Sluicing its way through high bluffs and low flatlands, Econfina Creek is one of Florida’s most beautiful and unsung waterways. The Florida Trail follows it for nearly 20 miles through Washington and Bay Counties. Starting at Pitt Spring, a popular launch point, this day hike will give you a good taste of the geologic wonders to be savored along its shores.
Although it is short, this is no ordinary nature trail; the name is very deceiving. It involves rugged climbs, steep drop-offs, a lack of blazing, narrow footpaths fringed in poison ivy, and deep dark crevices into the earth. But it’s worthy of an explorer who wants to savor Florida’s karst, a landscape where water moves under, above, and through the earth. Why go? One of the prettiest springs in Florida lies at the far end of the loop.
Length: 2.0 miles
Lat-Long: 30.432783, -85.546768
Type: Round-trip and loop
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: Moderate
Restroom: Yes, near trailhead
The trail has been rerouted and made more gentle as of summer 2016. Although the hike isn’t posted “no dogs,” given the deep pits, steep hillsides, and sharp drops off the bluff, I’d leave the dogs and small children at home if you want to explore the entire loop. A hiking stick is strongly recommended for balance and climbing.
From the junction of US 231 and SR 20 in Fountain, south of Marianna and north of Panama City, head west on SR 20. Drive 7.1 miles. Immediately after you cross Econfina Creek, the entrance to the park is on the right.
The hike starts at the kiosk at Pitt Spring. On a boardwalk, the trail passes the restrooms and comes up to a T intersection. Turn right to walk to an observation deck over Econfina Creek. In the other direction, the trail turns left and makes a jog through the floodplain forest towards SR 20, reaching a clear pool of water that it slips around, a spring a little larger than a garden bathtub, creating a run down to the creek.
Moments later, the boardwalk reaches a T intersection with a footpath. To the left, a trail goes out to SR 20. Turn right. You hear the sound of water, and can see the creek through the trees at .25 mile. Walk out to the edge of the bluff, past the sinkhole, towards a bench. The springs here are so strong they well up above the water and burble, the creek still crystal-clear, the scene so Old Florida and pristine. There is a sinkhole behind the bench. Go around the bench and continue along the nature trail.
Walking through the slope forest of tall magnolias and oaks, you reach a trail junction after 0.5 mile, soon after a massive American beech. My mistake was to go straight ahead, since I saw a blaze on an old fencepost that way. That’s not the trail, it seems. Instead, turn right and follow the unblazed but obvious footpath under the tall trees. Vegetation crowds close, and there is poison ivy. You’re gaining elevation. After 0.7 mile, you see a bench off to the right. Work your way down to it, and follow the narrow path to the very edge. Hold steady—you’re on some serious bluffs above Econfina Creek, at least forty feet above the waterway below Turn left. The trail becomes a very narrow goat path along the bluff, winding along under the trees, and the footpath is scarcely wide enough for your feet. It takes a plunge straight ahead and down the steep hill. A hiking stick is helpful here. At the T intersection, turn right (I tried the left fork and lost the footpath). The trail meanders out through the floodplain to the edge of the waterway, providing glimpses of the creek and far-off sandy shores in the shade of the bottomlands, with dark muck underfoot. Wild azalea blooms here in March. Watch your footing, as there are many rocks underfoot. You step over the outflow of a small spring, which may be dry, and continue on to find a spring gushing out of the side of the hill, creating a spring run that the trail parallels. Then the landscape gets truly weird. This is a limestone karst at its finest. There are giant boulders split apart by tiny streams, deep pits and cracks in the footpath and through the forest, some obvious bowl-shaped sinkholes, and caves you can peer down into, where water runs through the bottom. It’s very reminiscent of the Aucilla Sinks along the Florida Trail, but far more concentrated and on a smaller scale.
The trail emerges at one of the loveliest springs I’ve ever seen. It’s a robin’s-egg blue, with concentric circles of sand looking like rings around a planet. You’ve hiked 0.9 miles. While it’s obvious by the small parking area that this site is reachable on a dirt road, it’s not a busy place, and certainly prime for swimming. According to the sign, this is Williford Springs. Leaving the spring, turn left and walk up the dirt road a little ways to look for a broad opening on the left to what appears to be an old road. This part of the trail looks suspiciously like an old wagon trail, a broad path deeply eroded into the forest paralleling the dirt road. You’ll clamber over a fallen tree as the trail makes a gradual uphill through a laurel oak forest and eventually reaches the top of the bluffs again and a bench at 1.2 miles. The view is obscured by vegetation but you can tell you’re atop the hill again. A little ways down the trail is the bench where you left the main trail to walk along the bluffs. Continue straight past it along the main trail and back to the turnoff you made to reach this loop, at 1.5 miles. Turn left and walk by the beauty spot with its bubbling springs. At the intersection with the trash can, turn left to return to the parking area.
0.0 Start at trailhead
0.2 Trail junction at T
0.3 Beauty spot on creek
0.5 Trail junction, turn right
0.7 Bench on bluffs
0.7 T intersection at base of bluff
0.8 Scenic view on spring run
0.8 Big boulders
0.8 Spring pouring out of rock
0.9 Williford Springs
1.0 Left on old wagon road
1.2 Bench atop bluff
1.5 Return to trail junction, left
1.6 Return to trashcan, left
2.0 Return to trailhead