Protecting nearly 9,000 acres of between Palatka and Keystone Heights, Etoniah Creek State Forest is home to a segment of the Florida Trail where backpackers and day hikers alike can get out and explore. This hike describes the western segment of the Florida Trail between the two major trailheads of Etoniah Creek State Forest, the Tinsley Road and Fieldhouse Rd trailheads. While the habitats aren’t as diverse as those you’ll find in the eastern part of this forest, the Florida Trail leads you past sinkholes in the midst of sandhills and sand pine scrub, where sightings of deer and wild turkey are not uncommon. Much of this segment of the Florida Trail is shared by the Longleaf Pine Trail, a Florida State Forests Trailwalker program trail.
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Length: 3.5 miles between parking areas
Lat-Long: 29.788240, -81.876247 (Tinsley Trailhead) and 29.763390, -81.845860 (Fieldhouse Rd Trailhead)
Fees / Permits: $2 per person fee at Fieldhouse Rd trailhead
Good for: birding, camping, wildlife
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: available at the Fieldhouse Rd trailhead parking area
The Florida Trail is blazed orange, and the Longleaf Pine Trail is blazed blue. Pay attention to the blazes, as the trail jumps on and off forest roads in a few places. No fee is charged at the Tinsley Road trailhead, but a fee is in effect at the Fieldhouse Road trailhead—and I sure didn’t mind paying for the flush toilet and cold drinking fountain!
For more information and additional trail maps, visit the Etoniah Creek State Forest website
Follow SR 100 west from Palatka towards Keystone Heights for 8 miles. Watch for the Etoniah Creek State Forest sign. Turn right on Holloway Road. This is a broad clay / sand road that is usually passable by cars. Continue up the road to where you see the visitor center sign at Fieldhouse Rd. That side road leads to the trailhead for the end of this hike. To find the Tinsley Road trailhead, continue north on Holloway Road for another mile to Tinsley Road. Turn left. This road is usually not as well maintained as Holloway Road. You’ll reach the trailhead on the left after 1.9 miles, passing the George’s Lake trailhead en route. An alternative route to the Tinsley Road trailhead is to take Coral Farms Rd, a paved road, north from SR 100 (to the west of Holloway Road) to Tinsley Road, and the trailhead is almost immediately on your right as you turn onto Tinsley Road.
Start your hike at the Florida Trail Tinsley Road trailhead, which is also the trailhead for the Florida State Forests Trailwalker Program Longleaf Pine Trail. Follow the orange blazes! You’re surrounded by sandhill habitat where many of the larger pines have been cleared, and the trail quickly drops down through the woods to the rocky rim of a large sinkhole pond.
Keep to the left as the trail splits to work your way through the dense forest on the north side of the pond, where sweetgum and red maple show off colorful purple, red, and orange leaves in winter. Climbing a hill into an open area, the trail passes through a portal of tall oak trees with lichen at their feet. A marked camping zone is in the open area, but the hill has a slight slant to it.
Crossing under a powerline, where the land is under restoration to longleaf pine and wiregrass habitat, the trail continues into the forest at a hiker symbol sign. The trail is very well marked. As you walk through the open understory, watch for wildlife—we saw a herd of white-tailed deer racing along a fenceline, and caught a glimpse of a fox squirrel.
At 0.8 mile, you see a sign that says “Sinkhole.” This side trail to the left leads to an overlook of a rather large sinkhole, this one dry at the bottom, beneath the canopy of the forest. Massive oaks surround and shade this enormous depression.
After you pass the sinkhole side trail, the Florida Trail continues down a clay road lined with sand pine and typical scrub plants on the right. On the left, the forest is undergoing restoration, its rough look of today to be replaced with a grand expanse of longleaf pines and wiregrass over the coming decades as the trees fill back in. A sign along this rather lengthy section of the trail says “Dry Pond,” and the side trail to the left – somewhat obscured by the roughed-up terrain – leads to another large sinkhole, which today isn’t dry at all.
The trail comes up to a large concrete picnic table, so large and bulky that it leaves you wondering how it got here and why. Here, the Longleaf Pine Trail takes off to the right to create a loop. The Florida Trail leaves the clay road to head into the sand pine forest to the left of the picnic table. It winds between the narrow trunks of the young trees. It’s a shady respite from the open sun of the clay road, but the trail eventually emerges onto a sand road and turns right.
Crossing an equestrian trail and a ditch, the footpath heads back into the woods, a sand pine scrub with extremely old, tall sand pines. Edged with saw palmetto, the trail winds past a prairie, where gold-tinted grasses wave in the breeze. As you transition into a patch of scrub, prickly pear cactus show off their bulbous red fruits against the bright white sand. Soon after, the trail enters a pine forest with thick pine duff underfoot, a comfortable counterpoint to the sand roads encountered earlier in the hike. You’ll see splashes of red from American holly, and bracken ferns peeping up from from the duff.
As you emerge at Holloway Road, look for a mailbox with the trail register and be sure to leave a note. Step out onto the road and turn left. Follow it up to the next intersection and turn right. You’ll see the Florida Trail trailhead for the eastern part of Etoniah Creek State Forest – including Iron Bridge and the creek itself – to your left. Continue another 0.3 mile to the parking area for the Holloway Road Trailhead. Primarily built for equestrian use, it has a picnic shelter with tables and a grill, and, to a hiker’s delight, restrooms with flush toilets and ice cold drinking water.