At its east end, an ancient magnolia-beech forest cradled between floodplains. At its west end, a hillside terraced with pitcher plant bogs. In between, scenic and rugged hiking dropping in and out of deeply folded hills with tannic waterways. The Alaqua section of the Florida Trail in Eglin Air Force Base is one of the most scenic pieces of the trail statewide. It features many traverses over creeks, including its mighty namesake, plus plenty of botanical diversity and two nice designated campsites.
Formed at the same time as the Ocala National Forest, Choctawhatchee National Forest was created to support the naval stores industry on “government land withdrawn from settlement.” This meant tapping the tall pines for turpentine and resin, and when those supplies were depleted, for lumber. After management by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the National Forest was ceded to their Air Force for expansion of their Valparaiso Bombing and Gunnery Range, later called Eglin Field. This is how such a vast forest – nearly a half million acres when it was established in 1908 – came to be a military reservation.
All hikers entering Eglin Air Force Base must have a current Eglin permit. Obtain yours by visiting the Eglin Natural Resources website. This is a military reservation that tests bombs. Most military activity is on weekdays. You may encounter military personnel on manuevers and hear the sounds of “thunder” in the distance as bombs are dropped. Aircraft may fly very low over the tree canopy. If you notice any sort of ordinance – rocket, bomb, hand grenade – do not approach it but note the location and call Eglin Security Forces at 850-850-882-2502. Do not random camp or stray off the trail corridor. Please sign in and out of trailhead kiosks.
Before your hike, you must review the Public Access Map (PAM) before hiking at Eglin to ensure that a portion of the trail you plan to hike is not closed. Closures are posted up to three days in advance (called a “forecast”) in the PAM. Closures may be due to military training, prescribed burns, logging for longleaf habitat restoration, and a host of other reasons. We’ve discovered that the best times to hike this piece of the trail is on weekends, especially holiday weekends. It’s not easy to read the PAM, but the best guess we have on which blocks correspond to this hike are (south to north) N-14, N-11, N-6, N-5, N-4, and N-3. When in doubt about a suspected closure, call Jackson Guard at 850-882-4165. At FPCON DELTA status, the entire base is closed, including all roads that cross it.
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 from the Eglin Portal trailhead, you enter a sand pine forest with increasingly taller trees the deeper in you get. Sand pines yield to longleaf within the first quarter mile, providing a high upper canopy and an open understory through which to ramble on the comfortable pine duff.
0.5 > The trail drops down into a swale in the pine forest to cross Switch Cane Branch, a shallow and clear sand-bottomed stream, on a plank bridge. This is your first water source northbound in the Eglin section and is easy to reach for filtering. In fact, there’s a tiny cascade that makes a perfect spot for dropping a filter in.
0.8 > After a walk beneath tall pines into a sandhill habitat, the trail emerges into an open area bisected by power lines. Cross the grassy slope and continue into more sandhills dominated by pines. You cross some faint forest roads marked by trail signs.
1.3 > The thicket of vegetation up ahead means another creek crossing. This one is Moccasin Creek, which you cross on a plank bridge. Slightly broader than Switch Cane Branch, it has a darker bottom but clear water, and is still a good spot to filter water or to cool off your feet. On the other side of the bridge, follow a boardwalk through a gum swamp before the trail rises back up into a pine forest.
1.9 > In the middle of a sand pine scrub forest, the trail crosses Forrest Oak Road, a sand road that leads east through a rural residential community and then to US 331. Use this as an alternate access point for a shorter out-and-back hike, or if the Eglin Portal trailhead is closed. To the west, the road ends at a gate for Eglin AFB, becoming RR 201.
2.7 > This forest is a mix of sandhills and scrub, with dense clusters of British soldiers and deer moss growing on the pine duff. You pass a towering sand pine on the left. As sand pines only live to about 70 years, this is one of the ancients of this forest.
2.9 > Dropping in elevation from the sand pine forest through a thicket of sparkleberry, the trail enters a beech-magnolia forest, an uncommon habitat for Florida. The kiosk for Eglin Portal campsite is up ahead. This is a very appealing campsite, with plenty of flat space on this bluff within sight of the benches and fire ring. The blue blaze headed away from the campsite leads a tenth of a mile downhill to a clear stream bridged by planks to make sitting and filtering your water an easy task.
3.1 > Following the orange blazes, you drop down along the deeply forested bluffs beneath the tall beeches and magnolias. The trail parallels a small stream before crossing Trapper Bridge on a plank bridge over a horseshoe bend in the waterway. It then climbs back uphill again.
