For a sense of perspective, the 10.3 miles of the Florida Trail east of Camel Lake offers an ever-shifting focus from landscape to macro. Broad vistas of towering longleaf pines yield to dark tunnels through gum swamps and leafy walls of titi, where carnivorous plants thrive. Rolling sandhills cradle creeks and ponds. Showcasing such a variety of complementary habitats, this is one of the best hikes in the Apalachicola National Forest for botanical diversity.
Pine flatwoods and swamps: that’s what you expect on a hike in the Apalachicola National Forest. Along this segment, both are particularly beautiful and enjoyable to traverse.
Heading west from Vilas, the Florida Trail follows the edge of titi swamps along the New River floodplain along the ecotone with pine plantations. Diving into a gnarly swamp that takes some tricky footwork to traverse, it pops out through a pitcher plant bog before ascending to soggy pine flatwoods on the way to the floodplain of Hostage Branch.
After a pleasant mile of stately longleaf pine forest, the trail dives into the second largest swamp you’ll find in the Apalachicola National Forest: Shuler Bay. But unlike the crossing of Bradwell Bay, this one offers a puncheon boardwalk more than a half mile long, the longest such boardwalk on the Florida Trail. Pine flatwoods and colorful sandhills dominate the remainder of the hike, with pretty Bonnet Pond a highlight on the way to Camel Lake.
Because it is so remote and the crossing is lengthy, Shuler Bay can be troublesome to cross if it’s flooded. Check the water gauge for the region in advance of your hike.
The Apalachicola National Forest is a popular destination for hunters, especially during the fall deer season, when hikers are restricted to camping at designated campsites. The remainder of the year, you are welcome to random camp in any pleasant spot. Check hunt dates as a part of your trip planning, and always wear bright orange clothing during hunting seasons.
Northbound hike from the Vilas trailhead off SR 65 to Camel Lake Recreation Area
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 Vilas trailhead, follow CR 120, the dirt road, west over the railroad tracks out to SR 65. Look for purple pitcher plants blooming in the ditch on the right each April.
0.4 > At SR 65, use the crosswalk to cross the high-speed two lane highway. The highway bridge gets you across the New River. If you need to filter water, best approach is from the northwest side. The trail joins FR 112 west after you cross the bridge.
0.8 > Use the stile to enter the forest on the right side of the road. For the next mile, the trail mostly follows the ecotone where pine flatwoods meets titi swamp, occasionally jumping on and off forest roads to skirt around the titi.
1.8 > The footpath gets squishy, then wet, then underwater as you enter the New River Swamp. Figure out a route between the roots and deep holes. A flowing stream in the middle of the swamp makes a good water source. The trail ascends through the sloppy muck of a pitcher plant bog as it makes its way to higher ground on the north side of the swamp.
2.2 > The habitat opens up into pine flatwoods but remains very boggy underfoot. Look for carnivorous wildflowers like butterwort and sundew throughout this area, and expect wet feet, especially along the edges of the titi swamps.
3.2 > Join FR 112-I to cross the Hostage Branch floodplain. The creek itself is somewhat difficult to reach. The trail follows this forest road north for 0.3 mile before leaving it to enter towering pine flatwoods to the northwest. Some random camping might be possible in open spots big enough for one tent.
4.1 > Losing elevation, the trail slips into the bogs along the ecotone before entering a titi tunnel. When you reach the first gum swamp, you’ve hit the eastern edge of Shuler Bay, a massive swamp. Expect to get soggy and muddy until you hit the first of three back-to-back boardwalks. Together, these plank boardwalks form the longest puncheon traverse of a swamp in Florida. At one point, the boardwalk opens up to reveal a soggy island with pitcher plants before plunging back in to the dark shade of the gum swamp. Expect some slippery places and some tricky spots where you must straddle a tree branch to stay on the boardwalk.
4.7 > Bracel Branch is a nicely flowing stream in the swamp, a good place to filter water from the plank boardwalk. Soon after, the boardwalk ends and so does Shuler Bay. The trail ascends into a majestic stand of longleaf pine. Random camping may be possible in grassy spots on the edges of the saw palmetto understory.
5.7 > Still amid a vast longleaf pine forest, the trail reaches FR 112-L and crosses it. This is one of the few major forest roads through this area, and has a small parking area at a junction of forest roads off to the east. With a high-clearance or 4WD vehicle, it may be possible to park there to stage a shorter linear hike or to hike in and out to Shuler Bay. Consult the Apalachicola National Forest vehicle map for how to get to this remote spot. The trail soon joins FR 112-K for a brief period as the corridor is squeezed between private property and a stream edged with titi swamp.
6.0 > Leaving FR 112-K within sight of another forest road, FR 108-D, the trail makes a 90-degree turn west to briefly plunge through titi before entering a sandhill forest dense with turkey oaks. The broad, open understory offers many ideal spots for random camping; be sure to choose one out of sight of the forest road.
6.4 > After leading you through a stand of pines in perfect rows, the trail pops out onto FR 108-D to cross a major intersection of forest roads in the sandhills. Continue straight across the intersection, then take the right fork. Watch for the double blaze hidden in the deep shade of an oak tree on the right, where the trail leaves the forest road to enter another stretch of sandhills with more potential camping spots. The habitat briefly yields to scrub before making an arc to the west, where it rejoins the pine flatwoods but with an open view to the east of a towering stand of loblolly bay trees in a basin below.
