Providing a 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.
One of the newest segments of the Florida Trail, opened January 2017, the Choctawhatchee River Section (or, as locals call it, CRS) has been a decade in the making. It started with the acquisition of former commercial timberlands by entrepreneur M.C. Davis, who grew up in the area and made his fortune before returning to make a difference. He founded Nokuse Plantation, which at 53,000 acres is one of the largest private conservancies in the United States. Working with the U.S. Forest Service and the Florida Trail Association soon after purchasing the land, a permanent conservation easement across the landscape was arranged to forever provide the Florida Trail a corridor through the region.
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.
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.
As most of this section of the trail hugs close to the floodplain of the Choctawhatchee River, one of Northwest Florida’s largest rivers, flooding can be an issue. Do not attempt to hike this section if the river gauge reads over 13 feet. Check the river gauge before undertaking this hike. Thru-hikers should follow the former roadwalk route, SR 20 to Bruce to SR 81, to skip this section if it is flooded.
Portions of this trail are on lands managed by Northwest Florida Water Management District, which permits limited seasonal hunting. Although most hunters enter the area by boat, you may run into hunters using the Florida Trail to access hunting grounds along the river floodplain. Check hunt dates and locations.
Hiking northbound (compass west) from SR 20 at Cowford Landing to SR 71 at Seven Runs.
FT symbols indicate trailheads and access points. Click on any symbol for more details and on FT symbols to obtain custom directions to trailheads.
0.0 > Starting out from Cowford Landing, walk under the Choctawhatchee River bridge to reach the north side of SR 20. Walk up through the low part of the grassy shoulder, crossing Howell Bluff Road. Continue along the base of the berm for a quarter mile.
0.3 > Look for the gap in the woods – it had orange flagging when we hiked it – just beyond and below the large FNST sign on the shoulder of SR 20. Once you step across the plank boardwalk into the forest, an FNST sign greets you in the shade of tupelo and pines. You’re entering Nokuse Plantation, a private wildlife conservancy through which the Florida Trail enjoys a conservation easement. Please respect this conservancy by staying on-trail and only camping at designated campsites.
0.6 > Several boardwalks guide you across the worst of sometimes-squishy spots in this slender strand of swamp forest. A footbridge crosses an unreliable water source. Don’t be surprised if your shoes get wet and muddy in this short stretch.
1.3 > Join a forest road very briefly between stands of longleaf pine of different ages. The stand on the north side of this road is in the candle stage, in which the trees look like big green bottlebrushes. As they mature, they’ll begin to branch out.
1.6 > As the trail leads you up along the edge of the Cypress Creek floodplain, you reach the picturesque Cypress Creek boardwalk. Don’t rush across this one: savor the reflections of the cypress swamp. The north end of this well-built boardwalk is the easiest place to filter water along the southern portion of this segment of trail. If you plan to camp at the upcoming campsite, you’ll need it, as it’s a dry camp.
2.3 > Near the end of a traverse of a mature longleaf pine forest, the trail slips through a short but soggy drainage under tupelo trees. Past the sloppy stuff, the forest is much younger, with candle stage pines reaching for the sun in the sandhills. The trail crosses a forest road in the middle of the young forest. Beyond the next forest road, the landscape opens up into an immersive panorama of grassy prairie, which the trail leads you across to the next stand of longleaf in the distance.
2.8 > Joining a forest road to round a tricky corner – make a left on the forest road, then a right at the T intersection onto another forest road – the trail crosses the boundary between Nokuse Plantation and Northwest Florida Water Management land. It follows the forest road, which is closed to vehicles, over culverts from the outflow of a not-very-accessible pond edged by pine forest. On the sandy straightaway through sandhill habitat, watch for snakes warming themselves in the sun.
3.5 > After passing through a gate, the trail makes a jog off the forest road into the woods to the left. A few footfalls later, you’re at the blue blaze for Leaning Pine Camp. It’s a very short side trail to a small clearing with fire ring and park benches, plus several flat spots for pitching a tent. Just a little ways past the camp, you reach the boundary back into Nokuse Plantation, heading into another young longleaf pine forest.
4.6 > For the first time since Cypress Creek, the trail draws close enough to the floodplain of the Choctawhatchee River that you begin to notice a dense wall of trees at the eastern edge of the pine forest. The trail briefly joins a forest road to cross the outflow of a pond, where the tannic waters tip into the road and flow across the gravel before dropping off a concrete lip into a creek. This is another good spot to stop and filter water.
5.8 > As the trail is much closer to the floodplain, you cross several small drainages within the forest, with trickles of water flowing towards the river. Some are bridged with planks, but the one at this spot is not, so expect soggy shoes.
