Hugging the shoreline of Rocky Bayou, an important aquatic preserve, Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou State Park near Niceville has one of the prettiest campgrounds in the Florida State Park system – well air-conditioned by a cross-flow of breezes between the bayou and Puddin’ Head Lake – and one of the most picturesque trail systems.
The Rocky Bayou Trail showcases habitats along the bayou, with excellent views from the shoreline. The Red Cedar Trail offers an interpretive walk in an upland forest dominated by cedar. But my favorite is the Sand Pine Trail, which follows the shoreline of Puddin’ Head Lake, with sweeping views encompassing the reservoir edged by sand pine forest. With only 3.3 miles of hiking in these three interpretive loops, you have time to enjoy them all.
Length: 3.3 miles
Type: Three loops
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Bug factor: Low
Restroom: Yes, at campground and day use area
Park personnel prefer you park at the day use area instead of the campground to access the Rocky Bayou and Sand Pine Trails, and the walk is pleasant using the connector trail. The trails here are gentle, excellent for getting young children to enjoy the woods.
The park is along on SR 20 east of Niceville, west of SR 293. Follow the entrance road into the park and turn left to access the day use area. Start your hike at the kayak launch, where a trail provides access through the campground to the main trail system; the Red Cedar Trail starts at the far end of the picnic area in the day use area.
As you drive downhill into the Red Cedar Day use area, the best spot to park to access all three trails is straight ahead of you at the kayak launch. Park here and begin your hike by walking up the broad bark-chipped path beneath a bower of sand live oaks. This unmarked path serves as a connector between the day use area and the campground. When you reach the paved loop road through the campground, turn left and walk between it and the shoreline of Rocky Bayou – framed by nature through the boughs of live oaks – past the restrooms and campsites in the core of the campground. As the road swings away from the water, follow it up to the small trailhead within the campground for two of the trails in this park, where “The Prayer of the Woods” is posted prominently. Continue straight across a dam and bridge at the end of Puddin’ Head Lake to discover two trailheads at a large kiosk at 0.4 mile—the Sand Pine Nature Trail, to your right, and the Rocky Bayou Nature Trail to your left.
ROCKY BAYOU NATURE TRAIL
Start your walk by talking a left. The Rocky Bayou Nature Trail is a broad and gentle interpretive loop – likely accessible with assistance – that winds through a deeply shaded bluff forest that slopes down to the bayou. The sign says “a leisurely one hour walk,” but your time may vary. You immediately enter a very pretty coastal scrub with tall older sand pines, younger fluffy sand pines, and deer moss growing on pine duff. Sand live oaks made up the middle canopy and myrtle oaks grow beneath them. You hear the constant rumble of jets from Eglin Air Force Base. The little sand pines look like Charlie Brown Christmas trees. The path is broad and easy to follow. Moss grows in dense clusters along the trail. You pass a bench at a half mile. A cool breeze wafts off the bayou as you pass another bench, and the understory gets denser, filled with young oaks. At the fork in the trail, turn right. Another newer looking bench is on the right as the trail twists and winds between the oaks and pines. A light breeze ruffles the trees as a brown anole scurries past. You encounter a small cluster of southern magnolia, framing both sides of the trail. As the trail curves to the left past a split rail fence, you see the bright blue shimmer of Rocky Bayou ahead. At 0.7 mile, a bench at the base of a tall pine overlooks the bayou. Stop here and enjoy. Sunlight dapples across the surface to create ripples across the crystal-clear water. You can hear the haunting call of sandhill cranes and the fuss of crows in the distance. Dense saw palmetto and a mint with pale lilac-white blooms lines the trail. Another overlook offers a similar view.
Tall slash pines line the shoreline between the trail and the bayou. Passing another bench, the trail turns away from the water, becoming sandy but firm underfoot. There are low bush blueberries growing between the saw palmetto. As you pass the next bench, the bayou is no longer visible through the understory, but you can feel it in the breeze. The trail then draws a little closer to the bayou past a series of snags. At the next fork in the trail, turn right to walk down to the bayou for one last opportunity to see the bayou along a driftwood-strewn beach, where you can hear gulls calling in the distance. Return along the spur trail and turn right to continue the loop, passing another bench. A slight elevation gain is noticeable as you rise out of bluff forest and into the sand pine scrub, reaching the trail junction after 1 mile.
