15 JUN­GLE BOO­GIE

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, FLORIDA

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PINE NEE­DLES MUF­FLE my foot­steps as I tread along the over­grown path, oc­ca­sion­ally duck­ing out of reach of saw pal­metto fronds. The sun splin­ters through the lon­gleaf pine canopy, shin­ing on the tur­key oaks that grow in the sandy soil. Though I don’t see any, I know black bears and feral hogs lurk in this for­est. It’s a wild place, per­haps the wildest part of the 1,100-mile Florida Trail, and yet it’s not pro­tected as a wilder­ness area. No, this 15-mile sec­tion of the trail lies within a mil­i­tary base. Just 20 miles away, jets from the 33rd Fighter Wing sit, ready for ac­tion. But here, the Florida Trail twists past steep ravines, rare wet­lands, and the largest tract of vir­gin lon­gleaf pine left in North Amer­ica— all of which have been in­her­ently pro­tected from devel­op­ment since the turn of the 20th cen­tury. It’s a part of Florida that’s nearly dis­ap­peared—but it’s on full dis­play here. By Erika Zam­bello

TURN-BY-TURN FROM THE OLD SR 285 TRAIL­HEAD

1) Fol­low the Florida Trail 7.7 miles west through lon­gleaf pine woods, pass­ing mul­ti­ple creeks with sandy bot­toms, to a road. 2) Turn south (hiker’s left) on clay RR 220 to cross Titi Creek on a wooden bridge.

3) Con­tinue west on the Florida Trail, tracing the edge of shal­low, grassy JR Wal­ton Pond and then duck­ing back into titi for­est for the fi­nal push to the Pearl trail­head on SR 85.

CAMP­SITE

JR WAL­TON POND RE­CRE­ATION AREA (MILE 8.3)

The five camp­sites here come with fire rings and wa­ter views. Since they’re carac­ces­si­ble, aim for the spot on the op­po­site (east) shore, which is off­set from the road and feels a bit more back­coun­try. The open pine canopy is a virtue in Novem­ber when nights are typ­i­cally clear. An­glers can land bass or pick­erel in the 4-acre pond. (Note: Dis­persed camp­ing is pro­hib­ited on the base. There are two des­ig­nated camp ar­eas, and they’re both car-ac­ces­si­ble and first-come, first-serve.)

GE­OL­OGY

Wa­ter here drains through the sand hills and emerges clear and cool in shal­low creekbeds, called “steep­heads.” Th­ese springs pro­vide crit­i­cal fresh­wa­ter to the for­est. Pass a hand­ful on the trail, in­clud­ing Gum, Dog, Big Fork, Titi, and Sil­ver Creeks, all lined with aquatic veg­e­ta­tion and pitcher plants. Wade in the sandy-bot­tomed creeks, and keep an eye out for cream-col­ored darters.

WILDLIFE

Scan for green anoles and snake-like glass lizards warm­ing them­selves trail­side. Black bears and white-tailed deer live in th­ese woods, but are elu­sive. (Best bet: Look for them mak­ing their way to wa­ter sources at dawn and dusk.)

EAS­IER LO­GIS­TICS

To avoid the shut­tle, do it as an out-and­back, spend­ing night two at the Pearl Camp­site near mile 14 in a clear­ing sur­rounded by saw pal­met­tos. Next day, re­trace your steps through the Air Force base for a 28-mile trip.

DO IT SHUT­TLE CAR 30.6871, -86.5723; 3 miles south of Crestview on FL 85 TRAIL­HEAD 30.7181, -86.3675; a 17-minute drive east from the shut­tle car on FL 285 SEA­SON Year-round; Novem­ber is great be­cause it’s less buggy and the end of hur­ri­cane sea­son. PER­MIT Re­quired ($5/per­son per night); ob­tain from the Jack­son Guard in Niceville or on­line. CUS­TOM MAP bit.do/BPmapEglinAirForceBase ($15) CON­TACT eglin.is­ports­man.net

Dis­tance 15.6 miles (point to point) Time 2 days

Dif­fi­culty

Wan­der through lon­gleaf pines.

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