Water lilies float across the placid surface of a blackwater pond nurtured by fresh water within range of the sea breezes of the Atlantic Ocean. Protecting more than 3,000 acres – 2,700 acres of which are covered in swamps – Graham Swamp Preserve offers hikers a glimpse of the dense floodplain where Bulow Creek rises.
Location: Palm Coast
Length: 1 mile
Lat-Lon: 29.537617, -81.206067
Fees / Permits: Free
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to high
From I-95 exit 289 in Palm Coast, drive east on the Palm Coast Pkwy and turn right on Old Kings Rd. Continue south 1.4 miles to the trailhead on the left. A separate 6.5-mile mountain biking trail winds through the preserve.
start your hike through the entry point to the right of the kiosk. The trail starts along the southern edge of a large blackwater pond. Beautiful sand bluffs on the far shore host a forest of sand pines. Cool coastal breezes push yellow water lilies across the dark water. You descend from sand pines into a dark hammock of sweetgum and loblolly bay, meeting a trail junction at 0.1 mile. Turn right. The trail straight ahead takes you back around the lake, and you’ll use it on the return trip.
After dropping through a floodplain forest of bald cypress, the trail rises up onto a small ridge under the shade of southern magnolias, paralleling a shallow tannic creek from which cypress knees protrude. The squishy dark soil underfoot reminds you that this is a floodplain forest, and this trail floods now and again. Crossing over a bridge, the trail rises up into an oak hammock. The forest floor is thick with coontie, a native cycad with bright red seeds.
Emerging from the hammock, the trail winds through a small stretch of sand pine forest. At 0.3 miles, you reach a T intersection at another large pond. Turn right. As the dike works its way around the pond, you come to another pond off to the right. Stay with the established trail, continuing to round the pond. The trail is slightly indistinct but leads to the left, paralleling the walk around the dike—but in the shade of the forest. A creek parallels to the left. More coontie is scattered under the trees.
As you emerge from the shade, turn right and continue along the pond, back to the T intersection. Turn right to retrace this section of trail. When you get to a spot where it looks like the trail goes straight and to the right, turn right—confirming your turn with a blaze on your right. Crossing the creek, you notice bamboo in the floodplain, and thick clumps of sphagnum moss clustered around a side pool.
Dropping back off the ridge into the cypresses and loblolly bay, you come to a T intersection at 0.7 mile. Turn right to loop around the far side of the big pond. The saw palmettos crowd closely around this narrow path. Pause at an opening on the edge of the lake, looking down into the dark, clear water to see the aquatic plants that thrive beneath the surface.
A few more minutes down the trail, and you come to the outflow of the pond. Royal ferns and cinnamon ferns line a shaded opening onto the lake as you wander along a bayhead. As you rise up a steep slope, the trail curves up into the sand pine forest. It broadens and becomes easy to follow as you walk along the sandy bluffs above the pond. It veers away from the lake towards the entry gate. Returning to the kiosk, you complete the 1-mile loop.