Part of a decades-old effort to protect a large undeveloped landscape south of Choctawhatchee Bay, Point Washington State Forest was established in 1992.
Today, more than 15,000 acres lie within its boundaries, with the bunk of the land spanning between US 98 and CR 30A in South Walton, east of Santa Rosa Beach.
Within this vast landscape, three trailheads offer access to three distinct trail systems, each open to both hikers and cyclists.
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Location: Santa Rosa Beach
Headquarters: 30.3527, -86.0863
Address: 5865 E US 98, Santa Rosa Beach
Fees: $2 per person day use fee. Annual pass available.
Restrooms: At campground and equestrian trailhead
Land manager: Florida Forestry Service
Open sunrise to sunset. Leashed dogs welcome. Day use fees payable at self-pay stations.
Seasonal hunting occurs. If you plan to hit the trails here, check ahead regards hunt dates.
Primitive campsites must be reserved in advance through Reserve America.
From Panama City Beach, drive west on US 98 past Inlet Beach to Point Washington. From Destin, drive east on US 98 past Santa Rosa Beach to Point Washington. From Interstate 10, follow US 331 south through Freeport and continue across Choctawhatchee Bay to meet US 98 at Point Washington. Trailheads are in several locations between Point Washington and the communities of South Walton along CR 30A, as shown on the map above. Click on any trailhead to get directions to it. The main office for the state forest is along US 98.
About the Forest
More than a century ago, timber companies bought cheap land in the region, stripped the old growth longleaf pine, and established large scale commercial timber plantations.
As a result, planted slash pines are still a part of the landscape of Point Washington State Forest, which you will notice along its forest roads and trails.
Reforestation efforts mean removing the plantations bit by bit to replant species that belong in the underlying habitats.
Large stretches of pine flatwoods and sandhills dominate the higher elevations in the middle of the forest, along with Choctawhatchee sand pine scrub.
Cypress strands and bayhead swamps, blackwater streams, titi swamps, and floodplain forests occupy lower elevations, particularly close to Choctawhatchee Bay.
Among the natural wonders here are seepage bogs with tall white-topped pitcher plants, and the largest known population of Curtiss’ sandgrass in the world.
A system of forest roads spans the forest mainly east-west to the south of US 98. These are largely used by hunters during designated hunt dates.
Until recently, forest gates were left open so all visitors allowed to roam the unimproved forest road system by vehicle.
As we discovered, there were many also places a passenger car simply couldn’t go due to mud, soft sand, and water crossings.
However, vandalism has now curtailed vehicular access on some roads, as announced by the Florida Forest Service in the summer of 2020.
You are still welcome to follow the forest roads – consult the official map – but access may be limited in certain areas to foot, bike, or horseback due to the condition of the roads.
Do not park anywhere that blocks a gate, and check ahead regards hunting seasons. You’ll want an orange vest on if hunting is going on, especially during fall deer season.
Where forest roads remain open, increased law enforcement is in place due to speeding, illicit dumping, and unapproved ATV use.
Eastern Lake Trail
The oldest and most popular trail system in the forest is the Eastern Lake Trail System. It combines the use of established forest roads and singletrack for a great in-the-woods ride.
There is nothing technical about the route other than the typical hazards of Florida habitats: stretches of soft sand, mud, water crossings, trees leaning over the trail, and wildlife encounters.
Arrows and ribbons in yellow, red, and orange mark the routes, which are well blazed and have a kiosk with a map at each junction in the link of loops.
Follow the trails in the direction of the arrows, which was counterclockwise for the outer orange loop that we rode.
We tag-teamed two of the loops, yellow and orange, by hiking and biking, so we could get two different looks at the landscape.
It took almost exactly the same amount of time for Sandra to hike the Yellow Trail while John biked the Orange Trail. We met up near the exit.
The distances we clocked on our own ride and hike: 3.6 for the Yellow Trail and 10.9 on the Orange Trail. Although we skipped the cross trail for the Red Trail it looks to be a 5.9 mile loop.
Mileposts are set up along the outer loop ride, and they correspond to locations on the official map you can download below.