6.3 > Dropping down a sudden slope, the trail crosses a natural bridge between two sinkholes. The larger one to the west cradles a bowl of cypress-gum swamp, which the trail circles around before joining a forest road to cross an inaccessible waterway on an old concrete road bridge. At a T intersection with another forest road, the trail goes straight ahead into a mature longleaf pine forest, where the pines tower well overhead. This next half mile of hiking illustrates the grandeur of the natural longleaf pine forests that much of Florida, and the Southeast, lost to commercial pine plantations over the last century.
6.8 > Crossing a broad forest road, the trail continues through a mature longleaf pine forest. The understory is very open, but has soggy spots in places as floodplain drainages edge up along the side of the trail. The tall pines continue until you cross the next forest road, after which the habitat transitions into climax sandhills with laurel oaks dominating a dense forest.
7.4 > Reaching Dead River Road, the trail leaves Nokuse Plantation to enter Northwest Florida Water Management District lands along the Seven Runs basin. The paved road leads a mile east to a popular primitive campground along the Dead River.
7.9 > After sticking close to the edge of the floodplain forest, the trail reaches a spot at the end of a fence where water gushes out of the hill from what looks like a small spring. Immediately after, two quick 90-degree turns take the trail away from the floodplain and along the base of a reservoir berm with lots of private property signs. Note the deer stands in the trees, which will be occupied during the fall hunting season. Don’t miss the sharp right turn at the end of the berm back into the woods.
8.2 > Just past a step-across creek crossing, the trail makes a sharp turn at an overlook on Seven Runs. This tannic, sand-bottomed creek is your water source for the Rivers Bend Campsite up around the bend down a blue blaze into a pine plantation. Besides the requisite clearing on level ground, it has park benches and a fire ring.
8.6 > Leaving the Seven Runs floodplain, the trail heads uphill through a sandhill area where young longleaf pines are filling in clearings in a former pine plantation. The trail emerges onto the shoulder of SR 81. Cross the highway, which has sporadic high-speed traffic. If you’re continuing into the next section, go straight ahead to re-enter Nokuse Plantation. If you’re ending your hike here, walk up the shoulder of SR 81, crossing the highway bridge over Seven Runs, to reach the Seven Runs trailhead on the west side of the road, adding 0.2 miles to your hike. This small trailhead and launch point has a sheltered picnic table and a portable toilet.
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The nearest services are in Ebro, a mile east of Cowford Landing along SR 20. Long distance hikers heading northbound will want to resupply before they cross the Choctawhatchee River at the Marathon Quick Stop, 850-535-4444, 6590 Dog Track Rd, Ebro FL. They offer expanded convenience store basics with a Subway sub shop and are open daily. If you’re driving, you also have access to the Bruce Store, 850-835-2932, 10420 SR 20, at the junction of SR 20 and SR 81 in Bruce. It’s a much smaller and older store, but you’ll meet interesting people here.
CAMPING: Just a mile east of the Florida Trail down Dead River Road, Dead River Landing, 850-539-5999, 2356 Dead River Road, Ponce de Leon, FL 32455 offers 16 reservable campsites in two loops: one with a camp host, gravel pads for small campers, and a nearby privy; the second loop has a picnic shelter but is more primitive and set aside for tent camping. There is no power or water at this campground; you must filter water from the river. However, campsites are free! You must reserve your site in advance. Also, since the recreation area is in the floodplain, it will be closed anytime the water is high.
At Pine Log State Forest, 850-535-2888, 5583-A Longleaf Rd, Ebro, just a few miles west of this segment, camping is also first-come, first-served, with 20 sites that can accomodate tents or trailers. The campground is nicely situated under the pines along a large pond at the Sand Pond trailhead, which the Florida Trail passes through. Campsites cost $10-20, half-price for Florida residents age 65 or over. Adjoining the trailhead parking at Sand Pond is a restroom with flush toilets, potable water, and showers.
LODGING: The hiker-friendly Ebro Motel, 850-535-2499, 5312 Captain Fritz Rd, Ebro, offers a 10% discount for FT hikers, and the friendly staff enjoys hearing about your adventures. It’s an older but well-kept locally-owned roadside motel with a Subway next door at the convenience store. A guest computer and free long-distance calls are helpful for long distance hikers.
DINING: West of Cowford Landing and south of Seven Runs is the small town of Bruce with a hiker favorite, the Bruce Cafe, 850-835-2946, 10420 SR 20, Bruce. Before this new section of trail opened, hikers would walk right by and right in for a meal. This is a sweet little mom and pop restaurant that we frequent on our travels through this area. Enjoy delicious homestyle country cooking Tue-Sat 6 AM to 7 PM, cash only.
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.