8.7 miles. Providing an immersive hike through majestic longleaf pine forests in Nokuse Plantation, the Florida Trail along the Choctawhatchee River also showcases natural features in the river basin between Cypress Creek and Seven Runs.
Of all of the segments of the Florida Trail in Nokuse, the Choctawhatchee River Section does the best job of showcasing why Nokuse Plantation exists. Local entrepreneur and conservationist M.C. Davis had a dream of restoring a vast swath of commercially exploited landscape back to the sweeping longleaf pine forests that it had once been. That restoration effort, now two decades old, is most mature along this portion of the trail.
Nokuse (pronounced Nah-Go-Say) means “bear” in the Creek language, but you’re far more likely to see white-tailed deer, foxes, turkeys, fox squirrels, and gopher tortoises. In addition to a surprising amount of wildlife along this hike, you’ll also experience the full spectrum of the restoration of longleaf pine habitat across this landscape, from young candle-stage pines sprouting from tall grasses to a towering canopy of pines with an open understory that stretches on and on. Prescribed fire is a part of the regimen of keeping longleaf pine habitats healthy, so don’t be surprised to run into crispy bits of forest, too.
Ongoing restoration of pine plantations continues. While this process is going on, you will encounter both recent clearcuts and new young forests. Keep alert for flagging and blaze posts in these areas to follow the footpath.
Two designated campsites – Leaning Pine and Rivers Bend – on public land provide destinations for backpackers, with benches and fire ring. Both are nice places for day hikers to take a break, too. No permits are required, but backpackers are asked to stick to designated campsites throughout the Nokuse section.
Portions of this trail, including the vicinity of the two campsites, are on lands managed by Northwest Florida Water Management District, which permits limited seasonal hunting. There is also a private hunting ground adjoining the trail north of Dead River Road, marked with signs. Check the FWC website for hunting dates at Choctawhatchee River WMA.
As the trail is along the Choctawhatchee River floodplain, flooding can be an issue. Check the flood gauge in advance of your hike.. If you hike in and find the Cypress Creek Boardwalk under water, turn around.
From US 98 at the west end of Panama City Beach, follow SR 79 north for 15.5 miles, driving through Pine Log State Forest, to meet SR 20 at Ebro. Turn left and continue west on SR 20 for 2 miles. Immediately after you cross the Choctawhatchee River, the turnoff on the left leads to Cowford Landing. This is the trailhead for the beginning of the hike. If the area is clear, it’s okay to park up near the bridge rather than down at the riverside parking area.
For the northern terminus of this hike, continue past Cowford Landing 3.8 miles to the town of Bruce. Turn right on SR 81. Drive 5.8 miles, passing Dead River Road before you come to the trail crossing. The trailhead at Seven Runs is on the left side of the highway just after you cross the bridge over Seven Runs, 0.2 mile north of the trail crossing.
From the parking area at Cowford Landing or under the bridge, you’ll need to walk along the grassy shoulder of SR 20 about a quarter mile before entering the forest at the base of the berm. A highway sign along SR 20 marks the spot. Slipping through a stretch of sometimes-soggy floodplain forest, the trail guides you into the longleaf pine restoration areas, with pines of different ages and sizes along the trail. When you reach the Cypress Creek floodplain, take the time to enjoy the sturdy boardwalk across it and the reflections of the swamp in the water.
Traversing mature longleaf pine forest and a grassy prairie, the trail exits the private conservancy into public land for a stretch, where it follows a forest road past a pond. Watch for signs and blazes. Beyond Leaning Pine Camp at 3.5 miles, you’re back in Nokuse Plantation again, hugging close to the Choctawhatchee River floodplain. Crossing a natural bridge, the trail rises up into a truly grand longleaf pine forest before it crosses Dead River Road.
On the north side of Dead River Road, you re-enter public land along the Seven Runs basin. A portion of the trail hugs close to a hunt camp, crossing a reservoir berm. Enjoy the overlook on Seven Runs Creek before you encounter Rivers Bend campsite at 8.2 miles. The trail rises up through sandhills to cross SR 81, marking the end of this section. The Seven Runs trailhead is a quarter mile north along the highway.
NORTHBOUND: Florida Trail, Forgotten Creek
SOUTHBOUND: Florida Trail, Pine Log to Nokuse Roadwalk