Slipping out of the jungle-like floodplain forest that surrounds the tributaries of the Aucilla River into the coastal salt marshes along Apalachee Bay, this 13.4 mile hike offers some of the most breathtaking panoramas you’ll find along the Florida Trail, and a profusion of wildlife.
Along this very unique section of the Florida Trail, the sweep of Florida’s Big Bend provides a framework around a hike through both natural and man-made habitats that edge Apalachee Bay, the coastal shallows of the Gulf of Mexico. As you leave Aucilla WMA, the hike begins with a sometimes-difficult traverse (depending on water levels and blazing) through a floodplain forest in a federally designated wilderness area inside St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
Once you’re a couple miles in, following the trail becomes easier as it joins the abandoned railroad bed of the Live Oak, Perry & Gulf Railroad. Established for logging the cypress and pine out of this region, the railroad was at its peak of service in the 1920s, when it provided transportation for the logging community of Flintrock to the northwest of the Pinhook River. Trains would haul felled timber back to Perry for processing in the sawmills.
As it exits the wilderness area at the Aucilla Tram Road, the trail follows roads and levees for the remainder of the hike. This makes it a good destination for a group hike, but also means limited shade, particularly once you get past the junction with the Deep Creek Trail. The tradeoff is for outstanding panoramic views and wildlife watching, especially for birding and for the number of alligators that live in the brackish waters that surround the trail.
There are two designated campsites along this section, the Pinhook Campsite, adjoining the Pinhook River, and the Ring Dike Campsite, which has the most outstanding views of any campsite along the Florida Trail. As St. Marks NWR is the only National Wildlife Refuge that permits backcountry camping, there are rules to follow. First and foremost: get a permit in advance. You may only use the campsites at St. Marks if you are backpacking across the entire refuge: from the parking area at Small Game Road to Carraway Cutoff trailhead near Medart, that’s a 46.8 mile traverse that includes a river crossing. There is also a minor daily fee for camping. Please see the sidebar for full details on how to get your permit or go directly to their website.
Fresh water sources are limited throughout St. Marks NWR because it is along the coast. Tides affect water sources, as does a growing issue with saltwater intrusion. Some tips: Cypresses, sweetgum, and red maples are not salt-tolerant, so if those trees have their roots in the water, it is likely fresh water. Never obtain water from the south (trail west) side of any dike. Assume all open impoundment areas are surrounded by salt or brackish water. Finally, when filtering water from sources flowing north to south (trail east to west), filter and taste a little before filtering a lot.
Although bicycles are generally permitted on the trails in St. Marks NWR east of the St. Marks River, they are not permitted in the designated wilderness area east of Aucilla Tram Road. You may occasionally encounter service vehicles on the roads/levees as well.
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 > A very limited amount of parking space flanks Small Game Road in Aucilla WMA where the trail leaves the roadwalk and goes into the woods at a large FNST sign. Do not block the road. The marshes off to the right, dominated by needlerush and edged with sawgrass, are classic coastal marshes, reminding you that you’re headed for the coastline of the Big Bend. Fresh water will be scarce throughout St. Marks NWR: because of the trail’s proximity to shallow bays along the Gulf of Mexico, saltwater intrusion and tides can push salt water inland over the next 45 miles.
0.5 > As the trail edges away from the coastal marshes, you enter a floodplain forest dominated by cabbage palms, sweetgum, maples, and cypress. This is fed by the swamps surrounding Oyster Creek. Expect tannic water to flow or puddle across the trail in places throughout this seasonally wet forest. Over the next half mile, depending on water levels, you may be able to find random camping on little islands under the oaks along the trail, but usually only with space for one tent.
1.0 > While still in the swamp forest, you reach the sign for St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Past this point, random camping is not permitted. St. Marks is the only National Wildlife Refuge with backcountry campsites, and hikers must be sure to get a permit in advance and follow protocols to ensure that privilege remains open in the future. The boundary also marks the beginning of a federally designated wilderness area.
1.3 > The deeper you get into the swamp forest, the more primordial it feels. Water levels make a big difference with your ability to find your way through this section. Just keep focused on the blazes. Two plank boardwalks lead you across the deeper waters of Oyster Creek and a tributary that flows into it. After the boardwalks, you join an old tramway, but still have to wade through a break in it in the middle of the swamp forest. Fed by inland creeks, the water in this area can be filtered for use.
1.9 > The tramway you’ve been following meets another one at a T intersection. It’s here the trail makes a sharp right, and if the trail seems to double back on itself, it’s because it did, the better to keep you out of the deepest swamps. You are now following the former railbed of the Live Oak, Perry & Gulf Railroad, which also extends compass east (away from the Florida Trail) towards the Aucilla River but is not maintained in that direction. As you hike this section, notice the railroad trestles that you cross, well-obscured by vegetation, as well as the great views of the surrounding swamps.
