From a tricky traverse of the floodplain of Lafayette Creek to a roller-coaster of steep dips through wooded ravines, this scenic and surprisingly hilly section of the Florida Trail will give you a serious workout.
Both tough and fun, this hike through the wilder side of Nokuse makes you figure out where best to put your feet during the swamp crossings before it leads you through the ups and downs of more than a dozen steephead ravines, each with its own little creek at the bottom. Add in a significant stretch of sidehill along the longest ravine, and you’ll find this a hike you’ll want to go out of your way to do. Will you get your feet wet? Probably. But the experience makes it worthwhile.
One designated campsite, Steephead, sits above its namesake, an enormous ravine that the trail plunges through and follows for some time on sidehill. There is a bench and fire ring within sight of the cleared area in the wiregrass. No permits are required.
As the trail dives right into the Lafayette Creek floodplain, flooding can be an issue, so much so that there is an alternate blue-blazed trail provided to bypass the floodplain section. Do not attempt to hike along Lafayette Creek if the water is actively flowing across the trail. Turn back and follow the blue blaze instead.
Portions of this trail, including the vicinity of the Steephead Campsite and the Lafayette Creek trailhead, are on lands managed by Northwest Florida Water Management District, which permits limited seasonal hunting. Check hunt dates and locations.
Hiking southbound (compass east) from Owls Head along US 331 to the Lafayette Creek trailhead northeast of Freeport.
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 Lafayette Creek trailhead, walk up the sand road behind the kiosk to reach the trail crossing. It still looks rough along this section, as it’s only been a few years since the area was clearcut of pine plantations and replanted in longleaf pines. Carefully look for clues to orange blazes across the expanse of young trees. Blaze posts should lead the way but you may need to look for small flags hidden by clumps of wiregrass, too. The general direction is towards the taller trees compass west.
0.5 > After coming down a steep slope where clusters of pitcher plants rise out of the duff on the forest floor, the trail provides a momentary view of Wolf Creek as you hop over a small tributary. Emerging on to a forest road, you use that road’s bridge to cross the creek. Just up the hill is the sign warning you of flooding in the Lafayette Creek floodplain, and the blue blazes of the high water route straight ahead. The Florida Trail makes a sharp left at the sign to enter a longleaf pine restoration area.
0.8 > Joining up with a deeply eroded forest road, the trail swings around the depths of a densely vegetated but narrow steephead ravine. Once it has made a horseshoe curve around the top of the steephead, it leaves the forest road to continue through the restoration area.
1.3 > Passing a perched seepage bog with pitcher plants downslope before plunging downhill, the trail reaches the sandy banks of Lafayette Creek. Here’s your decision point for continuing along the creek. If water is flowing across the creek bank, turn back and use the blue blaze. Otherwise, watch your footing, as there are some hops across trickles of water flowing downhill into the creek. Watch the edges, too. Although it isn’t especially broad, Lafayette Creek is surprisingly deep and swift along this stretch; there is often a sudden dropoff from the edge of the bank. Both cottonmouth moccasins and their similar-looking but non-venomous cousins, banded watersnakes, have been spotted along the next couple miles along the creek, so watch your step. Here’s how to tell them apart.
1.6 > Here’s where the hike first gets interesting. The orange blazes lead you into the deep shade of a floodplain swamp. The forest floor isn’t solid ground, but a mucky place with moss-rimmed puddles and many slippery roots. Finding your way through the swamp takes some skill. Keep the orange blazes in sight, but don’t assume that following them is the best path. It all depends on what’s underfoot. Expect to hop from root to root as you find your way around the muddy puddles. Pines begin to rise from the forest floor, but it remains soggy. Keep alert for snakes.
1.8 > You finally reach solid white sand that’s been tossed up into the floodplain whenever Lafayette Creek spills over its banks. After a short stretch on this nice surface, cross Little Creek on a footbridge very close to where it flows into Lafayette Creek. The trail leaves the floodplain to briefly follow Little Creek upstream, providing your first easy opportunity to filter some nice clear water. Once it climbs out of the floodplain, the trail provides vistas of the longleaf pine forest uplands and leads you through a dry, shady sand live oak hammock.
