12.3 miles. You’re guaranteed to get wet on Florida’s roughest, wildest day hike. Situated south of Tallahassee, the Bradwell Bay Wilderness is one of the most majestic and wild places in Northwest Florida, a roadless area encompassing more than 24,000 acres.
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Bradwell Bay is a massive hardwood swamp in a “bay,” a term used to Florida to describe a shallow basin where water collects in a forest much like a large pond. The Apalachicola National Forest has many such bays, but Bradwell Bay is its crown jewel. Loggers couldn’t slog through the water to get to some of its grandest inhabitants, including 12 acres of virgin slash pines and untouched cypress trees.
The Florida Trail dives right into this wilderness to lead you through the Scenic Area, but to get there means sloshing through dark tannic water for more than 7 miles. Depending on your height and the effects of recent rains, you’ll deal with knee to waist-deep water, where probing ahead for footing is a must due to submerged logs and deep mud holes. There is one seasonally dry spot, Bradwell Island, suitable for primitive camping.
This is one of Florida’s most difficult day hikes. Contact the USDA Forest Service at 850-926-3521 regards the water level in Bradwell Bay before you start this hike. The water in Bradwell Bay can rise to dangerous levels quickly, especially after a heavy rain. Hiking alone is not recommended. GPS, compass, and good map are a must. It’s very easy to get lost in this swamp. Don’t attempt this hike if the water at the Monkey Creek crossing is swift or high, as it will be much deeper in the swamp. Wear blaze orange during hunting season. Although you can camp on Bradwell Island when it is dry, since this is a wilderness area, we don’t recommend it compared to the other designated campsites in the forest.
From US 319 in Crawfordville, follow CR 368 west through Arran to FR 365, just inside the forest boundary. You are now on a network of dirt roads that may have deep puddles in places; roads are well marked. Turn right on FR 348 after a little more than 2 miles. Follow it to its junction with FR 329, and turn left to cross the bridge over the Sopchoppy River. The Bradwell Bay trailhead is on the right 0.2 mile past the bridge.
To start your hike from the western edge of Bradwell Bay, follow FR 13 past FR 348 to FR 314. Follow FR 314 south until you see the Florida National Scenic Trail sign and small trailhead for Bradwell West. The clay road is narrow, with ditches on both sides, and is extremely slippery when wet.
Leaving the Bradwell Bay trailhead heading west, the Florida Trail leads you through pine flatwoods with scattered stands of titi (pronounced tie-tie), a tree in the buckwheat family that proffers fragrant blooms each spring. Longleaf pines tower overhead and wiregrass carpets the ground. After 5.4 miles, you reach the 0.7 mile blue blaze to the Monkey Creek trailhead. This first piney woods segment makes a good 6.1 mile day hike using two cars.
The 7-mile stretch between the Monkey Creek trailhead and FR 314 is the heart of the swamp. The pine woods get wetter and wetter as you approach Monkey Creek, which you must ford. Beware a deep hole to the right of the ford, and use your hiking stick for balance. If the water is running swiftly or is high, turn back. On the other side, the trail becomes squishy and watery, leading through a bog with pitcher plants and sundew. At 9.8 miles, Bradwell Island is the high point along this segment, a good place for a rest break and the only place (if dry) to camp.
West of Bradwell Island, the trail enters the depths of this colorful swamp forest. Black gum, tupelo, and red maple provide shade. In the Scenic Area, a 300-acre preserve untouched by logging, virgin slash pine of national champion girth and height tower overhead, as do giant cypresses. Scout every footstep and watch for blazes, as they are easy to lose. Deep sloughs like The Pond can catch you unawares if you stray off the blazed route. As the trail rises out of the bay, it ascends and follows an old logging tramway to exit the wilderness area, emerging at FR 314 after 12.4 miles.