2.6 > It’s almost a shock to emerge from the shaded corridor in the swamp forest to the broad open grassy area at the Aucilla Tram. Several forest roads within St. Marks NWR meet at this spot, and it is also marked as the western boundary of the wilderness area. Keep to the left to follow the Aucilla Tram Road. Flanked on both sides by floodplain forests, it has very little shade. Start watching along the edges, as this particular hike in St. Marks NWR is known for its high numbers of sunning alligators within sight of the trail. Bicycles are permitted along the remainder of the trail up to Lighthouse Road, so you may encounter cyclists.
4.1> Coming down a straight stretch flanked by cedars and cabbage palms, the view opens up as you reach the Pinhook River bridge. Needlerush marsh dominates the view. Aucilla Tram Road was originally a railroad bed before becoming a road, and this picturesque wooden bridge was created by St. Marks NWR on top of the original train trestle. Look for flowing water dropping down into the river on the east side of the trail just before you step on the bridge. This is the only nearby water source for the Pinhook Campsite – which is on the other side of the bridge – that might not be too saline. Rule of thumb with water sources at St. Marks: filter a little and taste before filtering a lot.
4.2 > After you cross the bridge and enjoy the views of the tidal marsh along the Pinhook River, you come to a sign to the east for the Pinhook Campsite. Cross a plank bridge over a marshy ditch with flowing water to wander back to the clearing, which is edged by the sawgrass marsh and shaded by cabbage palms. A bench and several logs provide seating. This is one of the larger camping areas in St. Marks NWR. With all campsites in the refuge, your permit must be arranged in advance.
4.3 > Leaving the Pinhook Campsite, the trail becomes a broad straightaway as it follows the historic Aucilla Tram Road, a two-track gravel road. It crosses two old highway bridges within a quarter mile of each other, where dark tannic waters flow from the floodplain forest to the east towards the salt marshes beyond the palm hammocks to the west.
5.3 > Just beyond a set of culverts, keep alert for a blue blaze off to the west into the palm hammock. This is the 0.7-mile Rookery Loop. While rarely hiked by anyone, it’s an alternate route that the Florida Trail sometimes gets shunted onto when biologists determine that any nesting birds might be bothered by passerby. Signs will be posted if you need to use it. Continuing straight ahead on the Florida Trail, the tree canopy opens up as marshes flank the old road.
5.9 > Rookery Loop emerges from a cedar and pine forest to rejoin Aucilla Tram Road just as you approach the old highway bridge. It may be possible to reach a flowing stream between the two to filter water. With their guardrails and concrete surfaces, the bridges make good spots to take a rest break along this hike. Soon after the bridge you see a sign for the Swamp Hammock Trail to the west. This 3.1-mile footpath is the former route of the Florida Trail. It’s a much more scenic alternative to Aucilla Tram Road, as it tunnels deeply into the palm hammocks along the edge of the salt marshes. However, it also can get very wet and muddy, which is why the route changed.
6.4 > You reach an unexpected Y intersection in the trail at FR 126. Keep to the right at this broad, grassy intersection to stay on the Florida Trail. There is a certain monotony through this section, as the view of the surrounding forest rarely changes, except for the random spur of a forest road heading off to the east.
7.1 > Meet the Deep Creek Trail head-on at a large clearing. It is part of the “Primitive Walking Trails” for St. Marks, and follows the Aucilla Tram Road straight ahead to Lighthouse Road. It also turns, as the Florida Trail does, to head out to the salt marshes. Make the 90-degree turn and start walking down the Main Levee. It’s a treat to discover that although it’s still a broad forest road, that the scenic quotient of the trail goes way up as you turn the bend. Main Levee offers nice views of the surrounding forests and marshes.
8.5 > Passing a sign that says “Half Way” – and it means for the Deep Creek Trail, NOT the Florida Trail – you come to the other end of the Swamp Hammock Trail, which connects out of the palm hammock to the west. Just past it is a bench in the shade. There is very little shade up ahead for the remainder of this hike, so savor it while you can.
8.9 > An extraordinary view spreads out just as you approach a grated bridge over a gated outflow from the marshes. This is your first glimpse of the Big Bend, with salt marshes extending out to the horizon. Florida’s panhandle and peninsula meet in this sweep of shallow marsh in Apalachee Bay, part of the Gulf of Mexico. The farther you walk along, the more extensive and captivating the views become; the salt marsh panorama on the inside of the levee is just as beautiful in its own right. You cross two large spillways over the next quarter mile.
