A sweep of fragile dunes along a shore that’s vanished, over time, under the rush of development: Topsail Hill State Park is a very special place. Protecting more than 3 miles of oceanfront on the Gulf of Mexico – and the 1,600 acres of delicate scrub and pine flatwoods habitats that lie behind the dune line – this long, linear park offers a superb mix of easy and difficult trails. As they’re all part of a trail system with more than 15 miles of hiking, you can pick and choose which parts to do. The don’t-miss section, in my opinion, is the farthest out and the toughest to hike: the Morris Lake Nature Trail, a loop through spectacular dunes where you’ll feel like you’re walking on snow.
Length: 10.9 miles
Type: stacked loops
Fees / Permits: $6 per vehicle state park admission
Difficulty: easy to strenuous
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: at Campbell Lake and at trailhead
Open sunrise to sunset. Bicycles are permitted on most of the trails. I’d suggest not using them on the fragile Morris Lake Loop, a dune walk. Leashed dogs are welcome on the trails.
Topsail Hill State Park has both tent camping and a large RV park, as well as a variety of cabin rentals. It’s a diverse enough place – and far enough away for those of us in the peninsula – it’s well worth the stay. If you decide to rent a canoe for exploring Campbell Lake, check in at the store at the campground to pay and get the combination lock code for the canoes, which are stored by the lake.
From the junction of US 98 and SR 293 (Mid-Bay Bridge Rd) in Destin, drive east on US 98 for 9 miles. Turn right onto Scenic CR 30A. The park entrance – the new main entrance – is the first turn on the right. After you pay your admission fee, circle around the large parking lot to the kiosk by the restroom. The trail – which begins on the park tram road – starts here.
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Beginning at the kiosk by the restrooms, walk down the tram road in front of you. It’s used to cart visitors out to the beach, but makes an easy paved walking path to start the day. It works its way past the busiest part of the park, the edge of the RV campground. After a quarter mile, you pass a large tram shelter (for the campground and cabin areas) on the right. Coastal pine flatwoods edge both sides of the road, with the tent camping area off to the left soon after. The road loops around to the right, dropping into coastal scrub, where beach rosemary – a cousin to the much taller Florida rosemary – is in abundance, along with woody goldenrod.
After a half mile, you reach an intersection of roads where beach access is to the left, we find the first “Nature Trail” sign. Continue straight forward. The blazes here are in four different colors, depending on the trail you take, and the trails depart from this road. Imagine my surprise to see pink blazes – a first on a Florida trail! This is the Campbell Lake Nature Trail, still a broad paved path. If the pavement bothers you, consider this: in the 1970s, Sierra Club members sat in this scrub forest in front of bulldozers that were going to tear right through it to build US 98. The adjacent Coffeen Nature Preserve, at the western border of Topsail Hill, is their legacy – and prevented the destruction of this landscape.
The blue-blazed Turpentine Trail takes off to the left and then, moments later, to the right as well, near a southern magnolia in the scrub. It’s here we see the first of many interpretive signs along the nature trail. Passing a side trail on the right to the new cabin area, the trail continues past a large bench overlooking the pine flatwoods, which were recently burned when we walked through them, with many crispy snags poking up from the forest floor. At 1.2 miles, a green-blazed trail heads into the woods on the left, and a few steps later, to the right. We’ll follow these shorter loops on the return trip. Continuing along the paved trail, it’s defining an ecotone between sandhill – longleaf pines and turkey oaks on the right – yielding to sand pine scrub on the left.
Coming up to another “Nature Trail” sign, arrows point straight ahead and left. Continue along the paved trail as it heads into the sand pine scrub and ends in a circle, with restrooms off to the right. Since the tram comes here at certain times of year, this is a destination for many visitors, with canoe rentals for plying Campbell Lake, sheltered picnic tables, and of course the gateway to an extensive trail system beyond. Continue around to the left and follow the pathway down to where the canoes are stored along Campbell Lake. Swimming is not permitted due to the alligator population.
Campbell Lake is one of 15 coastal dune lakes along the coast of Walton County. These rare ecosystems are only found along this part of the Florida coastline, in Madagascar, New Zealand, Australia, and Oregon. Nourished by fresh water, they tip into the Gulf intermittently and receive a backwash of salt water. One of the reasons there are so many Florida State Parks along this part of Florida’s coastline is to preserve these delicate lakes.
