It’s not easy to find Conservation Park, hidden in plain sight behind a commercial district along US 98 in Panama City Beach. There are no signs on this major highway – yet – to point you there. But once you get your bearings and find its main trailhead, a world of exploration opens up. With restrooms, interpretive information, an outdoor classroom, and picnic pavilions centered around the former Baxley homestead site, this 2200 acre preserve – lands turned to pine plantations by the St. Joe Company – has a hike for everyone. On this landscape seriously altered by industry, efforts are actively underway to restore the natural flow of water through the once-wet flatwoods that edge Choctawahatchee Bay. Cypress domes punctuate the otherwise linear formations of pines. The park brochure shows a half-dozen possible hikes (or bicycle trips, your choice) possible within the preserve. This 1.8-mile wander on the Green Trail hits the high points closest to the trailhead, and is ideal for a walk with children.
Location: Panama City Beach
Length: 1.8 miles
Lat-Long: 30.259240, -85.897091
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: at the trailhead
The park is open sunrise to sunset. Numerous hiking and biking options are available up to 11 miles in length. Major trails are marked, named, and signposted at all intersections. This loop follows the Green Trail. Dogs must be leashed.
While most of the park’s trails are not accessible, the paved trail is wheelchair-friendly, as is the first portion of the green trail into the first cypress dome. An all-terrain wheelchair can otherwise handle this full loop, where the surfaces include pea gravel, wooden boardwalk, concrete, clay atop limerock road, and wood chips / pine needles.
From the intersection of US 98 and SR 79, drive west to Griffin Road. You’ll find it on the right immediately past a La Quinta Inn. It’s the main road through “Beach Commerce Park,” a St. Joe-owned industrial and office park. Follow Griffin Road until it ends. It jogs left into Conservation Park through a main gate at the southern boundary of the preserve, and continues north, paralelling the paved bike trail, to a loop through the trailhead area.
After taking the time to learn about the park and its history at the trailhead, turn with your back to the building and walk across the parking lot to the T intersection where the trails begin. Turn right and cross the park road. You come to the first intersection of trails. All four major trails – red, blue, yellow, and green – start here. To begin your hike on the green trail, turn slightly right and go straight ahead, following the pea gravel path into the woods, passing by nicely shaded picnic tables and an outdoor classroom. The trail is rather broad as it meanders through the pines. You can see a cypress dome off to your left, obvious in its cloak of rust, orange, and yellow as the cypress needles react to the cooler temperatures of fall, shedding into the swamp below. Gallberry, grapevines, and saw palmetto make up the understory of the pine plantation.
Part of the reason for taking the Green Trail is it ushers you through two cypress domes. You reach the first boardwalk by 0.2 mile. Tannic water flows sluggishly below. Wax myrtles are in flower. The islands in the swamp look like ideal places for pitcher plants to cluster, and perhaps, when the hydrology of the landscape has been restored, they will do so. This region along the Gulf Coast, where wet flawoods edge right up to Choctawhatchee Bay, is where I’ve seen white-topped pitcher plants in the acidic soils of the wet flatwoods.
At the end of the boardwalk, turn right. The broad wood-chipped path leads the Green Trail around the cypress dome, beneath the lines of slash pine. Fortunately, the trail does not go straight down the rows but across them, so you get an illusion of natural forest amid the plantation, bolstered by the cypress domes that break up the landscape. Bark chips are not the easiest surface to gain traction. You pass a confirmation blaze and head down a straightaway, then curves to the right to zigzag through scrubby flatwoods towards denser forest in the distance, turning towards the east.
Past a beautiful cluster of blazing star blooming in fall, you come to the junction of the Cypress Pond Trail and Osprey Trail at 0.6 mile. Continue straight across the forest road into a dense pine plantation with a very thick understory. The trail jogs right and left through the rows, skirting the edge of another cypress dome until you come right up to the edge and start across the boardwalk. While this boardwalk is as broad as the last one, it’s quite different, as is the landscape. The dome is dense with wax myrtle in its understory, and the cypresses have a wizened look, their tops cropped off at a certain consistent height, perhaps by a hurricane in the past. This is an extensive boardwalk that twists and winds above the watery landscape before plunging downhill into a wall of pines.
Continuing into the thick pines, where pokeberry and mushrooms grow in the pine duff, the boardwalk finally ends and you’re on a bouncy surface of wood chips and pine duff, transitioning from slash pine to sand pine. Deer moss grows in puffs on the duff. As the trail jogs beneath the pines, by a mile you’re fully into the sand pine plantation. St. Joe Company cultivated many of these throughout the Panhandle over the past century, logging these monocultures of sand pines for pulp wood for paper factories, few of which are still in operation today. The trail makes a sharp left turn onto a forest road, guided by a split-rail on the right. Soft sand underfoot makes for difficult footing for a short stretch until you hit bark chips again. Guided right by another split-rail fence, the trail curves past a showy array of sandhills wildflowers, including goldenaster, deer’s-tongue, and sandhill wireweed.
You come to a three-way trail junction at 1.2 miles. To the left is the Buck Pond Trail. The Cypress Pond Trail continiues straight ahead. Turn right to stay on the Green Trail. You’re now on a broad, hard-packed limerock road with a clay surface, working its way through the sand pines. You see sandhill flowers and associated plants like turkey oak and wiregrass, so this was once an upland sandhill habitat before the sand pines were planted. Passing a split-rail fence across from an old sand road that comes in from the left, the trail continues straight ahead. Planted sand pines are on the right, slash pines on the left, with a cypress dome coming into view behind them. I walked this trail very late in the day, and as the sun slipped behind the pines, the mosquitos came out in droves.
As you walk parallel to the cypresses on the left, you’ll pass a green blaze on a post on the right, comfirming the route. At 1.5 miles, a pump station on the left is an obvious landmark, pushing the flow of water from the cypress dome you see to the one you hiked through previously on the boardwalk – you’ll see the discharge on the right. In the cleared pines to the right, there is an old deer stand. The trail continues to follow the road, elevated enough that even in a heavy rain, it should not get puddles. At the next trail junction, the sign pointing back to where you’ve come from says “Buck Pond Trail,” and to where you’re headed, “Baxley Homestead.” Turn right, passing another patch of fall wildflowers just before the sign.
Rather than a trail, this is a very broad space – a hint of a road amid a large cleared area, perhaps once planned to carry the park road deeper into the park. It has all the hallmarks of a construction zone without the equipment or materials. Continue along this broad area, passing a gate on the left that says “Northwest Florida Water Management District” public lands are beyond the gate and open for use. You soon come up to the trailhead area on the right. Turn right to exit, completing the 1.8 mile circuit.