Point Washington State Forest: Eastern Lake Trail (Orange Loop) to Eastern Lake, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida
The Gulf of Mexico coastline vicinity in Florida's Walton County is known for its dune lakes. One of the rarest ecosystems in Florida and worldwide, dune lakes are shallow freshwater lakes that are separated from saltwater ocean by thin strips of dunes and beaches. Walton County is home to a whole 17 dune lakes, which are otherwise only found in New Zealand, Madagascar, and Australia. Many of the dune lakes in Walton County are protected by state parks and other conservation areas. One such dune lake, Eastern Lake, is partially private, but its northern shore is part of Point Washington State Forest and is open to public access. The Eastern Lake Trail System consists of several color-coded loops ranging from 3.5 miles to 11 miles that travel through mostly longleaf pine scrub, and additionally, a side trail leads to the edge of Eastern Lake's sparkling blue waters. This hike occurred on Saturday, May 13th, 2017. My plan was to hike the outer loop (Orange Loop) of the Eastern Lake Trail counter-clockwise. Along the way, I would hike the spur trail to Eastern Lake out and back.
R/T Length of Trail: 12.1 Miles
Duration of Hike: 5:35
Type of Hike: Loop
Difficulty Rating: 4 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: Minimal
Pros: Relatively little of the hike follows forest roads
Cons: A lot of the hike showcases similar scenery
Points of Interest: Eastern Lake; West Fork Peach Tree Creek
Trail Blaze Colors: Inner Yellow Loop of Eastern Lake Trail - Yellow; Middle Red Loop of Eastern Lake Trail - Red; Outer Orange Loop of Eastern Lake Trail - Orange; Eastern Lake Side Trail - Pink
Best Seasons to Hike: Winter
Fees: There is a day use fee of $2 per person at the Eastern Lake Trailhead
Beginning Point: Eastern Lake Trailhead
Directions from Santa Rosa Beach, FL: From the intersection of US Highway 98 and County Highway 30A in Santa Rosa Beach, follow US Highway 98 for 8.9 miles, and then, turn right onto County Highway 395. Continue for 1.2 miles and then reach the Eastern Lake Trailhead parking area on the left side of the road.
Click here to download a track of this hike.
Point Washington State Forest is not a popular destination for hikers. It is often overlooked by folks who are more interested in well-known natural areas such as Topsail Hill State Park and Grayton Beach State Park. In fact, the Eastern Lake Trail System is used more by hikers. Nonetheless, while the trail system may not be as outstanding as some of the others in the area, it provides an excellent walk through stands of endangered longleaf pine, along with views of one of Florida's less-known but equally beautiful dune lakes: Eastern Lake.
While there are multiple access points for the Eastern Lake Trails, the most convenient one is located off County Highway 395. The hike begins at the distinct trail near the trailhead kiosk. Passing a picnic table to the right, the trail quickly curves into a titi swamp where the headwaters of West Fork Peach Tree Creek are located. A short footbridge takes the trail across a small stream, and at 0.15 miles, the loop begins. Yellow, red, and orange arrows mark the trail both to the left and to the right. To hike the loop counter-clockwise, bear right, although there is no major difference in terms of the direction to hike the loop in. Keep in mind that if you want to hike the full outer loop to Eastern Lake like I did, you will be following the orange blazes (which mark the longest loop). At 0.25 miles, the trail passes through another brief stretch of titi swamp, crossing via footbridge another small stream in the headwaters. After passing a longleaf pine restoration area to the right, the Eastern Lake Trail crosses State Forest Road 2 at 0.55 miles. Over the next few miles, the trail stays about the same, passing through mainly longleaf pine flatwoods, although occasionally, dense vegetation near the trail indicates the presence of wetter areas. At 1.15 miles, the trail recrosses SFR 2, and at 1.85 miles, you will reach a junction at Forest Road 13 with the first cross-trail: the Yellow Trail. The Yellow Trail turns left onto SFR 13 for a 3-mile loop, while the Orange/Red Trail crosses the road and continues to the right of a bench and kiosk.