Beyond the canoes, turn right and follow the footpath along the shoreline. The wall of dunes that rises beyond the placid lake is an amazing sight. The highest dune is Topsail Hill, for which this preserve is named. A bench overlooks this picture-perfect view. At 1.7 miles, the orange-blazed trail comes off the paved trail, right near the restrooms, and starts its way along the north shore of Campbell Lake. Follow the orange blazes as they lead you along a slight bluff on the lake’s edge, the scenery superb. Take a short detour down to a beach just before the trail turns away from the lake so you can see a cypress dome – the cypresses windswept and hatrack-sized, like the ancient dwaves of the Everglades – nestled in a low spot along the shoreline.
Scrambling up the hill, the trail leaves the lake and turns left at 2 miles to work its way around the upper side of the cypress dome. You can see the lily-dotted water in the cypress dome to the left as you walk down this old forest road. At the T intersection, turn left to continue above Campbell Lake, in the woods and out of sight of the water. You see a stand of magnolia on a hill to the left, and just beyond it is a line of cypress. The trail turns left to pop right out along the coastal scrub along the lake. Climbing up from the lakeshore is a scramble through the soft sand of the ancient dunes, the bowls between the dunes jam-packed with deer moss and reindeer lichen, gopher apple and, believe it or not, a cypress dome nestled in the dunes off to the right. As you ascend the hill, beach rosemary and Florida rosemary are co-mingled in this sandy habitat.
At 2.3 miles you reach the old back gate road out to the beach. When I wrote about the Morris Lake and Campbell Lake Trails years ago, this was the access point to do the two loops. Now, it’s more of a challenge to get out here, but a lot more fun. The road was abandoned to allow a better flow of water between bayheads and the lakes. Turn right to start walking up to Morris Lake. Yellow-blazed, the Morris Lake Nature Trail takes off to the left. Follow it! If you hike no farther today, this is THE prime feature at Topsail Hill that you shouldn’t miss.
This trail starts out by skirting along a cypress dome at the edge of the lake. A large dune crowds closely to the trail on the left. At 2.5 miles you reach a bench with a sweeping view of Morris Lake. You know this is the west end of the preserve by the condo towers that rise in the distance beyond the treeline. Ignore the social trails to the left and you come up to a boardwalk that leads across a wetland area to the dunes. At the end of the boardwalk, turn right to begin the loop.
This is one of the rare places in Florida where it’s okay to walk in the dunes, and what a dune walk it is. Respect the resource and follow the arrows on the posts: it’s tough to follow the footpath, unless you’re good at tracking, since the wind shifts the sands constantly, erasing footprints, creating gentle ripples in the sand. The texture and color of the earth beneath your feet is like walking on freshly fallen snow. This is the strenuous part of the hike, combining a soft surface with constant winds and steep climbs. You catch occasional glimpses of the Gulf on the left, depending on the height of any given dune.
By 2.8 miles, you’re enjoying views of western end of Morris Lake, the trail curving around a bowl filled with scrub oaks and slash pine. Look behind you, and you can see the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The trail descends down to the shore of the lake into a rosemary scrub, one of Florida’s rarer habitats. This is a healthy example, the Florida rosemary well-spaced, with a bench to sit on and appreciate the lake view. Beyond, the path is a mere trace; if it weren’t for an ATV track laid by a ranger, I’m not sure I could have found the next arrow. But as you top the next hill and see the waters of the Gulf beyond, you come up to a bench and a marker points you to the right. Your persistence is rewarded with another trip to the lake’s shore, where yellow buttons grow in profusion.
It’s not quite obvious where the trail goes next. There is a sign that says “Stay off dunes” and a drop down to the right through a mushy, boggy area which can flood. That’s the trail, sticking close to the lake briefly and then rising back up on the dunes. A beauty spot comes up next, where southern magnolias grow down in a low swale above a marshland on the edge of the lake. As you turn away from that sight to continue the loop, the sweep of the Gulf of Mexico is the next wow moment. Savor it.
From this high ground, the trail loops around through more views until it drops down through another stretch of rosemary scrub. Follow the faint trace, where you’ll see small holes in the sand here and there – possibly from giant land crabs, or the Choctawhatchee beach mouse. Passing Marker 7, which looks like it’s surrounded by snow, head towards a bench surrounded by dunes wind-sculpted into mini-mesas. This particular bench has had so much sand scooped out from under it by the wind that I couldn’t even sit on it.