Learn more about the Eastern Lake Trail, including full details and a map for all three loops.
Eastern Lake Trail
A chain of three stacked loops that enable you to walk or ride up to 10.9 miles, the Eastern Lake Trail offers an immersion in Point Washington State Forest for hikers and cyclists
Longleaf Pine Greenway
Heading north and then west from the Eastern Lake Trail trailhead, the Longleaf Pine Greenway Trail is primarily singletrack through some of the more top quality habitat in the forest.
It stretches 7.9 linear miles between the Eastern Lake Trail trailhead and the Longleaf trailhead at the end of Satinwood Drive in Blue Mountain.
You can make a 16.5 mile loop of it by connecting to the Timpoochee Trail, a paved bike path which runs along the Coastal Dune Lakes along CR 30A.
Use a road ride 0.4 mile on Satinwood Dr to the Timpoochee Trail, head east to Seaside for 6.4 miles and then north on the CR 395 side path for 1.8 miles.
A shorter loop is also possible by riding 2.6 miles west to CR 283, and following that side path south 0.6 mile to the Timpoochee Trail.
Ride east 2.8 miles to Seaside, and then north on the CR 395 side path back to the Eastern Lake Trail trailhead for a 7.8 mile loop. Or use the Grayton Beach Flatwoods Trails to reconnect.
Cyclists can also ride the McQuage Bayou Trails, established mainly for equestrian use, as well as all forest roads throughout the forest.
Most hikers gravitate to the Eastern Lake Trail, since it offers three possible distances for hikes and a primitive campsite along the north shore of Eastern Lake, one of the Coastal Dune Lakes.
The chain of loops is made up of three links in Yellow, Red, and Orange, as described above. As it is popular with offroad cyclists, it can be very busy on weekends.
Portions of the trail are a splendid immersion in natural habitats. Some parts are simply a walk along a forest road in a nice setting.
We walked in the same direction as cyclists, counterclockwise. If you walk the opposite direction, use caution on the singletrack sections since visibility can be low.
If you get to the Eastern Lake Campground, the 0.9 mile round-trip Cassine Trail extends south through marshes and uplands west of the lake.
The Eastern Lake Trail is part of the Trailwalker Program for Florida State Forests. Hikers are also welcome on the Longleaf Greenway and the McQuage Bayou Trail.
While open to all users, the McQuage Bayou trailhead is the only equestrian destination in Point Washington State Forest.
The bayheads, titi swamps, and cypress strands in this very soggy part of the forest feed bayous that flow north into Choctawhatchee Bay.
The East Loop is 3.9 miles. A 0.7 mile connector stays south of the bayou drainage to lead to a 2.5 mile loop east of the bayou, with some water crossings where it nears the floodplain.
The 5.3-mile West Loop starts just north of the trailhead off Bay Drive. It follows the bayou briefly before crossing the road to continue to a 2.5-mile loop section that follows forest roads.
Hike or bike the Eastern Lake Trails to get to the primitive campsites along the north shore of Eastern Lake.
If road conditions and law enforcement permits, vehicular access may be possible via Road 11 or Road 2. Call ahead to confirm before assuming you can drive there.
All four campsites must be reserved in advance through Reserve America. See the link at the bottom of this page.
Fee is $10 per site, up to 5 people, plus booking fee. A cancellation fee applies.
Campsites share a central privy. There are no other facilities other than a picnic table and parking space at each site. Tent camping only.
See our photos of Point Washington State Forest
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Showcasing the beauty of the South Walton coastline, the Timpoochee Trail connects coastal communities while leading cyclists past Florida’s renowned Coastal Dune Lakes
Eden Gardens State Park
At Eden Gardens State Park, lush cultivated gardens surround the historic Wesley House, a restored antebellum plantation home built by timber baron William Henry Wesley in 1897.
Florida Trail, Nokuse
27.7 miles. Spanning from the Choctawhatchee River west to the boundary of Eglin Air Force Base, Nokuse is a compelling backpacker’s destination in the Florida Panhandle.
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park
With one of Florida’s most beautiful sweeps of beach, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is a linear preserve with tall dunes along three miles of shoreline