Following the sinuous route of Bauldree Branch before tracing the bluffs of the Chipola River upstream past the famed Look and Tremble rapids, the Altha section of the Florida Trail is a short but sweet break between roadwalks flanking Upper Chipola WMA.
A pleasant day hike and an appreciated diversion for long distance hikers while walking north from Blountstown, the Altha section of the Florida Trail shows off the main natural feature of this region, the Chipola River. Most of rural Calhoun county is agricultural, with vast ranches and farms. This sliver of natural land through the county is thanks to Northwest Florida Water Management District, protected as Upper Chipola WMA on both sides of the river. While much of the uplands near the river have been converted to pine plantations, a ribbon of natural deciduous forest remains, and that’s where the trail spends most of its time.
The centerpiece of the hike is Look and Tremble, a picturesque stretch of rapids along the Chipola River that commercial boat traffic once navigated when heading upstream to Marianna. When the water is low, they are quite beautiful. We’ve yet to visit when they weren’t entirely underwater due to regional flooding. Thankfully, although plans were drawn up to do so, the Army Corps of Engineers never destroyed this natural treasure. The U.S. Geologic Survey classifies the rapids as a waterfall in Florida.
For such a short section of the Florida Trail, it’s surprising that there are two designated camping areas along it. However, this is the only public footpath in Calhoun County, so it provides a place for Scouting groups to camp as well as an important stop for long distance hikers on the Florida Trail, who must cope with roadwalks of 8 miles to the south and 17 miles to the north of this section.
Day hikers will find it easiest to park at the north end of the hike, at Willis Bridge Park, and hike south, as there is only a very limited shoulder along the road at the south end. This section makes a nice 3.4-mile round trip: that way you get to see the rapids twice.
Hunting is permitted in Upper Chipola WMA, so be sure to check hunt dates before hiking here, and wear bright orange clothes during hunting season.
Flooding is always a possibility along the Chipola River, so before driving here to hike this section, always consult the flood gauge for this area. Long distance hikers must detour northbound on SR 71 towards Altha to J.R. Peacock Road to CR 274 if the river floods, as the trail is entirely in the floodplain.
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 > Enter Upper Chipola WMA at an FNST sign at the end of a fence, which the trail skirts through tall grasses. You may find the footpath soggy at first, since flowing waters spread across the flattened ground of the forest. The trail itself is a worn channel as well, winding between the trees. It quickly brings you to a footbridge over Bauldree Branch, a narrow stream which flows in a deeply eroded ravine. Once you cross the bridge, the trail makes a hard left to continue along a firebreak along the ecotone between a pine plantation and the deciduous forest surrounding the waterway. Wild azaleas (Rhododendron canescens) grow profusely along this stretch of the trail. They bloom in late February through mid-March, filling the air with a sweet fragrance.
0.5 > Along the edge of the pines, the trail meets a T intersection with a forest road. It makes a sharp left to continue paralleling the creek. Florida flame azalea (Rhododendron austrinum), an endangered species, puts on a show of bright orange blossoms in spring in the woods along the waterway. Cross over Bauldree Branch on the forest road, where the creek flows under the road in culverts. The narrow creek is deeply eroded into the landscape, and its sides are dense with ferns. You meet up with the creek one more time by crossing it on another high footbridge. The trail now stays in the shade of the decidious forest, within sight of the creek.
0.6 > Reaching the bluffs of the Chipola River, the trail makes a sharp right to follow the river north. To the left is a short blue-blazed trail leading to the Altha Campsite, a designated camping area under the cedars on a bluff above the Chipola River. If you camp here, obtain water from Bauldree Branch where it meets the Chipola River, just a little ways past the camping sign along the river bluff. Just upriver along the main trail, there is a nice view across the river where a large cypress tree is near the shoreline.
0.8 > After treating you to views from the bluffs, the trail jogs right to cross an old forest road which is now closed to vehicles. The campsite sign for the Chipola Campsite indicates it’s fine to pitch tents here, and in fact there is plenty of room for a small group of campers. The better, more level spot is after the trail jogs left to cross the road again on its way back to the river bluff.
1.0 > The river’s sandy banks obviously shift, growing and shrinking, based on floodwaters. When you see a dirt boat ramp on the far side of the river, you know you’re approaching Look and Tremble. This stretch of rapids occurs when the Chipola River drops about two feet over a limestone shoal, creating Class I/II whitewater when the river is at normal levels. Sometimes river access is possible for filtering water.
1.3 > Above the rapids, the trail crosses a footbridge before rejoining the forest road to cross an alluvial stream, which flows under the road in culverts. There is a nice view towards the river. Soon after, you see a chain link fence on the right and industrial debris along the river at a spot that would otherwise be tempting to access the river for water.
1.5 > The trail follows the forest road, which sticks close to the river and is straight enough you can see the end of the hike up ahead. In early March, expect to see cherry and redbud trees blooming, adding a touch of color to the spring greens of the deciduous forest.
1.7 > Emerge from Upper Chipola WMA at a trailhead sign into the northern side of Willis Bridge Park. Spanning the Chipola River, this park provides limited parking and a picnic bench perched well above the river. Joining CR 274 westbound, the Florida Trail continues as a roadwalk along the side of this rural highway en route to the next completed trail segment in Econfina Creek WMA, 17 miles north.
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Nearest services are along the Chipola East roadwalk at the intersection of SR 71 & CR 275, where there is a small Chevron Food Mart, and along the Chipola West roadwalk at Shelton’s Store, corner of SR 73. Altha, which has grocery stores and restaurants, is 4 miles north of both ends of this section. Marianna, the only city in the region and the county seat of Jackson County, is about 18 miles north from both ends of the section. You’ll find fast food, chain hotels, and a couple of campgrounds where SR 71 meets I-10.
RESUPPLY: For long distance hikers, the next stop northbound is Shelton’s Store, 850-762-3316, 25314 NW SR 73, Altha, 1.7 miles beyond Willis Bridge Park. A friendly little store run by the Shelton family, who’ve lived in and around Shelton’s Corner for several generations, it is a place to pop in for a cold drink and and ice cream, along with convenience store basics. A bench outside provides a place to chow down. Be sure to mention you’re hiking the Florida Trail when you stop in.
LODGING: In Marianna, set up base camp in the comfortable surroundings of Hinson House, 850-526-1500, 4338 Lafayette St, Marianna 32446. Built in 1922, this large bungalow features five rooms and suites, including one with a private entrance. Guests enjoy the spacious common rooms as well, along with soft drinks and snacks and a locally-sourced farm fresh breakfast each morning. Rates start at $79.
DINING: Your nearest meal is at the Altha Diner, 850-762-8734, 25563 N Main St, Altha, featuring big portions of southern cooking and plenty of sweet tea. Or bring a picnic lunch and enjoy one of the two wayside parks flanking the Chipola River at Willis Bridge.
To get to the south end of this hike from Interstate 10 and SR 71 in Marianna, drive south 14 miles, passing through Altha. Turn right on CR 275 and make the right on to Black Bottom Rd a half mile later. Continue 0.8 mile through a rural residental area as the road continues downhill, and watch for the FNST sign on the right across from a fenced yard with miniature horses. There’s room to pull off Black Bottom Road, but it’s not an ideal place to park.
For the north end of this hike, follow SR 71 south from I-10 to Altha for 11 miles. Turn right on CR 274 and follow it 3 miles to Willis Bridge Park, on the left just before the bridge. There is a sign on the gate and a pass-through for hikers. Parking is limited here, but there is also parking in the other portion of Willis Bridge Park on the opposite side of the river, and you’d need to cross the highway bridge on the shoulder to get to the trailhead.