At the confluence of the Ochlockonee River and the marshes fed by the Sopchoppy River, Ochlockonee River State Park is tucked behind a corner of St. Marks Wildlife Refuge just south of Sopchoppy as you head towards Lanark Village. A popular camping spot thanks to easy access to the water for anglers and paddlers, it’s also a fine destination for an easy day hike amid tall longleaf pines and along the water’s edge. Wildflowers grow in abundance along the trails, especially in spring and fall. Well-marked and easy to follow, this hike is especially nice for introducing youngsters to the splendor of the longleaf pine habitat.
Length: 2.6 miles
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: 2 of 5
Bug factor: 3 of 5
Restroom: At the riverside picnic area
Hiking here is best in the morning, when the birds are most active and the sun is at your back in the open areas. Use insect repellant! Parts of the Pine Flatwoods Nature Trail may be a wade after a strong rain.
For more information: Ochlockonee River State Park
The park is 4 miles south of Sopchoppy along US 319. From US 98, follow US 319 north towards Sopchoppy.
The Pine Flatwood Nature Trail is the more prominent of the two trailheads as you pull into the parking area at the end of the main park road, so it’s where this hike starts. It’s at the end of the parking area as you loop around past the picnic area and scenic drive entrance.
In springtime, the wiregrass is in bloom beneath the tall canopy of scattered longleaf pines, creating a soft haze across the forest floor. Off to your right, you can see the low-lying ribbon of marsh that makes up the floodplain of the Sopchoppy River and other tributaries flowing into tidal marshes that feed the Ochlockonee River. Straight ahead, the sparse pine forest contains trees banded to mark the homes of red-cockaded woodpeckers, which only nest in old-growth trees. If you pause at the base of one, you’ll see the candle-wax effect of sap spilling down the tree trunks as the woodpeckers maintain their nest holes, creating sticky stuff that helps ward off snake invasions.
This is a gentle trail, broad and well-kept, with the occasional interpretive marker. The forest understory is very open, with scattered clumps of saw palmetto and blueberry bushes. You pass through a small copse of sand live oaks and rise up and over an ancient sandbar, noted by an interpretive marker next to a bench in the scrub habitat. A bird’s nest sits in the crook of an oak to your left. Prescribed burns are used to manage the habitats, so you may see char marks on the bases of the trees. Some of the older pines have the marks from turpentine tapping, the “catfaces” now healing scars rising up the tree trunks. In both directions is a grayish haze foretelling a marsh coming up, and indeed, the trail passes through the middle of this wet prairie, the earth squishy underfoot. Look closely, and you will see carnivorous sundews glistening in the sun.
As the elevation increases, you’re firmly in the pine flatwoods once more, passing another bench. Deer race through the understory to the far side of the marsh. The trail slips between clumps of saw palmetto as the forest becomes denser, with an understory of wizened sand live oaks around a half mile. Curving left, the trail parallels the dense strand of forest in the distance. Soon after you pass an interpretive marker, there is a “1.1 mile” sign. No, you haven’t walked that far. I never discovered exactly where the mileage on those signs start, but it might be the campground. There’s a bench at 0.6 mile that lets you sit and stare out into the flatwoods, watching for deer. Quite a number of pines in this area are dead, perhaps due to pine bark beetles. The height and types of grasses in the distance change, indicating another seasonally wet prairie. The grasses grow almost to shoulder height. Birdsong fills the air, as do mosquitoes. More sundews grow in the footpath, their reddish hue catching your eye.
At 0.8 mile, you reach a T intersection in the trail. It wasn’t obvious which way to go, so I headed to the right. It was worth the side trip. The trail to the right zigzags through the flatwoods down a moderate descent into turkey oaks and sandhill habitat. There are many more red-cockaded woodpecker nests marked here. You emerge at the scenic drive, which is simply a one-lane unpaved road through the flatwoods. Turn right and walk up the road a little bit over a culvert, staying to the right at the fork, to reach a boardwalk and observation deck on Reflection Pond. The deck is wheelchair accessible (if you arrived by car) and looks out over this beauty spot, where turtles bask in the sun and an alligator cruises the shallows. You’ve hiked one mile.
Return back the way you – via scenic road and trail – came to the T intersection, continuing straight past the trail you came in on from the left. There’s another wet prairie off to your right, and more clumps of saw palmetto here on the higher ground that the trail traverses. Crossing the park road, you now start along the Ochlockonee River Nature Trail, the campground off to your left and a wet prairie to the right. At a T intersection, a trail leads left to the campground. Turn right to walk between the tall pines. The forest becomes denser as you approach the river, with picturesque clusters of sand live oaks leading the way.
At 1.5 miles, you reach the next T intersection at a bench overlooking the marshes, the river, and a small beach that grows in size as the tide flows out. Turn right to explore this linear part of the trail, paralleling the Ochlockonee River upriver. The trail descends through a tributary feeding the river, with many roots underfoot and sedges all around. Keep alert for woodpeckers through this drainage area. A salt breeze rises from the river as the trail meanders within sight of it, yet well shaded by the forest. Small cypresses line the river. The trail makes a sharp right to meander along a marshy cove, ending at a trailhead at a boat ramp and picnic area after 1.7 miles.
Turn around and walk back through the shady forest, the river now to your right, back to the T intersection and bench. Passing it, you continue along the bluffs above the river. In this direction, you’re facing the water, which makes the views all the more interesting. As you meander along, it’s obvious the trail has been relocated many times, as the river laps beneath the roots of the trees along the bluff, tearing away at the shore. At 2 miles, there is an open bluff providing a view of the river’s pine-lined shores and of an osprey nest in a tall tree on the far shore.
Working its way past the campground, the trail rises up into a patch of scrub where there’s an outdoor classroom off to the right. Keep right at the fork, passing another staircase down to the river and trail from the campground. Near the end of the campground is a second staircase. Keep going straight along the broad trail as panoramas open up before you, since there are fewer and fewer trees in the way of the view of the river junction off in the distance. Cedars gracefully bend over the bluff.
While there’s little shade along this part of the trail, it’s quite beautiful, especially in morning with the sun to your back. Passing a road coming in from the left, you can see the trailhead kiosk of the Pine Flatwood Trail and the parking area coming up. Trail’s end is at the trailhead for the Ochlockonee River Nature Trail on this side of the picnic area at 2.4 miles, adjoining a staircase down to the river. But you’ll want to explore the peninsula, too. A wheelchair-accessible ramp leads down to the river. Grand old sand live oaks provide deep shade throughout the picnic area, which yields to a boat dock and playground near the beginning of the scenic drive. Looping back around to the parking area, you’ve walked 2.6 miles.