Beyond the bench, you’ll need to scout for clues to the trail – I found footprints to follow. You can see the arrows of the return loop beyond a woodland to the left. Clumps of scrub marigold are in flower. An eagle lands in a tall pine as you reach the west end of Morris Lake, the trail leaving the big dunes and ambling beneath the pines past Marker 9, where it makes a sharp left. You pass the next bench at 3.4 miles, a sweep of marshland off to the right. As the trail heads down a corridor of sand pine and rosemary, two yellow markers confirm the route. At the next “Stay off Dunes” sign, the trail is at its farthest point. It makes a sharp left to head back out into the dunes. Keep alert for the arrows again.
As soon as you ascend the first dune, you see the condos of Destin to the right, and the park boundary fence below. The trail makes a sharp left, heading due east down a corridor flanked by rosemary. Climbing up a dune, the trail is edged by a split rail fence and there’s a fine view of the Gulf from here, as well as the dune swales back towards the pine flatwoods. Passing a bench at 3.8 miles – right in this area of fine views – the trail comes back down off the rise. You can now see Morris Lake and the Gulf at the same time. Get the camera out!
Heading downhill through soft, soft sand, almost a slide down the steepness, the trail meets another split rail fence on the right and heads into a marshy area between the dune swales. It’s another spot where you can get your feet wet at certain times of year. While it’s not well-marked that you do so, the trail leads right through the tall grasses of the marsh, heading due east, the faint ruts of an ATV the only clue to the path. Passing fallen snags, the marsh now on the left, the delicate rise of dunes on the right, the occasional “Keep off Dunes” sign to keep you straying to the right, it’s easier walking where vegetation has taken a strong foothold in the footpath. Many silvery-gray succulents grow here. Coming up to a dune topped with sea oats, you’re drawing as close to the beach as this trail gets – no access, however.
At 4.1 miles, you hit a swale where the trail is no longer obvious. However, there is a fence line, with some of the fence posts buried by the shifting sands. Uphill to the left you see that outrageously tall bench you met on the way in. Assume the track of the trail is flanked by “Stay off Dunes” signs. Passing tall dunes topped with saw palmetto, you continue along the fence line until it ends, following the faint trace of trail beyond. Up ahead, a fallen pine marks the end of the loop, adjoining a bench and split rail fence just past Marker 16, at 4.3 miles. Go straight ahead to retrace the beginning of the dune walk back to the boardwalk. Follow the Morris Lake Nature Trail back along the lake to the old access road, reaching it at 4.9 miles. Orange blazes lead straight ahead, which is one of many options to put a hike together here, but today, we take a left to explore the lesser-known north side of Morris Lake.
Following the old access road – soft sand at first, and then through a low spot bolstered with gravel – watch for the tall pines on the left as you draw within sight and sound of US 98 at the old back gate up ahead. Orange blazes go off to the right and left. Turn left at 5.2 miles to start the Ancient Forest Trail, which begins in younger pine flatwoods. At the T intersection, turn left and continue beneath the pines. Off to your left, through the trees, you can see the dunes you were just on in the far distance. Road noise, unfortunately, is pervasive in this part of the preserve.
When you reach the fork, go left. A forest road forks off to the right. Keep going straight, and the shimmering waters of the lake are ahead of you, the dunes beyond. Sit and enjoy the view. After taking a break here along the lakeshore, turn around and take the first left. Stay to the left at the next intersection to stay close to the lake. You’ll pick up the orange blazes again. This is a maze of forest roads, so it can be a little confusing. Blazing star is in bloom in fall, a denser, multi-branched type that I hadn’t see elsewhere. The forest road dead-ends along the lakeshore for another perspective. Turn around and walk back up it, making a left into the pines. Sassafras trees glow in their fall colors. It’s here you’ll find the ancient, old-growth pines. There aren’t many – no doubt this forest was logged long ago – but their width and size is impressive, statuesque.
Orange blazes lead forward through an array of colorful grasses. At 5.9 miles you reach a T intersection. Turn left. At the fork in the trail, a gravel road leads to the right, but the orange blazes lead straight ahead. Follow them. This trail’s end is at 6.1 miles, a beauty spot, a cove off Morris Lake, a bayou sparkling with water lilies and busy with ducks. Turn around and return to that junction with the gravel road and its cable gate. Turn left. Beneath taller longleaf, the path is chunks of granite through a bayhead. Rising up again, there are southern magnolias interspersed under the canopy of extremely tall pines, a great place for watching woodpeckers.
