Take on some rugged terrain on this round-trip hike to Alaqua Creek to discover the beauty of the undulating landscape, including an ancient magnolia-beech forest cradled between floodplains.
The eastern end of the Alaqua section of the Florida Trail through Eglin Air Force Base has a secret at its heart: the most fascinating place to hike in Eglin. It’s a grand beech-magnolia forest, punctuated with low-lying swamps where needle palm and bluestem palm thrive. This is a forest of contrasts, for American beech trees prefer cool climates, while Southern magnolia trees prefer warm climates. You’ll notice the forest floor is covered with distinctive light brown beech leaves. It’s the slope of a series of hills, and their orientation towards the floodplains of Blount and Alaqua creeks, that create a cool microclimate where this combination of species thrive.
There is a roadblock, however, to making this a linear hike, and that’s the fickle nature of Alaqua Creek. Rising from an extensive floodplain that encompasses dozens of feeder streams between Mossy Head and Defuniak Springs, Alaqua Creek is broad and deep where the Florida Trail now meets it. The waters rise quickly after a rain, and don’t settle down for a couple of weeks. When the trail was first established, the crossing was in a friendlier place. But a requirement by the base to shift the trail farther north to keep it within the base safety zone changed the dynamic. Previously, there was a road bridge that provided a blue-blazed bypass. Now, there is no easy option for long distance hikers to get around the creek except a 12-mile roadwalk on US 331 and Bob Sikes Rd, passing through DeFuniak Springs.
Plans have been in place for years for a replacement bridge, but it’s taken until this season for approvals to be completed. Work is underway to build a suspension bridge over the creek. Until it is ready for hikers, this is an out-and-back hike that’s both worth the walk and the wet feet when you ford Blount Creek twice.
All hikers entering Eglin Air Force Base must have a current Eglin permit. Obtain yours by visiting the Eglin Natural Resources website. This is a military reservation that tests bombs. Most military activity is on weekdays. You may encounter military personnel on manuevers and hear the sounds of “thunder” in the distance as bombs are dropped. Aircraft may fly very low over the tree canopy. If you notice any sort of ordinance – rocket, bomb, hand grenade – do not approach it but note the location and call Eglin Security Forces at 850-850-882-2502. Do not random camp or stray off the trail corridor. Please sign in and out of trailhead kiosks.
Before your hike, you must review the Public Access Map (PAM) before hiking at Eglin to ensure that a portion of the trail you plan to hike is not closed. Closures are posted up to three days in advance (called a “forecast”) in the PAM. Closures may be due to military training, prescribed burns, logging for longleaf habitat restoration, and a host of other reasons. We’ve discovered that the best times to hike this piece of the trail is on weekends, especially holiday weekends. It’s not easy to read the PAM, but the best guess we have on which blocks correspond to this hike are N-14 and N-11. When in doubt about a suspected closure, call Jackson Guard at 850-882-4165. At FPCON DELTA status, the entire base is closed, including all roads that cross it.
FT symbols indicate trailheads and access points. Click on any symbol for more details and on FT symbols to obtain custom directions to trailheads.
0.0 > Starting from the Eglin Portal trailhead, you enter a sand pine forest with increasingly taller trees the deeper in you get. Sand pines yield to longleaf within the first quarter mile, providing a high upper canopy and an open understory through which to ramble on the comfortable pine duff.
0.5 > The trail drops down into a swale in the pine forest to cross Switch Cane Branch, a shallow and clear sand-bottomed stream, on a plank bridge. This is your first water source northbound in the Eglin section and is easy to reach for filtering. In fact, there’s a tiny cascade that makes a perfect spot for dropping a filter in.
0.8 > After a walk beneath tall pines into a sandhill habitat, the trail emerges into an open area bisected by power lines. Cross the grassy slope and continue into more sandhills dominated by pines. You cross some faint forest roads marked by trail signs.
1.3 > The thicket of vegetation up ahead means another creek crossing. This one is Moccasin Creek, which you cross on a plank bridge. Slightly broader than Switch Cane Branch, it has a darker bottom but clear water, and is still a good spot to filter water or to cool off your feet. On the other side of the bridge, follow a boardwalk through a gum swamp before the trail rises back up into a pine forest.
1.9 > In the middle of a sand pine scrub forest, the trail crosses Forrest Oak Road, a sand road that leads east through a rural residential community and then to US 331. Use this as an alternate access point for a shorter out-and-back hike, or if the Eglin Portal trailhead is closed. To the west, the road ends at a gate for Eglin AFB, becoming RR 201.
2.7 > This forest is a mix of sandhills and scrub, with dense clusters of British soldiers and deer moss growing on the pine duff. You pass a towering sand pine on the left. As sand pines only live to about 70 years, this is one of the ancients of this forest.
2.9 > Dropping in elevation from the sand pine forest through a thicket of sparkleberry, the trail enters a beech-magnolia forest, an uncommon habitat for Florida. The kiosk for Eglin Portal campsite is up ahead. This is a very appealing campsite, with plenty of flat space on this bluff within sight of the benches and fire ring. The blue blaze headed away from the campsite leads a tenth of a mile downhill to a clear stream bridged by planks to make sitting and filtering your water an easy task.