2.1 > As it leaves the longleaf pine forest, the trail makes a descent down a bluff along an oxbow pond. It curves left through a brief stretch of scrub habitat before it settles back down into the swamp forest of the Lafayette Creek floodplain. Expect more tricky navigating across slippery roots and sloppy muddy leafy pools of water caught between the roots. Once again, keep the creek and the blazes in sight, but take whatever route across this tough terrain seems the best to you. At times the trail will come out to the edge of the creek and offer a little bit of solid white sand before zigzagging through the mucky places again.
2.5 > A plank footbridge provides a crossing over Tom Turtle Creek. Once you get to the other side, another tough stretch of swamp forest awaits. Mossy puddles are trapped between the tree roots in this floodplain along Lafayette Creek, and you have to figure out how to get around them. Cypress knees rise from the dark water, and a tangle of tupelo limbs hangs low overhead. All along this stretch, you have nice views of the creek, and occasional access on stretches of white sandy bank.
3.3 > Bamboo appears in the understory as you reach the swampy confluence of Magnolia and Lafayette Creeks. Expect more gooey mud and cypress knees underfoot before you tunnel into a titi swamp. The far end of the tunnel marks the end of the floodplain forest along the creeks. The trail becomes white sand again. As it follows Magnolia Creek upstream, it gains elevation, slowly climbing a bluff up out of the floodplain while providing peeks down to the creek and up into the longleaf pine restoration area. Enjoy the views.
3.8 > After you cross Snake Eating Creek on a boardwalk, the trail emerges out into open skies. There is a sign here about the floodplain. You’re officially out of the Lafayette Creek floodplain danger zone, as the blue blazed bypass reconnects here, coming in from the east along a harsh-looking erosional landscape under the power transmission lines. Slipping around the end of an old barbed wire fence, the trail stays well above the Magnolia Creek basin.
4.3 > Descending around a curve, you catch a glimpse of Little Coyote Creek before crossing it on a plank footbridge. It’s one of many feeder streams into into Magnolia Creek, and makes a good water place to filter water. The trail turns and follows the creek downstream. It’s a much sharper descent down to the next creek, Missing Creek, another shallow, crystalline waterway. As you climb out of the ravine, look back and notice the view.
5.1 > Passing through a short stretch of young sand pines, the trail begins to follow the curve of the ravine below. As you walk along this sidehill, the landscape drops off gradually to the left to the sounds of water below, and sweeps uphill to the right into glimpses of young longleaf pines and wiregrass against the blue skies. You cross two shallow, unnamed creeks on a series of puncheons before walking through a stand of sand live oaks. The trail pops out into full sun amid a planted prairie of wiregrass.
5.6 > You’ve paralleled its namesake over the past half mile, walking through wiregrass and young pines while looking at how the land drops off to the left into Steep Head. At Steephead Campsite, a kiosk marks the spot. The small designated campsite has benches and a fire ring in a cleared area with wiregrass clumps. The nearest water is downhill a tenth of a mile ahead along the trail, but it is a steep descent.
5.7 > Steepheads are ravines where water trickles out of the ground and forms a stream, carving a landform. Steep Head is an excellent example of the geologic process, and here’s where you reach the bottom after hiking along it for a while. Note the old-growth trees, especially Southern magnolias, rising from the bottom. Steepheads create their own microclimates, and this one is fostering a lush hardwood forest with mountain laurel below the surrounding sandhills. A thick plank bridge provides good access to filter the clear water. The trail climbs out of the ravine and continues as sidehill above it on the other side.
6.3 > After a half mile of sometimes-steep sidehill above Steep Head, the trail finally swings away from the ravine and heads up through a stand of sand live oaks to the young longleaf pine forest, which is edged by sand pines. It then drops down along the top of the ravine created by Magnolia Creek, and here’s where you can tell why the creek has that name: lots of Southern magnolia trees in the forest.
6.7 > Following a curving descent into its broad floodplain, pause a moment at Little Falls Creek to look for the tiny cascades that you can hear from the bridge. They are half-hidden by the forest off to your right, and best seen after you cross the bridge. The trail drops down farther, right into the floodplain of Magnolia Creek. Expect some muddy spots and possible hummock hopping over the next quarter mile. The trail does draw close to the sandy bank of the creek briefly.