By 6.5 miles the trail faces US 98. Make a sharp left. It’s a pleasant surface to walk on, thick pine duff underfoot, paralleling US 98 westbound. At the T intersection, the trail that goes off to the right leads back – walking along US 98 – to a large wet prairie area with interesting wildflowers. Because of the traffic noise, it’s only worth a look if you’re looking for wildflowers to photograph. Take the left at the T, with US 98 at your back. At the next junction, continue straight ahead through the pines. The hint of lake is far off to the left. Saw palmetto is crowding the understory, a first on today’s hike, although so common elsewhere in Florida. Sand pines join the mix at a junction of forest roads. Turn left. You’re soon back out on the shore of Morris Lake on the other side of the little lily-dotted cove, an even prettier perspective with wizened cypress in the foreground.
Return the way you came, getting back to the reverse-T intersection (facing US 98) by 7.5 miles. Turn right and follow this path back through the bayhead to the T intersection with the big magnolia on the right – the path that led to the other side of the cove. Turn left. Follow the curve of the forest road beneath the pines to the left, and you soon see the orange blazes again. At 8 miles, there’s an orange blaze to the right at a double-track forest road. Look down it, and you’ll see a confidence blaze ahead. Walk down the double-track through the pines to emerge at the old access road. Cross it and continue straight ahead on a jeep track through sand pine scrub. A forest road comes in from the left to meet the trail. There’s a touch of bayhead swamp on the right as the trail rises up into scrubby flatwoods.
At 8.4 miles, you reach a 4-way junction of forest roads in the pines. Turn left. The orange blazes appear again as you hike through a dense pine flatwoods with a saw palmetto understory past a snag with some serious character, rising almost as tall as the longleaf pines around it. Sandhill wildflowers color the understory, especially blazing star. As the forest road curves, and there’s a stop sign on the left – “Authorized Vehicles Only” – turn right on this forest road within sight of the cars dashing down US 98. Within a few minutes, you’re in a beautiful longleaf pine flatwoods with wiregrass peeping out from under the saw palmettos, a clear view across the understory in each direction. You can see catfaces on a number of these old pines, clear evidence of their use as naval stores – turpentine and more – here so close to the sea.
At the next T intersection, at 8.8 miles, orange and green blazes meet. Turn left to start on the green-blazed trail, which stays close to the park boundary within sight of US 98. Turn right, away from the gate on US 98. It’s along this stretch, Gidds said, where bears have been seen – no surprise, since you’re almost knocked over by the wafting aroma of dough and powdered sugar from a donut shop just on the other side of the fence. The view away from the fence is a long one, the open understory beneath longleaf pine especially appealing.
The green-blazed trail turns to the right at 9.2 miles, away from the fence line and another tempation for local bears: beehives. This forest road is graveled, and must get damp, since there is wax myrtle on both sides. Lovegrass rises from between the stones. The trail forks around a little island of forest – doesn’t matter which side you use – and off to the right, there’s a small cypress dome. Another is off to the left. Passing a firebreak on the left, you emerge out to the paved tram road at 9.5 miles, completing a very large loop.
To continue with one more natural-surface loop on the way back, turn left and walk up the tram road to the first right, the blue-blazed trail that leads back out towards Campbell Lake and the location of an old turpentine camp. You never see the lake from this loop – unless you take a spur down to it on the right at a junction of blue blazes. I was too tired at this point to add that mileage on. Turn left to continue along the main trail, which transitions from scrubby flatwoods into a much denser forest. The trail continues a sweeping curve to the left.
At 10.2 miles, you reach a clearing with a three-way junction of trails, all blazed blue. A collection of benches in this interpretive spot, once a turpentine camp amid the longleaf pines, afford a rest stop before the final push to the front gate. Turn left to follow the blue blazes back to the main tram road. It’s relatively close. Reaching the tram road, turn right, heading uphill out of the sand pines and to the stop sign with the tram road that goes out to the beach. Continue straight ahead, following this asphalt ribbon back past the park’s amentities, beneath the pines and past the ponds, to emerge at the parking area after 10.9 miles.