3.2 > After a steep downhill and a boardwalk across a floodplain, the trail joins the bluffs along Blount Creek. Great news! There is now a bridge over the creek, thanks to the hard work of the FTA Choctawhatchee Chapter Trail Hogs trail crew working on it the summer of 2017.
3.4 > Immersed in the magnolia-beech forest, with towering trees surrounding you, it’s a surprise to come to a wooden ladder mounted to what appears to be a geologic fault line through the forest with an uplift taller than you are. The only way over it is to climb the ladder to the top. On the way back, you can slide down this natural wall on a cleared spot next to the ladder. Beyond the fault, the landscape drops down into a broad swampy area, which the trail traverses on a series of boardwalks.
3.8 > The trail rises up to a bluff, following a side channel of Alaqua Creek until it reaches the creek itself. The new bridge will cross at the location of the old Demon Bridge. Continue to follow the footpath upstream. Use the temporary bridge to cross until the new bridge is in place.
4.7 > Pass a strange tangle of uprooted pine tree roots we call the Alaqua Dragon because it looks like one. Kinda, sorta.
5.7 > Walk under a set of power transmission lines that bisect the sand pine forest. A two-track dirt road runs beneath them. Enter the sand pine forest again.
6.3 > Walk beneath a second set of power lines, these ones for local service. There is also a dirt road beneath them. Those green puffs of moss along the trail are deer moss. The trail enters a climax laurel oak forest before the forest yields to sand pines again.
6.6 > Descend a long, steep slope through a magnolia-beech forest with a great deal of Florida anise in the understory to reach the bog bridges leading to the small bridge over crystalline Sparkleberry Creek. It’s a good bit of a climb up and out of the creek basin, too. Seepage springs may make the footpath mucky. You pass through a stand of native bamboo before the trail levels out in the sand pine forest.
6.9 > Cross the first of two barely distinct forest roads within this half mile stretch. Deer moss grows thickly on the pine duff. The turkey oaks and yaupon holly remind you this is a sandhill (or in this part of Florida, clayhill) habitat that’s been invaded by the sand pines.
7.5 > Down a steep slope thickly covered in pine needles, the trail descends quickly through the understory of Florida anise beneath the pines to the edge of Oakie Creek. Following the bluffs along the creek briefly, it crosses a substantial bridge. On the north side of the creek, continue along the zigzags of the bog boardwalks through a gum swamp in the floodplain.
7.7 > Reach Roger Nelson Rd, a clay road that goes compass north to Pleasant Ridge Rd, a paved road off Bob Sikes Rd. The trail crosses Roger Nelson Rd and continues compass west towards Alaqua campsite. There is no real parking here, just a pulloff in soft sand. Clayhill and sand pine scrub habitats alternate this next section, with lots of deer moss growing along the edges of the trail.
8.2 > The forest is largely a mix of climax clayhill and sand pine scrub as you walk beneath younger oaks and pines. After you cross a two-track forest road, clumps of saw palmetto begin to appear in the understory. The habitat opens up into a healthier clayhill.
8.8 > Transitioning back into a sand pine forest, you cross another rough two-track forest road which is heavily eroded and will hold water. As the habitat yields to clayhill, young longleaf pines sprout beneath the turkey oaks.
9.0 > As there is a wall of vegetation up ahead, you can guess a creek crossing is coming. The trail curves down the hill into the Lyonia Branch floodplain. This shallow, clear, sand-bottomed stream is a good choice for filtering water, and you can sit on the plank bridge to do so. Rising back out of the stream basin, the trail re-enters the sand pine forest.
9.1 > A gentle dip in the sand pine forest drops you into the creek basin surrounding Dykes Branch, a narrow stream which you cross on a plank. Gaining elevation, you pass a Southern magnolia that grows in a clump along the trail.
9.5 > The nicest campsite along the Florida Trail in Eglin, the Alaqua Campsite has quite a few amentities for being a primitive backcountry campsite. Beyond just the usual benches and fire ring – which are always welcomed by weary backpackers – there is also a full-size picnic bench and a permanent grill. This is an excellent destination for large groups, since there is plenty of space on the flat ground under the sand pines to pitch a dozen tents or more.
9.6 > Hellfire Creek is not named for its looks, but for the Hellfire Missile that was tested and perfected here at Eglin Air Force Base. A plank bridge crosses this narrow creek, which is the water source for Alaqua Campsite.
10.0 > In the midst of the clayhill forest, where turkey oaks wave their bright green leaves at eye level, the trail crosses another two-track forest road. This is the flattest part of the hike, this expanse of turkey oaks between the creek basins.
10.6 > Jump Across Creek is as cute as the name implies: you don’t really need the plank bridge to cross it, since it’s such a narrow waterway. However, the plank has an important purpose: the clear water and sand bottom makes this a great spot to stop and filter water, moreso than the other creeks you’ve crossed.