7.1 > Climbing up out of the Magnolia Creek basin, the trail emerges onto a windswept hilltop of young longleaf pine forest with a panorama of low ridges up ahead. The ribbon of green is made up of treetops poking out of the ravine created by Magnolia Creek and its feeder streams. The trail drops down sharply into the next steephead, where you cross Minnow Creek on a plank bridge. This is a nice spot to filter water.
7.7 > After another climb up and over a hill covered in young longleaf pine forest, the trail drops down into the ravine created by Sweet Spot Creek. You cross it within sight of its confluence with Magnolia Creek. This is the last place you can filter water as you’re headed northbound. An important note for long distance hikers: no more surface water is available until you get north of Eglin Portal trailhead, six miles north. Stock up here.
7.9 > Emerging from beneath the oaks and pines, the trail makes a sharp left to join Owls Head Road, an abandoned road, to cross Magnolia Creek on a road bridge high above the creek. After you cross the bridge, the trail makes a sharp right into the woods right before a tall fence and a gate. Once you leave the pavement and scramble downhill, you may end up hopping through some mucky stuff. The trail quickly climbs up and away from the creek basin to parallel the west side of it.
8.6 > Leaving the oak hammocks above the floodplain of Magnolia Creek, the trail heads into a vast expanse of a former sod farm replanted in longleaf pines and wiregrass. Blazes are on posts.
9.2 > Exit Nokuse Plantation at a gap between a wooden fence and a locked gate along the east side of busy US 331. This concludes the Lafayette Creek section and your hike through Nokuse Plantation.
9.3 > If you’re continuing on into Eglin, you must cross all four lanes of traffic on US 331. Although there are pedestrian crossing signs where the trail crosses, Florida drivers are notorious for not paying any attention and not slowing down, and they’re zipping through here at 60 MPH or more. There is a median in the middle to help break up the road crossing. Remember, you must have a permit in hand to hike at Eglin, even for a day hike, and must follow strict military rules. See the Eglin section for details.
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The nearest services are in Freeport, a small town along SR 20 that you pass through the edge of when driving between the trailheads for this section. Services there are accessible to long distance hikers only if you catch a ride south to the Express Lane, 850-835-2630, 979 State Hwy 20 East, Freeport. With a Hardee’s inside, a pizza place next door, and reasonably diverse convenience store basics, it’s a decent resupply stop, but only if you catch that ride, as it’s 5 miles south of the trail crossing on US 331. You may prefer to wait another four trail miles northbound instead to catch a similar-length ride north along US 331 to DeFuniak Springs, a much larger town with a Walmart, an AYCE steakhouse, and numerous hotels.
LODGING: The closest lodging to this section is in DeFuniak Springs, 9.1 miles north of the northern end of this hike. We’ve stayed at both 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 have laundry facilities, a pool, and breakfast included with your stay. There are also several budget motels north of the interstate.
DINING: The Freeport Cafe, 850-835-4626, 39 SR 20, Freeport, used to be along the roadwalk before the trail was completed through this section. It’s a great family diner serving up large portions of homecooked food, open for breakfast and lunch. Almost 8 miles farther west but worth the drive, Nick’s Seafood Restaurant, 850-835-2222, 7585 SR 20, Freeport, is THE place for fresh seafood in these parts. Enjoy fresh-caught and fresh cooked shrimp, mullet, and grouper, paired with cheese grits or fried okra, while savoring the view of Choctawhatchee Bay. They are open for lunch and dinner.
From Defuniak Springs, follow US 331 south. At the pedestrian crossing signs 9.1 miles south of Interstate 10, there is a small unpaved trailhead on the right for access to the south end of the Eglin section, and across the four lane highway, a narrow place next to a fenceline that a car or two can fit where this section ends at Owls Head. Do not leave cars there overnight.
Continue another 5 miles to the intersection of US 331 and SR 20 in Freeport, and make a left on SR 20. After 4.5 miles, turn left on J.W. Hollingsworth Rd and follow it for 4.2 miles. It’s a narrow rural road that makes several 90-degree turns and crosses a one-lane bridge before ending at the Lafayette Creek trailhead.