Best known for its antebellum mansion with one of the most extensive Louis XVI furniture collections in America, Eden Gardens State Park has its wild side, too. The Tucker Bayou Trail starts and ends at the new Tucker Bayou picnic area down a side road off the park entrance. This short, mazy loop is both scenic and fun.
Location: Point Washington
Length: 0.9 mile
Lat-Long: 30.373418, -86.119572
Fees / Permits: state park fee
Bug factor: Moderate to strong
Restroom: Yes, near the parking area
From the junction of US 98 and CR 30-A in Destin, drive east towards Panama City for 8.8 miles. Turn left at CR 395. Drive 0.3 miles and turn left into the park’s new entrance. Turn left to drive down to Tucker Bayou, where a few parking spaces are available near the restrooms.
Start your walk at the parking area near the restrooms and follow the sweep of the sidewalk past the picnic pavilions down towards Tucker Bayou, where the road does a loop. Passing the Nature Trail sign, walk down the accessible concrete sidewalk to the edge of the bayou, where the original observation area has been entirely redone. Both observation decks, which wheelchairs can now visit, are within the first 0.1 mile, and provide a breezy spot for birdwatching or simply cooling off.
The next nature trail sign guides you to the left, off the sidewalk and onto a natural-surface trail into the bluff forest along the edge of the bayou, which you can see through a screen of trees to the right. The forest is dense with oaks and hickory. At the Y intersection, turn right to walk down to the bayou. Tall grasses wave above the marsh in this arm of Tucker Bayou, a picturesque spot. A belted kingfisher calls out in the distance. Backtracking up the slope, turn right to continue.
Southern magnolia shows off big blooms in late spring above the tangle of saw palmetto and sparkleberry in the understory, the latter with its roots painted white in the footpath, presumably so you won’t trip over them. The trail makes its way behind the picnic pavilions and restrooms you passed on the way in, your surroundings transitioning into an oak hammock with American beautyberry and American holly. Squawking squirrels attend to nests high up in the oaks. If a car passes, you can still make out the park road through the understory as you follow the long straightaway.
As the trail curves right, you come up to the back side of a hiker symbol sign, the trail burrowing deeper into the forest. Crossing a wooden bridge, you enter an oak scrub and reach a 3-way trail junction, with a nature trail sign pointing to the right. Turn right. A slight downhill, and you enter a shady corridor of bluff forest. At 0.4 mile, you reach the top of the loop, where a bench sits off to the left. Turn right.
With more painted roots underfoot calling attention to your footing, it only takes a few moments to re-enter the oak scrub habitat -- just that little bit of elevation change. The understory is very dense, and the trail is outlined with deer moss. Passing a bench, the trail rises beneath the arched limbs of rusty lyonia and shiny lyonia. You can feel the press of Tucker Bayou off to the right, the open blue sky over distant trees. Be alert for deer: I encountered one in this area.
Perched on a small bluff above a creek that feeds Tucker Bayou, a bench offers a spot to rest. Tall pines and oaks rise overhead, and in the fall, when their leaves turn yellow and bright crimson, you’ll marvel at the number of sassafras trees -- not a common sight in Florida -- hidden in this forest. Where you reach the “Exit” sign, continue straight; the trail to the left is a shortcut back to the start of the loop. The trail starts to curve to the left, still providing a nice immersion in the bluff forest. Ignore the next “Exit” sign just past a bench -- another opportunity to cut this short hike shorter at half a mile -- as the trail turns right.
Cedars and sparkleberry intermingle in the understory as the trail loops beneath taller oaks. Reaching another trail junction at a tree stump with an older portion of the original nature trail, keep right, following the ecotone between oak scrub and bluff forest. Reaching the next bench, the trail has looped back around to where the shortcut side trail comes in from the left. At the top of the loop, continue uphill through the shady corridor to the T intersection.
Turn left to exit: the trail to the right used to go to the Wesley Mansion but has been blocked off. Walking across the bridge and back down the corridor, past the side trail to the bayou, you pick up a nice breeze and view of the bayou as the trail swings back around to the observation decks. Finish up by following the sidewalk back past the picnic pavilions to the parking area for a 0.9-mile walk.