Experience a little bit of all of the best that the Florida Trail in Eglin has to offer with this scenic 6.6-mile round-trip hike across hilly terrain punctuated by the tributaries that flow into Alaqua Creek.
On this trek across the western side of the Alaqua section at Eglin Air Force Base, steep hills and long puncheon boardwalks through creekside swamps alternate with milder stretches of trail in pine forests and sandhills. Two of the gems along this hike are easy to spot: Whitetop Hill, a perched seepage slope where tall whitetop pitcher plants thrive, and the crossing of Little Alaqua Creek and its floodplain. But there are many other interesting and amusing sights too, including the aptly named Step Across Creek. This day hike makes its turnaround point the pretty and roomy Alaqua Campsite, a pleasant destination for a overnight getaway, particularly for beginners and families.
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.
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-3, 4, and 5. 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 > Leaving the Alaqua trailhead southbound, the trail follows a straightaway through a forest with towering pines. Formed in 1908, at the same time as the Ocala National Forest, this was once Choctawhatchee National Forest, created to support the naval stores industry. By World War II, the National Forest was ceded to the Air Force for Eglin Field.
0.5 > At a sharp left curve in the trail, you emerge above a steep slope with a railing along the trail’s edge. This is White Top Hill, dropping off as a sharp slope down to the floodplain forest surrounding White Top Creek. Noticed the perched bogs of pitcher plants like terraces down the hillside. The trail drops down a steep slope to the floodplain as it descends the hill. Reaching the bottom, you traverse a long series of narrow plank boardwalks to cross the floodplain and the creek itself. The trail climbs back up out of the floodplain and into a clayhill forest.
1.2 > Cross an old two-track road in the clayhills. As the forest floor begins to be covered by a fuzzy seafoam-green, with clusters of deer moss thriving on the pine duff, Choctawhatchee sand pines intrude into the habitat.
1.6 > The forest around you shifts again, this time into a dense stand of Southern magnolias, as the trail begins to point downhill. After a long descent down a curved slope through a deciduous forest, the trail enters the floodplain of Little Alaqua Creek. It’s a swift and deep creek, the largest tributary flowing into Alaqua Creek, so a substantial footbridge is in place. Once you’ve crossed the creek, the floodplain swamp – home to some ancient pine trees – goes on for some ways, and is bridged by puncheon boardwalks zigzagging through the forest.
2.0 > Climbing back up into the clayhills again, the trail reaches a spot that belies the former commercial aspect of the forest, as the pines grow in a row next to the trail. Cross a sand road with deep, soft sand where it curves past the trail crossing.
2.2 > Jump Across Creek is as cute as the name implies: you don’t really need the plank bridge to cross it, since it’s such a narrow waterway. However, the plank has an important purpose: the clear water and sand bottom makes this a great spot to stop and filter water, moreso than the other creeks you’ve crossed. Beyond it, the trail rises up through bracken fern to attain the next hilltop in the clayhills.
2.6 > In the midst of the clayhill forest, where turkey oaks wave their bright green leaves at eye level, the trail crosses another two-track forest road. This is the flattest part of the hike, this expanse of turkey oaks between the creek basins.
3.2 > Hellfire Creek is not named for its looks, but for the Hellfire Missile that was tested and perfected here at Eglin Air Force Base. A plank bridge crosses this narrow creek, which is the water source for the upcoming campsite at the top of this hill.
3.3 > The nicest campsite along the Florida Trail in Eglin, the Alaqua Campsite has quite a few amenities for being a primitive backcountry campsite. Beyond just the usual benches and fire ring – which are always welcomed by weary backpackers – there is also a full-size picnic bench and a permanent grill. This is an excellent destination for large groups, since there is plenty of space on the flat ground under the sand pines to pitch a dozen tents or more.
Using the above directions backwards, return to your starting point for a round-trip hike of 6.6 miles.
You also have the option of continuing on to Roger Nelson Rd if you can arrange to have someone pick you up (or even better, drop you off) there. The trail crosses this unpaved road just outside the gate of Eglin AFB, but there isn’t anywhere trustworthy to park due to the terrain and soft sand. Continuing east to Roger Nelson Rd, the landscape is less dramatic. Most of your time is spent under the pines.
3.6 > Passing a Southern magnolia that grows in a clump along the trail, the footpath loses a little elevation to guide you into the creek basin surrounding Dykes Branch, a narrow stream which you cross on a plank. On the other side, you immediately climb up into sand pine scrub, with turkey oaks providing the lower canopy.
3.8 > As there is a wall of vegetation up ahead, you can guess another creek crossing is coming. The trail curves down the hill into the Lyonia Branch floodplain. This shallow, clear, sand-bottomed stream is a good choice for filtering water, and you can sit on the plank bridge to do so. Rising back out of the stream basin, the trail enters a sand pine forest.
4.0 > Cross a forest road. Clayhill and sand pine scrub habitats alternate the remainder of the hike, with lots of deer moss growing along the edges of the trail, outlining it nicely in places. You’ll cross one more forest road before finishing this section.
5.1 > Reach Roger Nelson Rd, a clay road that goes compass north to Pleasant Ridge Rd, a paved road off Bob Sikes Rd. The trail crosses Roger Nelson Rd and continues eastbound towards Alaqua Creek.
<<< SOUTHBOUND NORTHBOUND >>>
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.
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 here, 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 north from Interstate 10 for 1 mile to the light for Bob Sikes Rd. Turn left. Continue 6.6 miles to the Alaqua trailhead on the left. It sits up a hill from the road and access to it can be a little rough at times.
To reach the trail crossing at Roger Nelson Rd, you follow the northern portion of the roadwalk that long distance hikers must take while there is no bridge at Alaqua Creek. Take Bob Sikes Rd west from US 331 in Defuniak Springs (the corner with the Walmart) for 2.7 miles to Pleasant Ridge Rd. Turn left at the former convenience store. Continue 2 miles along Pleasant Ridge Rd. It drops down a hill, crosses Alaqua Creek on a highway bridge, and the pavement ends as Roger Nelson Rd comes in from the left. Continue straight ahead on the dirt road to the trail crossing, 1.3 miles ahead. Public access to this road ends past the trail crossing at a gate for Eglin.