Brilliant pink orchids. The clatter of sandhill cranes. Ferns rising from depression marshes. Cabbage palms shading your campsite. These are reasons to head into the woods on the second of two stacked loops for long distance roaming within Jonathan Dickinson State Park, the Kitching Creek Loop. It’s connected to the East Loop via a short linear connector trail through the pine flatwoods. It is frequently wet underfoot in this part of the forest, as you transition away from scrub habitats and into floodplain areas along the Loxahatchee River, a wild and scenic river into which Kitching Creek flows. The campsite is a popular backpacking destination, as it’s the farthest campsite from the park entrance if you do both loops (17 miles). It’s also possible to access this trail via the nature trails near the Loxahatchee River, creating a 7.5-mile loop.
NOTE: This loop trail is no longer maintained. The linear hike to the campsite is still possible, and the forest roads can be followed to make the loop but may be very wet or overgrown.
Location: Hobe Sound
Length: 7.5 miles if approached from the Kitching Creek Nature Trail, or part of a 17-mile double loop including the East Loop and a 1.3 mile connector
Lat-Long: 26.992473, -80.146502
Type: Loop with connectors to other trails
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee, camping fee
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At the Kitching Creek Nature Trail trailhead
You must check in with park rangers before backpacking to ensure that there is space remaining at the backcountry campsite. There is an extra fee for camping. The campsite, resplendent in a lovely lush tropical setting, is down a side trail which is now part of the Ocean-to-Lake Trail. A pitcher pump is at the campsite.
Take Florida’s Turnpike exit 116 or I-95 exit 87A, SR 706 (Indiantown Rd), Jupiter. Drive east 5 miles to US 1. Turn left and continue north 5.1 miles to the park entrance on the left. Park your car at the parking area adjacent to the ranger’s station at the entrance
Start your hike at the trailhead map at the parking area for the Kitching Creek Nature Trail. When you reach the fork, keep right. You’re walking into a vast pine flatwoods, the understory of saw palmetto vanishing off to the far horizon. An American kestrel perches in a tall slash pine, surveying the palmettos for signs of life—a rabbit, a mouse. The long slender stems of blazing star are afire with purple blossoms. Lopsided Indian grass waves in the breeze, a delicate dance of yellow, black, and red. Sensitive brier clambers up and over the saw palmetto, covered in its tiny fuzzy purple ball blooms with deep red centers.
You cross the bridge over Wilson Creek after 0.3 mile. Immediately thereafter, the 0.5-mile Wilson Creek Trail turns to the left to follow the creek to make the shortest loop back to the parking area. Continue straight, ducking under the red bay covered in climbing fern. Purple morning glory blossoms peep out from the brush. When you reach the T intersection with a jeep trail, turn left. Walking along the corridor of saw palmetto, you hear the song of a palm warbler. At the “Nature Trail” sign, you reach another T intersection. Turn right. This short spur trail ends at an observation platform on Kitching Creek at 0.7 mile, with benches overlooking beautiful view of the sluggish brackish creek.
As you leave the observation platform, turn left and cross the cable gate. This old jeep trail is part of a network of many old roads through the park, some of which are used for equestrian and biking trails. A gopher tortoise ambles past, blazing its own trail through the wiregrass. Paralleling the drainage of the creek, open cabbage palm flatwoods sweep into the distance on the right. The red-tipped post at 1.3 miles marks a horse trail coming in from the left. Keep alert for equestrians for the next mile, and step aside to let them pass. The trail points towards a line of sand live oaks outlining the edge of the creek drainage. Deer’s tongue pokes up through the wiregrass as you come up to marker 5, the junction of the yellow and red horse trails. Continue straight, still heading towards that distant edge of the flatwoods.
At 2 miles, you see a silvery structure off to the left marked “USGS,” a water sampling station. Look past the station— your first orange blaze awaits. This is the lower end of the Kitching Creek Trail. Turn left and follow the blazes into the hardwood hammock down to the creek. Cross the creek on a narrow bridge covered with wire mesh. The trail makes a sharp left on the other side into a dense hammock, a tangled jungle of palm fronds and cypress knees, tall wild coffee, and goldfoot fern cascading from cabbage palms. This area will be flooded during the wet season, as will most of this loop trail from this point on. A steep drainage provides an outlet for rain to the creek, and can become a formidable obstacle if flooded. In the dry season, a bare trickle of water runs down inside it. The rooting of wild hogs makes it tough to follow the trail as it winds through the maze of tall saw palmetto. The trail makes a hard left and crosses over a bridge through a cypress stand.