6.9 > A colorful sign alerts you to the intersection with the Trail of Lakes. This 9.5-mile loop trail utilizes both the Florida Trail and a blue-blazed side trail – which heads east on a forest road at this junction – to loop through the uplands around Camel Lake Recreation Area. Stick with the orange blazes for the shorter route to Camel Lake; they continue to lead you through the sandhills. To the east, water shimmers through a screen of cypress trees. That’s Bonnet Pond, a beauty spot and a critical water source along this section of trail. This next blue-blazed trail to the east is worth the wander, as it takes you down to the water’s edge, with a bench for a place to drop your gear while filtering water or just to sit and enjoy the panorama across the cypress-lined lake.
7.9 > As you hike through the sandhills, it’s obvious there are plenty of places for random camping in the mile past Bonnet Pond. The trick is finding a level spot, most of which are uphill from the footpath. A large shallow sinkhole, grassy with pines in the middle, is a prominent feature which the trail circles around at this point, and it’s obvious vehicles have driven around and into it.
8.5 > Emerging from the sandhills onto the white limerock surface of FR 105, the trail makes a sharp left to use the forest road to cross Big Gully Creek. As the name implies, it’s a steep dip down into the creek basin and a climb back out again. It’s a broad creek with a good flow, making it another excellent water source. However, access is tricky because of the steep banks. The best place to get near the creek is to follow a beaten path down the southwest bank to where the landscape flattens out a little. Once you’re out of the creek basin, keep alert for blazing, as the trail makes two quick turns to leave the forest road and ascend into the sandhills again.
9.4 > As the longleaf pines dominate the sandhills again, the trail passes and crosses a number of two-track roads, which remind you that you’re drawing closer to Camel Lake Recreation Area. A sudden plunge into a titi thicket leads, of course, to a swamp crossing, the stream in the middle of the gum swamp bridged by a plank boardwalk.
9.9 > After another traverse of sandhill habitat, the trail drops into a unique habitat, an Atlantic white cedar swamp. This freshwater swamp with an open understory is nourished by seepage in the uplands and has a thick layer of spagnum moss in the hummocks, meaning the ground beneath the trees is always moist. The tall Atlantic white cedars (Chamaecyparis thyoides), which are also found in the New River Wilderness of the Apalachicola National Forest, have a distinctive spiraled bark. The trail traverses a boardwalk over the wettest spots.
10.3 > Crossing several more two-track forest roads in the pine flatwoods, the trail reaches a large FNST sign as you approach the edge of the campground at Camel Lake. A side path goes over to the nearest campsites, but wait until you get to the trail junction for the side trail to the campground, and you’ll pop out right by the camp host’s site. Walk up the entrance road from this point to reach the parking lot at the day use area, a beauty spot of its own with picnic benches overlooking the lake.
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As you’re in the middle of the Apalachicola National Forest at Vilas, nothing is nearby. The closest place to grab a snack (or, for backpackers, quite a hitch for resupply) is the Telogia Grocery, 850-379-8715, 19994 SR 65, Telogia, 10.4 miles north of where the trail pops out onto SR 65 to cross the New River. This old-fashioned store is worth a visit just to see the giant antique Coca-Cola cooler just inside the door. Pop it open and guess what’s inside? Cold beer. Of course they have cold soft drinks, ice cream, and resupply basics too, as well as restrooms. Telogia also has its own post office, but it’s so far off-trail it’s not of much use for long distance hikers.
The nearest town with restaurants, gas, and lodging is Bristol, 24.7 miles northwest of Vilas via SR 65 north and SR 20 west. Bristol is much closer to the western terminus of this hike, 13.5 miles from Camel Lake Recreation Area via FR 105 and CR 12, and the Florida Trail walks right through it en route to the Central Time Zone.
CAMPING: Camel Lake. Centered around a loop in the sandhill forest adjoining pretty Camel Lake, all of the campsites at this National Forest campground are quite pleasant. A bathhouse is located near the top of the loop, with flush toilets and hot showers. Campsites are $10 plus $5 if you want an electric hookup. If you’re backpacking, stop in at the camp host and ask about a place to pitch your tent. If you’re driving in, you must make advance reservations online or at 1-877-444-6777, for which there is an additional reservation fee. Campsites can be booked for up to two weeks.
This section of the Florida Trail lies 12 to 13 miles south of SR 20, west of Tallahassee, between Hosford and Bristol. From Capital Circle West, follow SR 20 for 28 miles to Hosford to reach CR 65. Go south for 3 miles to the crossroads at Telogia. Continue another 10.4 miles to the turnoff onto CR 120, a left turn just before the New River bridge. If you pass it and cross the bridge, you’ve gone too far. Less than a half mile along CR 120, an unpaved road, you’ll find the Vilas trailhead on the right hand side after the old railroad crossing. There is space for 3-4 cars.
For the western terminus of this hike, continue along SR 20 another 11.2 miles past Hosford to CR 12 south in Bristol, the last traffic light before the bridge over the Apalachicola River. Drive south 11.5 miles on CR 12, passing the Savannahs trailhead and the Apalachicola National Forest Work Center just before you see a sign for Camel Lake. Turn left onto FR 105 and drive 2 miles on this sometimes-bumpy unpaved road to the recreation area on the right. A $3 per vehicle per day use fee applies to use the parking area, which also grants you access to real restrooms and the picnic/swimming area along the lake.
Cars can be left for multiple days for a fee (the gates are locked at night) should you wish to use Camel Lake as a launch point for a hike across the Apalachicola National Forest eastbound (trail south). Just check with the camp host before doing so.