Hiking the Florida Panhandle


It's not an adventure until somebody screws up...

Apalachicola National Forest

The Apalachicola National Forest (ANF) is 564,961 acres of mostly pine flatwood forest. The Florida National Scenic Trail runs through the forest from the southwest corner near Carraway Rd and US 319 to SR 12 northwest of Camel Lake Campground. The total distance is 78.5 miles. Twelve of those miles pass through the Bradwell Bay Wilderness Area, considered to be some of the toughest hiking in the US.

The trail can be accessed at any number of places. One popular spot is the trailhead on FR 329 close to the Sopchoppy River. From there, one can hike into the east end of Bradwell Bay, or go south along the Sopchoppy River down to Oak Park Bridge. Camping is allowed anywhere along the trail, but is encouraged at the designated campsites. There are also two campgrounds in the forest that are right on the trail: Camel Lake and Porter Lake. Camel Lake is by far the nicer of the two, and could be the start of a two-day round trip hike down the FT and back up the Trail of Lakes.

If you go out to hike the ANF, I highly recommend getting the map published by the forestry service, as well as the FTA trail maps. The latter is good for determining trail distances, but is a little sketchy on the forest roads.

I've hiked a little over half of the trail through ANF in a series of dayhikes and overnight treks. In February of '07, a younger sister and I set out from Camel Lake Campground to hike through to Porter Lake Campground. It was intended to be a three day hike, but we bailed out at the end of the second day.

Although most of the trail was well-maintained, we hit a couple of stretches that looked like disaster areas. The first was at the end of Day One, and involved small trees blown down across the trail en masse. We had to push our way through what seemed like a mile of dead branches, in some places having to go off the trail to get around them. The second came again near the end of Day Two. We reached a section near Bay Creek where the trail just seemed to disappear. We were wading through water, in a blowdown, and searching for the rare and elusive orange blaze. Each time we found one, I had to leave my sis next to it so we wouldn't lose it, while I forged ahead looking for the next one. Then, when we reached our campsite for the day, we discovered that it was completely overgrown and unusable. We had to hike on to the next road to look for a campsite. All that contributed to our decision to call it a day.

We went back a couple of months later and hiked the last leg of our planned route. We had an easier time of it, but nothing we saw made us think that we should have kept going. Immediately beyond the point where we had stopped before was another section of bad blowdowns. After two days of fighting those, we would not have done well facing them again on the third morning.

The purpose of that tale of woe isn't to turn anyone away from hiking ANF, but it should serve as a warning to anyone who would go into it lightly. Trail maintainers are scarce on the ground, and cannot cover all areas of the trail. The remote and swampy places where you most need blazes are often the least likely to have them in sufficient quantity. Cell phone service is dodgy at best, so you can't always ring someone up to come rescue you if you get into trouble.

All that said, there are some beautiful things to see in the ANF. Florida pine forests may not appeal to everyone, but here are a few pictures I've taken in the forest that I believe are beautiful no matter who you are...

Cypress pond near where the FT meets the Trail of Lakes. Boardwalk through swamp west of Vilas.
One of the many creeks/swamps that cross the trail. Be prepared to wade. Pitcher plants starting to come up.
Greenery coming back to an area that was recently burned over. Blue sky, green pines, and clear trail (aka a forest road).
Old cypress tree in the Sopchoppy River. New bridge over Monkey Creek.
Columns of pine trees lining the path. A Pinxter Bloom in Bradwell Bay.
A swallow tailed kite in Bradwell Bay. Black titi in bloom.
Wiregrass and pitcher plants. Close up of a trumpet leaf pitcher plant.
Parrot pitcher plant.

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