You emerge from the pond cypresses to an open field of young pines. When you reach the T intersection, you’ve hiked 2.3 miles. To the left, the orange blazes lead 0.6 mile along this side of the creek to the primitive Kitching Creek campsite, which has a pitcher pump and fire ring. It’s a quiet, pleasant place to spend a night, but be prepared for mosquitoes. To continue on the day hike loop, turn right. The trail follows a jeep road through the flatwoods, with scattered open patches of wet and dry prairie between the pines. After pointing directly towards a communications tower, the trail curves to the right. During the wet season or after a heavy rain, this part of the trail will have deep puddles from the flatwoods draining into the low spots.
The forest thickens; the saw palmetto becomes taller, more pines crowd together, and the understory transitions to cabbage palm flatwoods. After 3.2 miles, you come to a T intersection with another jeep trail. Turn right to follow the road into the cool shade of an oak hammock, where myrsine, coco plums, and wild coffee create a tropical understory. You reach a broad wooden bridge with short sides, built for park vehicles to drive across. It’s a good place to stop and rest in the cool shade of the hammock.
As you leave the bridge, you pass the back side of a “No Horses” symbol sign as you re-enter the pine flatwoods. A jeep trail comes in from left. At the next trail junction at 3.4 miles, cross the jeep trail and enter the forest, following the orange blazes down a narrow footpath that winds through the wet flatwoods. At double blaze, the trail turns sharply right and heads through a damp area. Keep watching for the next blaze, as the footpath is indistinct—it’s easy to lose the trail here.
Continuing through cabbage palm flatwoods, you come to a T intersection with a jeep trail at 3.6 miles. Turn left. After passing through a stretch of prairie, the trail curves to the right and drops down through a cypress dome. It’s a place you’re virtually guaranteed to get your shoes wet while pushing through the floating mats of vegetation to the next dry spot. Pickerelweed emerges alongside the footpath as you climb back up into the pine flatwoods.
You approach “Confusion Corners,” a 5-way intersection of trails at 4.3 miles. A signpost with markers helps lessen the confusion. To your immediate left is the connector trail to the East Loop Trail, which you would use on a 2-day backpacking trip as your return route if you started from the parking lot at the park entrance. To your immediate right is the red-blazed horse trail. The next right is your return trail back to the Kitching Creek Nature Trail.
Follow the orange blazes to the slim footpath into the pine flatwoods, where the trail winds tightly through the silvery green and blue saw palmettos. Wiregrass forms a taupe fog between the palm fronds. At a double blaze, the trail makes a hard left. At the T intersection, turn right on the jeep trail. Keep alert for blazes as the trail then makes a hard right, leaving the beaten path to become a narrow footpath again as it skirts the edge of a cypress dome. Winding through the wiregrass under the pines, you approach the wall of cabbage palms and oaks that defines the shores of Kitching Creek.
After 5.3 miles, you emerge in front of the silver USGS box, completing the Kitching Creek Loop. Turn left and follow the broad jeep road, retracing your route back south towards the Kitching Creek Nature Trail. You’ll pass the yellow and red horse trail markers on the way; keep heading straight at each intersection. When you start to see grand tall cypresses and red mangroves off to your right, you return to the cable gate at 6.7 miles. Take a well-deserved rest on the bench on the observation deck, enjoying the view of the Kitching Creek.
When you leave the observation deck this time, turn right. At the “Nature Trail” sign, continue straight. The trail parallels Kitching Creek through the pine flatwoods. As the trail rises up into scrubby flatwoods, the footpath changes to soft sand. After 7.1 miles, you reach a trail junction as the Wilson Creek Trail comes in from the left. Continue straight, crossing a bridge over the creek.
As the trail curves left past a fence, a shortcut on the right leads directly to the picnic pavilion. Continue through the flatwoods. Trail makes sharp right, passing marker 23, before it drops down into another stretch of saw palmetto. At the trail junction, continue straight. Keep right at the fork. When you emerge at the parking lot after 7.4 miles, you’ve completed your hike.