4.6 miles. A deep immersion in pine flatwoods and titi swamps awaits along this segment of the Florida Trail, which uses many old forest roads to cross tributaries draining into the Ochlockonee River.
One of the more compelling short hikes on the Florida Trail in the Apalachicola National Forest, this segment between Porter Lake and Jewel offers a little bit of everything that the trail offers through this vast, wet forest, a fractal of the whole. There are narrow bridges like balance beams, seepage slopes with pitcher plants, bogs where sundews and butterworts thrive, and vast pine plantations traversed on a puzzle of forest roads. You’ll even dip through a titi swamp or two.
Wildflowers are abundant, particular St. John’s Wort in the forest understory. Fragrant wild azaleas grow along Hickory Branch in several spots, including right where the trail uses FR 142 to cross this major tributary of the Ochlockonee River. Swales in the pine flatwoods cradle carnivorous plants.
While wet feet can be expected on this traverse, most of the major water crossings are bridged. One of the more interesting ones is at Cox Branch, where an older bridge provides a cable to steady you as you walk the narrow beam over the jet black waters of Cox Branch.
JANUARY 2019: this segment of the trail was heavily impacted by Hurricane Michael and is reported as nearly impassible. Until the government shutdown ends, no trail maintenance will be underway to clear the trail. Use extreme caution if you are considering a hike here and expect to follow paralleling forest roads in places.
The Apalachicola National Forest is a popular destination for hunters, especially during the fall deer season, when hikers are restricted to camping at designated campsites, which include Porter Lake Recreation Area and Indian Creek. The remainder of the year, you are welcome to random camp in any pleasant spot. Be aware that although Porter Lake offers water and a privy, it is a magnet for folks looking for free camping in the Apalachicola National Forest. Indian Creek is a designated backpacking campsite.
Check hunt dates as a part of your trip planning, and always wear bright orange clothing during hunting seasons.
To get to Porter Lake Recreation Area [30.176849, -84.677361] take Smith Creek Road (CR 329) either 16.3 miles north from Sopchoppy or 17.8 miles south of SR 20 at Fort Braden. From either direction, turn west on FR 13. There is a large sign for the recreation area on the left as you finish crossing the last bridge, with a steep ramp down into the parking and camping area.
The Jewel trailhead [30.196779, -84.727692], an undeveloped site where a fire tower once stood, is on the west side of CR 67 south of Indian Creek. Look for the paved apron leading up to it. It is 13.6 miles south of Telogia and 27.3 miles north of US 98 at Carrabelle, and can be easily reached on paved roads from Porter Lake via FR 13 west and CR 67 north.
Leaving Porter Lake, the trail parallels FR 13 to the south to cross a long picturesque bridge through a cypress floodplain. Crossing the paved road, it continues compass north, jumping on and off of forest roads as it parallels the Ochlockonee River floodplain upstream.
After a wall of titi and a tunnel through this cloyingly fragrant native swamp-loving shrub, the trail reaches a dry area under the pines two miles in, where random camping is possible.
After following a series of forest roads, the trail reaches the Hickory Branch floodplain and turns compass west to follow it upstream. Another dry place to random camp is among the azalea before you reach FR 142, which the trail uses to cross Hickory Branch. Re-entering the woods on the opposite side of the culverts and road, the trail works its way west through and around numerous bogs under the pines, with carnivorous plants thriving in these damp acidic areas.
At Cox Branch, filter water before crossing the bridge if you plan to camp at the Indian Creek campsite, which sits just shy of the end of this section but is well hidden from the light traffic along CR 67.