10.8 > Cross a sand road with deep, soft sand where it curves past the trail crossing. You’re firmly in the clayhills, passing through an area that belies the former commercial aspect of the forest, as the pines grow in a row next to the trail.
11.2 > Puncheon boardwalks zigzagging into a gum swamp mean you’ve entered the extensive floodplain of Little Alaqua Creek, the largest tributary of Alaqua Creek. It is swift and deep, and is crossed by a substantial bridge. A long rise up a slope through a magnolia-beech forest leads to a dense stand of Southern magnolias at the top.
11.8 > As the forest floor begins to be covered by a fuzzy seafoam-green, clusters of deer moss thriving on the pine duff, sand pines intrude into the habitat. Cross an old two-track road in the sandhills.
12.2 > Dropping out of the clayhills, the trail reaches White Top Creek. A long series of boardwalks continue through the floodplain swamp surrounding the creek, which is named for the native white-topped pitcher plants. As you climb up the steep hill, it may be muddy from seepage springs. Pitcher plants grow in the footpath.
12.4 > On the bluff at the railing at the top of White Top Hill, look downslope for an amazing sight. This hill is naturally terraced in pitcher plant bogs fed by the seepage springs. The trail makes a sharp right and rises uphill into the pines.
12.9 > Emerge from a corridor of pines to reach the Alaqua trailhead at Bob Sikes Road. It sits on a rooty slope above the road. The Catface section of Eglin starts on the other side of this paved road.
<<< SOUTHBOUND NORTHBOUND >>>
DeFuniak Springs is the big town to the north and east of this section along US 331, and is a favorite stop for long distance hikers for resupply – especially if the section is closed, making it necessary for hikers to walk through the interchange to Bob Sikes Rd, where the 24-hour Walmart, 850-892-3138, 1226 Freeport Hwy, is located. There are also convenience store and numerous fast food options 5 miles north of the Eglin Portal trailhead, as well as a half-dozen hotels and motels surrounding the Interstate 10 interchange.
LODGING: We’ve stayed at the Best Western Crossroads Inn, 850-892-5111, 2343 US 331, Defuniak Springs 32435, and the Holiday Inn Express Defuniak Springs , 850-520-4660, 326 Coy Burgess Loop, Defuniak Springs 32435, and would recommend both. Rooms at the Holiday Inn Express are newer and larger, but you can park outside your door at the Best Western. Both hotels have laundry facilities, a pool, and breakfast included with your stay. There are also several budget motels north of the interstate. Long distance hikers tend to gravitate to the Sundown Inn, 850-892-9647, 1295 US 331, because it’s across the street from Walmart and is the cheapest place around. It also has laundry facilities.
DINING: Hungry hikers won’t want to miss the all-you-can-eat options at McClain’s Family Steak House, 850-892-2402, 622 Hugh Adams Rd, a well-established family owned restaurant serving every cut of steak you can think of, plus a dozen seafood selections. Time your visit for their Steak & Seafood Buffet, held Friday and Saturdays nights, or just enjoy the regular lunch or dinner buffet on other days. They do a breakfast buffet on weekends as well.
Adjoining the Sundown Inn is La Rumba, 850-951-2175, 1317 US 331, Defuniak Springs, an excellent Mexican restaurant with an extensive menu and 2-4-1 margaritas. Bring a friend to share. Just north of Bob Sikes Rd in a strip mall, 4C BBQ, 850-892-4227, 1045 US 331, makes a most-excellent fish dip in addition to their tasty barbecue. They also have live music, karaoke, and even Sunday services in their large indoor space.
If you’ve driven into town, you shouldn’t miss Bogeys, 850-951-2233, 660 Baldwin Ave. This is the upscale choice for dinner in historic downtown Defuniak Springs, serving fresh seafood and excellent steaks at dinnertime. We had fun at lunch with a visit to Ed’s Restaurant, 850-892-5839, 1324 US 90, the “Home of the Pub Burger” (which is quite good) where you’ll want to order a homemade milkshake to go with it.
From Defuniak Springs, follow US 331 south from Interstate 10 for 5.1 miles to the trailhead on the right side of the highway, across from a fire station. The kiosk is visible from the highway.
If road construction blocks access to the Eglin Portal trailhead, alternate access is available via Forrest Oak Rd, which is 4.2 miles south of Interstate 10 on the right. Forrest Oak Rd is unpaved and has some spots of soft sand, plus limited space for parking near the trail crossing. Use the map above to get directions to the exact location of the trail crossing. Starting from this point cuts 2 miles off your trip.