10.3 > Perhaps the most scenic camping spot on the entire Florida Trail – depending on how you align your tent – the Ring Dike Campsite has the distinction of being entirely circled by salt marsh. This makes for starry skies to sleep under, but can also be hellish when mosquitoes, gnats, and no-see-ums swarm. It’s best to camp here during the winter months. It’s surrounded by salt water, so you need to bring enough water with you. There is a bench and some shade provided by cabbage palms. The bench affords an excellent view of Apalachee Bay.
11.1 > With open water on both sides of the trail, there are plenty of opportunities to spot alligators and flocks of ducks and coots. Coming up to an intersection in the levee, ignore the white “Trail” sign: the Florida Trail makes a sharp right turn here. As the adjoining impoundment is relatively shallow, this next mile and a half is where you can rack up an impressive tally of alligator sightings.
11.4 > Reach a junction with the Stoney Bayou Trail, which continues straight ahead as the Florida Trail makes another 90* turn to stay on the levee along the impoundment. For the remainder of the hike, there is no shade (except for under one lone pine tree) but the views are extraordinary. Be sure to look in both directions for scenic panoramas and for wildlife. The levee is grassy and has a more natural feel here.
12.8 > The next junction of levees brings you within sight of Lighthouse Road. The Deep Creek Trail goes off to the right, headed towards the completion of its 12 mile loop. The levee to the left is favored by birders as it heads out along the edge of the salt marsh. Straight ahead is the Florida Trail, which adjoins marsh on both sides.
13.4 > Reaching Lighthouse Road, the only public road through this portion of the refuge, you’ve come to the end of your hike, unless you parked at the pulloff with the big FNST kiosk. To reach it, the trail makes a sharp left and continues alongside the road for 0.4 mile to reach a place where it can cross the road to start the Port Leon section.
13.8 > FNST kiosk and gate marking the Port Leon section. This is the larger of the two parking areas, so it may be a better choice for leaving a car for a day hike. Overnight parking is not permitted along Lighthouse Road.
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RESUPPLY: JR’s Aucilla River Store, 850-584-4595, 23485 US 98W, Lamont FL 32336. A favorite of hikers for decades, JR’s is THE place for resupply in the middle of a long stretch with no services: convenience store basics on the shelves. The friendly folks have often let backpackers camp on the premises. They serve up fresh-cooked burgers around noon each day, and will accept maildrops. Open 5 AM-7 PM Mon-Sat, 6 AM-6 PM Sun. While it’s 2.5 miles east of this section, it’s where you stop to pick up supplies if you’re section or thru hiking.
CAMPING: Newport Park, 850-926-7227 or 850-925-4530, 8046 Coastal Hwy, Newport. A Wakulla County campground with pleasant shaded spaces beneath a forest canopy. There is a dedicated tent camping section ($11) as well as RV spaces with hookups ($22-27). A boardwalk leads down to the St. Marks River, and all campers have access to a bathhouse with hot showers. Reservations recommended.
DINING: Outz Too, 850-925-6448, 7968 Coastal Hwy, Newport, is all about the oysters. On the opposite side of the St. Marks River from the campground, it’s a no-frills bar and grill with live music, a dedicated following, and some crazy cheap weekday specials. All seafood is fresh and local; they shuck your oysters on the spot, so allow plenty of time if you order oysters for dinner.
From Tallahassee, take Woodville Highway (CR 363) south through Woodville to the Bloxham Cutoff (CR 267). Turn left and follow CR 267 to where it meets US 98 at Newport. Turn left onto US 98 east.
There are only two access points by car to this section of the Florida Trail, and both are off US 98. For the starting point at Aucilla WMA, drive east on US 98 for 12.3 miles, passing Lighthouse Road, Flint Rock WMA, SR 59, and signs for Aucilla WMA en route. The turn onto Small Game Road in Aucilla WMA can be easy to miss. Watch for the large FNST sign. If you end up at the Aucilla River bridge, you’ve missed it. Turn around at JR’s Aucilla River Store and come back towards it. Turning south onto Small Game Road – a narrow one lane road – drive with care through the swamp forest and beneath the power lines – where the sand can be muddy or soft, use caution – to find the pulloffs on more solid ground up at the next FNST sign. Do not block the road.
For the St. Marks NWR ending point on Lighthouse Road, turn off US 98 east onto Lighthouse Road right across from Newport Park immediately after you cross the St. Marks River on the highway bridge. Continue down Lighthouse Road into the refuge, stopping to pay your day use fee ($5 per vehicle) at the tollbooth (on weekends) or iron ranger. Continue past the Visitor Center for another 1.8 miles to the pulloff where the views open up along the East River Pool and Stoney Bayou Pool. There is a small amount of parking next to the gate.