3.1 > Following the orange blazes, you drop down along the deeply forested bluffs beneath the tall beeches and magnolias. The trail parallels a small stream before crossing Trapper Bridge on a plank bridge over a horseshoe bend in the waterway. It then climbs back uphill again.
3.2 > After a steep downhill and a boardwalk across a floodplain, the trail joins the bluffs along Blount Creek. Don’t be fooled by the log over the creek. That’s not a bridge, and given how rotten it looks, it probably wouldn’t support your weight. While it’s not obvious exactly where, Blount Creek must be forded. The higher the creek is, the swifter the flow will be. If it’s over your knees, there’s a good chance that the trail up ahead will be too flooded to hike, so you should turn back if that’s the case. To ford, we found a good spot downstream from the fallen log at a spot where the bluff becomes a sloping sand bank. Aim upstream towards the log and the “Blount Creek” sign. There is an anchored rope adjoining the log that helps you climb up the steep bluff on the on the other side of the creek.
3.4 > Immersed in the magnolia-beech forest, with towering trees surrounding you, it’s a surprise to come to a wooden ladder mounted to what appears to be a geologic fault line through the forest with an uplift taller than you are. The only way over it is to climb the ladder to the top. On the way back, you can slide down this natural wall on a cleared spot next to the ladder. Beyond the fault, the landscape drops down into a broad swampy area, which the trail traverses on a series of boardwalks.
3.8 > The trail rises up to a bluff, following a side channel of Alaqua Creek until it reaches the creek itself. The last attempt at bridging the creek washed away, which you can see evidence of at the footers of what was the Demon Bridge. Continue to follow the orange blazes upstream.
4.0 > Your end point for this hike is where the orange ribbons lead down a steep slope into the creek itself to a marked fording point. As we discovered, when Blount Creek was ankle-deep, Alaqua Creek remained more than waist-deep and deeper at the fording point, two weeks after the most recent rain. The creek has a strong flow and can knock you off your feet, even if you use hiking poles to keep your balance and especially if you are fighting the current traversing west to east. Work is finally underway to build a sturdy bridge, which should be complete by the 2018 hiking season.
Using the above directions backwards, return to your starting point for a round-trip hike of 8 miles (from Eglin Portal) or 4.2 miles (from Forrest Oak Road).
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DeFuniak Springs is the big town to the north of this section along US 331, and is a favorite stop for long distance hikers for resupply – especially while the bridge over Alaqua Creek is out, making it necessary for hikers to walk through the interchange to Bob Sikes Rd, where the 24-hour Walmart, 850-892-3138, 1226 Freeport Hwy, is located. There are also convenience store and numerous fast food options 5 miles north of the Eglin Portal trailhead, as well as a half-dozen hotels and motels surrounding the Interstate 10 interchange.
LODGING: We’ve stayed at the Best Western Crossroads Inn, 850-892-5111, 2343 US 331, Defuniak Springs 32435, and the Holiday Inn Express Defuniak Springs , 850-520-4660, 326 Coy Burgess Loop, Defuniak Springs 32435, and would recommend both. Rooms at the Holiday Inn Express are newer and larger, but you can park outside your door at the Best Western. Both hotels have laundry facilities, a pool, and breakfast included with your stay. There are also several budget motels north of the interstate. Long distance hikers tend to gravitate to the Sundown Inn, 850-892-9647, 1295 US 331, because it’s across the street from Walmart and is the cheapest place around. It also has laundry facilities.
DINING: Hungry hikers won’t want to miss the all-you-can-eat options at McClain’s Family Steak House, 850-892-2402, 622 Hugh Adams Rd, a well-established family owned restaurant serving every cut of steak you can think of, plus a dozen seafood selections. Time your visit for their Steak & Seafood Buffet, held Friday and Saturdays nights, or just enjoy the regular lunch or dinner buffet on other days. They do a breakfast buffet on weekends as well.
Adjoining the Sundown Inn is La Rumba, 850-951-2175, 1317 US 331, Defuniak Springs, an excellent Mexican restaurant with an extensive menu and 2-4-1 margaritas. Bring a friend to share. Just north of Bob Sikes Rd in a strip mall, 4C BBQ, 850-892-4227, 1045 US 331, makes a most-excellent fish dip in addition to their tasty barbecue. They also have live music, karaoke, and even Sunday services in their large indoor space.
If you’ve driven into town, you shouldn’t miss Bogeys, 850-951-2233, 660 Baldwin Ave. This is the upscale choice for dinner in historic downtown Defuniak Springs, serving fresh seafood and excellent steaks at dinnertime. We had fun at lunch with a visit to Ed’s Restaurant, 850-892-5839, 1324 US 90, the “Home of the Pub Burger” (which is quite good) where you’ll want to order a homemade milkshake to go with it.
From Defuniak Springs, follow US 331 south from Interstate 10 for 5.1 miles to the trailhead on the right side of the highway, across from a fire station. The kiosk is visible from the highway.
If road construction blocks access to the Eglin Portal trailhead, alternate access is available via Forrest Oak Rd, which is 4.2 miles south of Interstate 10 on the right. Forrest Oak Rd is unpaved and has some spots of soft sand, plus limited space for parking near the trail crossing. Use the map above to get directions to the exact location of the trail crossing. Starting from this point cuts this out-and-back hike to Alaqua Creek to a four mile round-trip.