After another stretch of mostly pines and another crossing of SFR 2, the trail reaches the Red Cross-Trail at 2.35 miles, where there is a kiosk. The cross-trail leaves to the left for a 6-mile loop and follows SFR 8 for most of its length, but for this hike, bear right on the Orange Trail. The trail reaches SFR 2 again at 2.55 feet; turn right onto the road and follow it for about 250 feet before turning right back onto a footpath. At 3.35 miles, the trail once again reaches and turns right onto SFR 2, but after only a couple hundred feet, the road bears left while the trail continues straight through a gap in a fence and onto a double-track path. Before long, the trail enters an extended section of titi swamp, crossing two footbridges - one of which is across a stream. At 4.1 miles, a sign marks the trail as it turns acutely left just as a broad forest road continues straight, eventually connecting to the Cassine Trail. The Cassine Trail is a side trail that leads to a separate private trailhead near County Highway 30A. Meanwhile, the Orange Trail reaches Forest Road 7 at 4.4 miles. Here, the Orange Trail turns left onto SFR 7 while the pink-blazed Eastern Lake Spur Trail continues across the road.
Take the Eastern Lake Spur Trail, which is a lot less distinct than the other trails in the forest, because it is a very new trail. The trail turns south and initially parallels SFR 7, although after a few hundred feet, the trail bears left away from the road. Pay close attention to the blazes, as the trail remains indistinct, entering a hammock near Eastern Lake. At 4.8 miles, the trail passes a deer stand to the left, and at 5.0 miles, the trail approaches a finger of Eastern Lake and turns right, following it toward the main part of the lake. At 5.1 miles, the trail comes alongside the shore of Eastern Lake just below a primitive camping area that is accessible by car. The trail ends only a couple dozen feet farther at the edge of a small peninsula jutting into the lake. From here, there are great views of Eastern Lake in all directions. To the left (south), the blue waters of Eastern Lake stretch down to the Highway 30A bridge. Private houses line the shores of the lake. Straight ahead, the west side of the lake - which is surrounded entirely by state land - looks a lot more remote and pristine. This is a spot worth lingering at.
Once you've had your fill of beautiful Eastern Lake, retrace your steps back to the Orange Loop and continue following it counter-clockwise. The trail follows SFR 7 for a tenth of a mile, and then, it turns right at an arrow onto a single-track footpath at 5.9 miles. In my opinion, the following stretch of trail passes through one of the forests's more scenic stretches of flatwoods, because it is more prairie-like with the pines spaced far apart from each other. Passing through an intersection with SFR 2 and SFR 11 at 6.4 miles, the trail briefly joins a forest road before turning right, heading northward in the direction of Peach Tree Creek. For some time - staring around 7.1 miles - the trail closely follows the ecotone between pine flatwoods and floodplain swamp along Peach Tree Creek, but it never reaches the creek itself. At 8.3 miles, the trail briefly joins a forest road before turning left off of it and then crossing SFR 11 at 8.6 miles. After following another ecotone, the trail turns left onto a forest road and arrives at the north end of the Red Cross-Trail, along with a kiosk and bench, at 9.4 miles. Bear right here, following the orange blazes along a sandy forest road in the direction of West Fork Peach Tree Creek. At 9.9 miles, just after the end of the forest road, the trail crosses West Fork Peach Tree Creek via a long footbridge in the middle of a shady hammock. West Fork Peach Tree Creek is a small clear stream with a sandy bed that is typical of streams in the central and western portions of the Florida Panhandle. The stream is hard to see downstream from the bridge, but there is a photogenic bend in the stream just upstream from the bridge.
After the footbridge across the creek, the trail turns left, crosses a small tributary, and joins another sandy forest road briefly, before turning left off of it. The common scenery of pine flatwoods returns as the trail reaches the north end of the Yellow Cross-Trail at 10.9 miles. Here, the main trail turns right onto SFR 13, and in about a hundred feet, it turns left at a large road intersection. For much of the remaining portion of the hike, the trail follows this forest road westward, passing a pair of clearings along the way. At 11.6 miles, arrows point the trail abruptly to the left on a narrower forest road, and at 11.95 miles, you will reach the end of the loop. Bear right and follow the final leg of the trail back to the trailhead, concluding the hike at 12.1 miles.
0.0 - Eastern Lake Trailhead
0.15 - Begin Loop
1.85 - Begin Yellow Cross-Trail
2.35 - Begin Red Cross-Trail
4.4 - Begin Eastern Lake Spur Trail
5.1 - Eastern Lake
9.4 - End Red Cross-Trail
9.9 - West Fork Peach Tree Creek
10.9 - Yellow Cross-Trail
11.95 - End Loop
12.1 - Eastern Lake Trailhead
Hike just the Yellow Loop - 3.0 Miles
Hike just the Red Loop - 6.0 Miles
Hike the Orange Loop without Eastern Lake side trip (not recommended as Eastern Lake is a highlight) - 10.7 MIles
After the main hike, consider hiking the short and gorgeous nature trail in Grayton Beach State Park.
Mark Oleg Ozboyd
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