You’re guaranteed to get wet on Florida’s roughest, wildest swamp walk on the Florida Trail in Bradwell Bay, a lonely place where hiking with friends is a smart idea. Situated south of Tallahassee, the Bradwell Bay Wilderness is one of the most majestic and wild places in Northwest Florida, a roadless area encompassing more than 24,000 acres. This is one of Florida’s toughest hikes.
The centerpice of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness is Bradwell Bay, a hardwood swamp in a “bay,” a term used to Florida to describe a shallow basin where water collects in a forest much like a large pond. The Apalachicola National Forest has many such bays, but Bradwell Bay is its crown jewel. Loggers couldn’t slog through the water to get to some of its grandest inhabitants, including 12 acres of virgin slash pines and untouched cypress trees.
The Florida Trail dives right into this wilderness to lead you through the Scenic Area, but to get there means sloshing through dark tannic water for more than 7 miles, with only one break in the middle on Bradwell Island. When it isn’t soggy, Bradwell Island is suitable for primitive camping.
Depending on your height and the effects of recent rains, you’ll deal with knee to waist-deep water most of the time, although it’s not unknown for the bay to be ankle-deep or even on rare occasion completely dry. When it is wet, the waters are dark – unlike Big Cypress – so probing ahead for footing is a must due to submerged logs and deep mud holes.
Contact the National Forests in Florida at 850-926-3521 regards the water level in Bradwell Bay before you start this hike. The water in Bradwell Bay can rise to dangerous levels quickly, especially after a heavy rain. Hiking alone is not recommended. GPS, compass, and good map are a must. It’s very easy to get lost in this swamp. Don’t attempt this hike if the water at the Monkey Creek crossing is swift or high, as it will be much deeper in the swamp. Wear blaze orange during hunting season.
Perspectives on Bradwell Bay by a local PBS affiliate station.
Hiking Bradwell Bay with thru-hikers M80, Trooper, and Willow
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 FR 329 trailhead heading northbound, you enter the Bradwell Bay Wilderness. The Florida Trail leads you through pine flatwoods with scattered stands of titi, a tree in the buckwheat family that proffers cloyingly fragrant blooms each spring. Longleaf pines tower overhead and wiregrass carpets the ground.
5.4 > As you can see from the map, the trail makes a long U turn through the pine flatwoods before coming compass south within 0.7 mile of the Monkey Creek trailhead, which can be reached via a blue-blazed trail. To this point, the trail has been mostly dry. This is the bailout point to avoid getting wet, either by ending your hike after 6.1 miles at this trailhead or using FR 329 as a bypass around the deepest water.
7.1 > The pine woods get wetter and wetter as you approach Monkey Creek, which you must ford. Beware a deep hole to the right of the ford, and use your hiking stick for balance. If the water is running swiftly or is high, turn back.
7.7 > The trail becomes squishy and watery, leading through a bog with pitcher plants and sundew. The next stretch takes you into the heart of the swamp, which is dominated by tupelo (black gum) trees. The short blue blaze here leading to the Bradwell South trailhead is your last bailout point before total immersion in Bradwell Bay.
9.1 > Bradwell Island provides a welcome break from the need to climb over logs, probe for deep holes, and avoid “The Pond,” an area of deep water along the trail. Hopefully the island is dry so you can sit down and take a rest, because hiking through here is quite strenuous. Backpackers can camp here; look for water to filter on the other side of the island, less than a quarter mile ahead.
9.3 > West of Bradwell Island, the trail enters the depths of this colorful swamp forest. Tupelo, cypress, and red maple provide shade.
9.9 > In the Scenic Area, a 300-acre preserve untouched by logging, virgin slash pine of national champion girth and height tower overhead, as do ancient cypresses. Scout every footstep and watch for blazes, as they are easy to lose. There is some high ground to perch on at the bases of these enormous trees.
10.7 > As the trail rises out of Bradwell Bay, it ascends and follows an old logging tramway to exit the wilderness area, making for much easier footing.
12.3 > Emerge from the forest to the Bradwell West trailhead along FR 314. Pitcher plants grow in the ditches in this area.
<<< SOUTHBOUND NORTHBOUND >>>
Bradwell Bay is too deep in the Apalachicola National Forest to be near any services. Nearest towns with services are Sopchoppy (see the Sopchoppy River section) and Crawfordville.
The FR 329 trailhead is along the eastern edge of the Bradwell Bay Wilderness and can be difficult to get to at times, depending on road conditions. Avoid driving through mud puddles on these forest roads as there is no way to gauge depth. In general, it’s best to have a high clearance vehicle and/or four wheel drive to access this segment of the Florida Trail.
From Sopchoppy: Follow Railroad Avenue north from downtown Sopchoppy. Entering the rural community of Oak Park, it becomes Oak Park Road, which turns to dirt (and becomes FR 365) as it enters the Apalachicola National Forest. Passing FR 343, continue straight north another 0.9 mile and bear left onto FR 349, leaving Oak Park Road. Continue 1.8 miles to a T intersection with FR 348. Turn left. Drive another 0.6 mile to the turnoff for FR 329. Turn left and cross the highway bridge (Martian Bridge) over the Sopchoppy River. The trailhead is on the right after 0.4 miles, and has a small parking area.
From US 319 in Crawfordville: Follow CR 368 west through Arran to FR 365, just inside the forest boundary. You are now on a network of dirt roads that may have deep puddles in places; roads are well marked. Turn right on FR 348 after a little more than 2 miles. Follow it to its junction with FR 329, and turn left to cross the bridge over the Sopchoppy River. The Bradwell Bay trailhead is on the right 0.2 mile past the bridge.
There are two other trailheads for Bradwell Bay along FR 329 to the west: the Monkey Creek trailhead and the Bradwell South trailhead. See the map for locations. Be very cautious driving this road because of potential deep mudholes along it.
The Bradwell West trailhead is closer to the small community of Smith Creek along Smith Creek Road. It is best reached from FR 13, but as we’ve discovered, when FR 13 gets wet in this area it turns into pudding-like mud. To start your hike from the western edge of Bradwell Bay, follow FR 13 past FR 348 to FR 314. Follow FR 314 south until you see the Florida National Scenic Trail sign. The clay road is narrow, with ditches on both sides.