’s an easy walk along the strand, and a time for contemplation, a mindful walk. The sea oats on your left are mimicked by the pine forest beyond; the waves, a constant strum. You see the channel markings now, that lead into Ochlocknee Bay. Stilts race down the sand, past a dead horseshoe crab washed ashore in sea wrack. When you reach the weathered finger of a tree that protrudes from the beach, you’ve walked 0.4 mile in the sun. Beyond, you can see picnic shelters in the distance as the beach curves towards the bay. It is shallow here, and fishermen wade waist-deep although more than 100 feet offshore.
The coastal scrub curves to parallel the beach. From here you can see Mashes Sands, Wakulla County’s best-known beach on the far shore. Stilts and gulls cluster in whistling gatherings at the point, where they know the fish are gathering as well.
At half a mile, you reach a hiker symbol sign beckoning you across the dunes. Turn left and follow the path – which, compared to the beach, is more of a trudge through extremely soft sand, away from the shoreline. As soon as you step over the dune, the strum of the shore disappears. This is a walk through an open coastal grassland on a trail defined by the rangers’ ATV tracks, dipping through swales. As you reach the treeline, a low canopy of coastal scrub, relax in the shade of the bench.
Along this section of the trail, fungi thrive in the oak duff, and more wildflowers spill across the sandy spots. The yaupon are in berry; the oaks, covered in shield lichen and spanish moss. The trail pops out at the far parking area, the end of the road. Cross the parking area to where the bench is, and follow the path – a concrete sidewalk to start – to the marsh. It’s mating season for dragonflies, and they whisk around, suspended, in lopsided pairs. This is also a spot where yellowflies gather in summer, so walk briskly, or put on your insect repellent.
A pretty lagoon sits off to the right. To the left, there’s a bench in the shade, and beyond it, a broad sweep of estuary fringed by pine woods. A few more steps, and the trail, becoming a boardwalk, is surrounded by the estuary. At 0.9 mile, trail’s end is at a platform overlooking the estuary and Ocklochnee Bay beyond, nearly 360 degrees of beauty– subtracting, of course, the houses on the far shore of the bay. The air is imbued with the salt of the coast. A memorial bench provides a place to settle in for some serious birdwatching.
Breathe in the salt air and calm, the chirp of cicadas, the birdsong. Your return trek can be the way you came, back along the beach, for a 1.8-mile round trip, or you can walk back along the paved park road – which is as much in the sun, but bounded by trees – to create a loop of 1.3 miles.
|1.3||return to parking area via park road|
|1.8||return to parking area via same route|