16.6 miles. Using the southern extent of the Jackson Red Ground Trail, the very first trail built in Blackwater River State Forest in the 1970s, the Florida Trail rises up from the red clay bluffs of Juniper Creek and enters rolling clayhills topped with longleaf pine forests. This is a high and dry segment of the trail in Blackwater River State Forest.
Along the 21.2 miles of the Jackson Red Ground Trail between Red Rocks and Karick Lake, the Florida Trail immerses you in longleaf pine forests with titi swamps in the folds between the hills. Seepage slopes nourish colorful colonies of pitcher plants. This is the oldest section of the Florida Trail in Northwest Florida, added to the growing trail system in 1975. Why the mileage discrepency, you ask? That’s because the Florida Trail portion of the route leaves the Jackson Red Ground Trail at mile 16.6 to join the Wiregrass Trail.
Prior to becoming part of the Florida Trail, this route was established by foresters at Blackwater River State Forest as a historic trail, following the path taken by General Andrew Jackson and his 1,200 troops in 1818 as they marched towards Pensacola. Jackson had just received orders to be in charge of the “Indian Removal” from the Florida Territory, which was still not quite fully wrested from Spain, another objective for the future president. The trail itself pre-dated Jackson’s use, serving as a trade route for Native Americans between villages at the sites of what are now Columbus (Georgia) and Pensacola.
In addition to healthy longleaf pine forests on a world-class scale, the trail treats you to a patch of Choctawhatchee sand pine scrub, views of farmland, seepage slopes with pitcher plants, and rare but occasional stream crossings on boardwalks and bridges across cypress-lined creeks. There are two campsites along the hike. Both originally also had the Appalachian Trail-style shelters built in the 1970s, but the southernmost of the two shelters burned down in 2013. A connecting trail leads to Bear Lake Recreation Area, which has a developed campground on a beautiful lake.
March and April are excellent times to hike this trail because of the colorful wildflowers along the route. Showy sprays of Gulf lupine add color to the sandhills, while white-topped pitcher plants grow in perched bogs in some of the swales. Florida dogwood blossoms add color to the canopy.
The Blackwater section was reblazed blue to indicate its status as an official side trail. You’ll still see orange blazes here and there along the route, and also in our older photos of this section.
This section ends at an obvious trail junction at a picnic table and sign. Since the trail junction is not near a road crossing, most hikers either plan to continue north up the Wiregrass Trail another 4.2 miles to Kennedy Bridge, or east another 4.6 miles along the remainder of the Jackson Red Ground Trail to the Karick Lake (South or North) Recreation Areas. Or they’ll stop short at one of the paved road access points.
This hike can be broken into pieces by using access points along paved roads it crosses, particularly if you are hiking with a friend and can stage cars to hike between them. With the Red Rock trailhead being mile 0, there are access points at Sandy Forest Rd (mile 1.1), Old Martin Rd (mile 6.9), McVay Rd (mile 8.5), Beaver Creek Rd (mile 10.1), and Peaden Bridge Rd (mile 13.9). Each of these has room for a car or two to pull off for day hiking.
A backpacker can put in a full 21.2 mile journey between Red Rocks and Karick Lake. Since there is a developed campground and camp host at Karick Lake North, from experience we suggest leaving your vehicle at Karick Lake North and getting a shuttle to Red Rocks to hike back to it. Contact Adventures Unlimited, 850-623-6197, regards a shuttle for a fee.
Frequent prescribed burns are used for forest management throughout Blackwater River State Forest. All times of year, expect at least a portion of your hike to be through recently burned forest. To avoid walking into an ongoing burn, call ahead to check on their schedule of planned burns along the Florida Trail, 850-957-5700.
FLOODING can make hiking along the Blackwater River and its tributaries dangerous. Check National Weather Service flood gauge. This section is particularly sensitive to flooding as it is in the Juniper Creek floodplain. Do not enter flowing waters.
Wear a bright orange shirt or vest during hunting seasons in Blackwater River State Forest. Check the FWC website for hunting season dates.
For the southern trailhead, follow SR 191 north from US 90 through Milton towards Munson to the turnoff for Red Rock Picnic Area on Red Rock Road. Cross the bridge and continue uphill 0.5 mile past the picnic area to the kiosk for the trail. Limited roadside parking.
For the northern trailhead, follow SR 189 north from US 90 to Karick Lake Recreation Area. Use the Jackson Red Ground Trail, which starts at Karick Lake, to connect to the Wiregrass Trail in order to hike south. Alternatively, access the Wiregrass Trail via Hurricane Lake Recreation Area: follow SR 189 north to CR 28; turn west and follow signs to Hurricane Lake.
Starting from the trailhead at Red Rock Road, the trail heads north and uphill through longleaf pine forest. You’ll find this more of an immersion in the habitat than experienced farther south in Blackwater River State Forest, and the good news is, it gets even better the farther north you hike. The understory is very open and the majestic pines tower overhead. The trail is well-blazed and the footpath easy to follow. Expect to see fox squirrels and white-tailed deer in these rolling hills.
While there are few surface streams in the first part of the hike south of SR 4, a notable one is crossed by a boardwalk proudly marked as an Eagle Scout project. Just north of it at 5.5 miles, the trail joins Charley Foster Road, a dirt road, to cross a stream basin. This is the most likely place to find water before you reach the upcoming campsite, Blackwater Shelter 2 Camp. Just past it is the Bear Lake Connector heading west to Bear Lake Recreation Area.
The trail continues across Old Martin Rd into more rolling hills with longleaf pine before dropping you onto a road and a short roadwalk along SR 4 to cross a creek using the highway bridge. Returning to the woods at McVay Rd, there is another bridged creek before the trail enters the Choctawhatchee sand pine forest that edges cotton fields. North of Beaver Creek Road, the trail meanders through hardwoods and pines, with a boardwalk traverse of a bayhead swamp in the middle.
At 12.5 miles, a sturdy bridge over a creek is your next place for water for the upcoming Blackwater Shelter and campsite. Less than a mile north of that stop, the trail emerges onto Peaden Bridge Road to cross the Blackwater River on the highway bridge.
The last stretch of trail is more rolling hills with longleaf pines and turkey oaks. Look for pitcher plants in bogs where bog bridges appear in the middle of the grassy slopes. Paralleling Sherman Kennedy Road, a dirt road, the trail diverges from it before coming to the Wiregrass Trail junction at a picnic bench.
FLORIDA TRAIL NORTHBOUND: Wiregrass Trail
FLORIDA TRAIL SOUTHBOUND: Juniper Creek Trail