15 JUNGLE BOOGIE
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, FLORIDA
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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
Wander through longleaf pines.