NOTE: Hurricane Michael devastated this region of Florida, flattening the forests. This trail is not currently open and may not reopen for some time.
Sluicing its way through high bluffs and low flatlands, Econfina Creek is one of Florida’s most beautiful and unsung waterways. The Florida Trail follows it for nearly 20 miles through Washington and Bay Counties. Starting at Pitt Spring, a popular launch point, this day hike will give you a good taste of the geologic wonders to be savored along its shores.
Although it is short, this is no ordinary nature trail. It involves steep climbs, views from a bluff, a big switchback, and deep dark crevices into the earth. It’s worthy of an explorer who wants to savor Florida’s karst, a landscape where water moves under, above, and through the earth. And best of all, it connects two springs you can swim in.
Length: 2.0 miles
Lat-Long: 30.432783, -85.546768
Type: balloon or linear
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: Easy to rugged
Bug factor: Moderate
Restroom: Composting toilets at both Pitt and Williford Springs
From the junction of US 231 and SR 20 in Fountain, south of Marianna and north of Panama City, head west on SR 20. Drive 7.1 miles. Immediately after you cross Econfina Creek, the entrance to the park is on the right.
The hike starts at the kiosk at Pitt Spring. On a boardwalk, the trail passes the restrooms and comes up to a T intersection. Turn right to walk to an observation deck over Econfina Creek that serves as a put-in for tubing. In the other direction, the boardwalk turns left and makes a jog through the floodplain forest towards SR 20, reaching a clear pool of water that it slips around, a spring a little larger than a garden bathtub, creating a run down to the creek. Another side boardwalk leads to a view of pretty Sylvan Springs. The springs here are so strong they well up above the water and burble, the creek still crystal-clear, the scene so Old Florida and pristine.
Moments later, the boardwalk reaches a footpath. You hear the sound of water, and can see the creek through the trees. Walking through the slope forest of tall magnolias and oaks, you reach a trail junction after 0.5 mile, soon after a massive American beech. Follow the signs that guide you left, as the trail straight ahead (steep climb) goes to a parking area on Strickland Rd. The trail is now very broad, and it’s obvious you are gaining elevation as you walk through the deciduous forest.
After 0.7 mile, you reach the next junction. Here’s where the fun begins. Take the trail to the right: this is a loop that returns to this point. It slips downhill quickly to the edge of the bluff, which is now well-fortified with erosion control and a sturdy fence as you walk well above the floodplain of Econfina Creek. The best views, of course, are during the winter, when the leaves are off the trees. To get down to creek level, you’ll walk down a very steep and long switchback, one of the largest ones you’ll find in Florida. The elevation change between bluff and creek is 70 feet.
Once off the bluff, the trail meanders out through the floodplain to the edge of the waterway, providing glimpses of the creek and far-off sandy shores in the shade of the bottomlands, with dark muck underfoot. Wild azalea blooms here in March. A bridge provides a perspective of the outflow of a small spring, which may be dry, and continue on to find a spring gushing out of the side of the hill, creating a spring run that the trail parallels.
Then the landscape gets truly weird. This is a limestone karst at its finest. There are giant boulders split apart by tiny streams, deep pits and cracks in the footpath and through the forest, some obvious bowl-shaped sinkholes, and caves you can peer down into, where water runs through the bottom. It’s very reminiscent of the Aucilla Sinks along the Florida Trail, but far more concentrated and on a smaller scale.
The trail emerges at Williford Spring. Since its restoration, it’s become a very nice swimming and picnic area, but has lost the wild charm I found here on my first visit. A long boardwalk continues along the far side of the spring, leading down the spring run to a landing for canoe and kayak launch.
To continue around the loop, walk up the stairs towards the parking area. Look for the trail just above the last picnic pavilion on your left. It makes a gradual uphill through a laurel oak forest and eventually reaches the top of the bluffs again at 1.2 miles. The view is obscured by vegetation but you can tell you’re atop the hill again.
Once you reach the trail junction that started the loop along the bluffs, you’re headed straight ahead to return to Sylvan and Pitt Springs the way you came. Enjoy the spring views along the boardwalk on the return trip.