SAND PINE NATURE TRAIL
Walk straight across to start the next loop, the Sand Pine Nature Trail, which is also estimated to take an hour. It follows the edge of Puddin’ Head Lake, which is notable for being one of the few places in Florida where you can see both beavers and alligators. Puddin’ Head Lake was once a crystalline waterway through the pine scrub, and was likely lined with pitcher plants before the reservoir was created, During my March 2009 visit, the rangers told me that plans are in the works to restore it to its former natural flow. So don’t be surprised to encounter changes as you walk along what is now the lakeshore. Sunlight sparkles on the lake’s surface, and you can see the troublesome mats of aquatic plants just below. You hear the constant warble and twitter of birds. The trail is on the bluffs above the lake and beneath a forest of older sand pines, and offers scenic views at every turn. Moss grows densely on the pine duff around an older bench on the left. This is a place to delight in the slight scent of pine on a damp day, the bird calls, the croaks of frogs in the pond. The farther along you walk, the more matted the plants are in the lake. The far shoreline is lined with pines. At 1.2 miles, a side trail dips down to the lake to a bench that provides an overlook, then rejoins the main trail. You pass another spur trail to the lakeshore soon after. Highway sounds increase, so although you’re in a middle of a forest and can’t see the traffic, the walk is headed towards SR 20. The trail curves away from the lake around Marker 5, where a large osprey nest on the far shore is silhouetted in the afternoon sun.
By 1.4 miles, you reach a bench, and it looks like you’ve reached the end of the lake. The elevation has increased, and you’re in a mixed forest of oaks and pines, still within earshot of the osprey nest. If you walk down to the lake here, you can see where the creek flows into it. A pileated woodpecker makes its way up a laurel oak tree. The trail turns away from the lake, passing under a tall old sand pine. The trail climbs a tall bluff and you can look down on the waterway below. At Marker 7, there is another bench beneath an old sand pine. The sand becomes softer underfoot as the elevation increases. As you turn your back on the lake, you enter a higher drier scrub habitat with deer moss everywhere. Just beyond Marker 8 is another bench in the sand pine scrub, with yaupon and scrub holly nearby. An interpretive marker calls you attention to turkey oak showing off crimson leaves as you transition into sandhills, with longleaf pine overhead. Losing elevation, the trail passes a bench on the right. There is young yaupon holly all along the trail. Past Marker 12, the sand underfoot turns to a duff of wood chips and leaf litter. The deer moss glows a light turquoise in sharp counterpoint to the deep green sphagnum moss around it. The trail makes a jog to the left to avoid some trees, then continues along a straight path lined with more deer moss, a sea of foam dappled in the mid-day sun.
The trail continues a long, slow descent past another bench and through the arch of a sand live oak, almost touching the ground. When the footpath starts to wiggle to the left, you’re about to emerge back into the light at the trailhead junction, where you can see the dam and bridge up ahead. You’ve walked 2 miles. Retrace your path back across the dam and into the campground, following the campground road to the right, within view of the bayou, as you work your way back to the bark-chip connector path to where your vehicle is parked. It’s not well marked, so look for the gap in the fence beyond the bathhouse, on the right side of the campground loop road. Emerging at the kayak launch, you’ve walked 2.4 miles.
RED CEDAR NATURE TRAIL
There is one more trail left to explore—the Red Cedar Nature Trail. To reach this loop trail, follow the shoreline of Rocky Bayou. Take advantage of the water fountains as you walk on the beaten path through the picnic area. Atop the bluffs, you hear the muffled boom in the distance that is not thunder, but is bomb testing at Eglin Air Force Base. The picnic area has that 1960s roadside feel. Keep an eye on the far side of the road for the gap into the nature trail entrance. Cross the crosswalk to start “a leisurely 40 minute walk” down this loop. Robins flutter through the trees in early March on their way north. You quickly pass Marker 1. A bench is on the right, facing a stately red cedar. Most of the forest is deciduous, and the understory is very open, with blueberry bushes and live oaks. Off to the right, it’s obvious you’re on a bluff, as the landscape drops off abruptly. There is a bench at the base of a very large cedar with aromatic bark. You pass Marker 4. There are many magnolias to the right as the bluff slopes off. There is a laurel oak on the left with a gaping hole, a perfect hidey-hole for a raccoon. The understory is so open you can see the footpath winding its way ahead. At Marker 5 is a split oak at a bench, forming a gateway that you walk though, a natural portal in the forest at 2.7 miles.
A fork encourages you to turn left and look at yaupon holly and saw palmetto. The trail continues a meander through the sand pine scrub. From a central source, several trunks radiate from an unusually broad southern magnolia. At Marker 9 there is a large southern magnolia tree with a split in its trunk, and some sparkleberry. Turning left away from Marker 10, you pass another bench with a very tall sand pine next to it. The cedar density is increasing again. As the trail curves a little, you can glimpse the bayou up ahead. Passing Marker 12, you emerge from the loop trail back to the day use area; it ends at the loop in the park road. Turn right to walk back to your car, passing the restrooms along the way.