One of the high points of the 1,100-mile Florida Trail, our statewide National Scenic Trail, is its dance with the coastal estuaries of the Gulf of Mexico. As the trail works its way through St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida’s Big Bend, it leads hikers right out to the edge of the salt marshes in several significant scenic spots, where the sweep of estuary reaches across the entire horizon.
No other National Scenic Trail offers these coastal panoramas. Which is why a hike on the Florida Trail to Marsh Point should be on your to-do list. From the tip of Marsh Point, looking out across Oyster Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, you survey one of the last truly wild coastlines of Florida. Pine flatwoods come to an abrupt halt in front of sinuous tidal channels through the needlerush marsh. The tang of a salt breeze fills the air.
At Marsh Point, a worn path leading out into the open at a post along the Florida Trail takes you into the salt marsh. Fiddler crabs form moving carpets, parting ways as they feel each footfall on their territory. Depending on the tides, you may be able to make it all the way out to one of the tidal channels for a better view towards the Gulf.
The shoreline of tall pines is a reminder that all of Florida’s Gulf Coast once looked like this, a ribbon of green meeting the muted hues of needlerush, stretching from Naples to Pensacola. No more. We are fortunate that St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge – established in 1931, one of America’s oldest National Wildlife Refuges – protects 43 miles of the Big Bend coastline, capturing the essence of Florida’s Gulf Coast while providing migratory birds and wildlife a safe haven.
When I visited Marsh Point this spring, I felt like I was sneaking up on it, slipping towards it through the dense coastal pine forest instead of along the estuary itself. Most hikes on the Florida Trail are linear, the nature of a footpath that spans the entire state. In this case, we had to do a round-trip from Purify Bay trailhead, south of US 98 at Medart in Wakulla County. Why?
A trail closure. It’s by no means new. For several years, the Florida Trail Association has been rallying volunteers and supplies to rebuild the boardwalks spanning the estuary surrounding Spring Creek. Without these boardwalks and bridges, making your way along the coast from Spring Creek Highway is downright dangerous, the deep estuary mud sucking boots off unwary hikers and causing ankle injuries. So this section of trail has been posted as closed. For several years.
Not everyone minds the signs, however. I’d been warned by several friends who tried to go that way – and turned around – not to even try it. Not long after I hiked to Marsh Point, I heard from another who plunged in there and regretted it. Leslie Thompson and Tom Richardson are section-hiking and are close to finishing.
Leslie shared her journal from that day with me. “The hazard was not walking through water,” she wrote, “it was walking through deep slimy black mud, which we’ve never done before. The bridges/ boardwalks had been destroyed by some flood and have not been rebuilt. Some of the blazed trees were down so you didn’t know the way.”
“In no time I had fallen into the muck, as I struggled to get myself out of the goo that was sucking me down I came to realize that Tom had lost his shoes to the muck. In order to get his feet out he had to leave the shoes in the muck, pull himself out first and then manage to get his shoes out.
We were caught off guard and very surprised. Tom put his shoes on again and tied them tight. We moved very slowly, choosing our steps carefully…We had to plan every single foot placing. Drug boards and fallen branches with us to lay down and walk over. First time I’ve ever really been afraid. Tom forged forwards and I trusted. We made it out as it was getting dark, exhausted.”