With a size of over 200,000 acres, Tate's Hell State Forest is one of Florida's largest state forests. Its only official hiking trail is the High Bluff Coastal Trail, which traverses pine flatwoods and ancient sand dunes near the Forgotten Coast. In fact, one of the sand dunes is tall enough to provide an elevated view toward the southern end of the forest, where the Gulf of Mexico is just a thin blue sliver. In addition, black bears are common in Tate's Hell State Forest and neighboring Apalachicola National Forest, and on this hike, it is possible to spot this elusive creature or find evidence of its activity. This hike occurred on Monday, December 26th, 2016. My plan was to hike the High Bluff Coastal Loop in a clockwise direction. Along the way, I would take a short side trail to an elevated view of the surrounding terrain and the Gulf of Mexico in the distance.
R/T Length of Trail: 9.0 Miles
Duration of Hike: 3:50
Type of Hike: Loop
Difficulty Rating: 3 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: Minimal
Pros: Elevated views that are uncommon for Florida
Cons: Northern side of the High Bluff Loop is entirely on forest roads, some of which are accessible to cars
Points of Interest: Scenic sand dune view; Slough near West Trailhead
Trail Blaze Colors: High Bluff Outer Loop - Orange; High Bluff East Inner Loop - Blue; High Bluff West Inner Loop - Red
Best Seasons to Hike: Year-round (it can be hot during summer as much of the trail is out in the open)
Beginning Point: High Bluff East Trailhead
Directions from Carrabelle, FL: From the intersection of Tallahassee Street (County Road 67) and St. James Avenue (US Route 98/319) in downtown Carrabelle, follow US 98 West/US 319 South for 5.3 miles. After 5.3 miles, the entrance road to the East Trailhead parking area for High Bluff Coastal Hiking Trail will be to the right. It is marked by a sign.
Click here for more information and to download this trail map to view in Garmin Basecamp.
Most of Florida's coastline is either developed or is preserved but inaccessible due to marshes. The portion of the Forgotten Coast around Tate's Hell State Forest falls into neither category, and while US 98 - lined by occasional houses - follows the immediate coastline, there is a vast land of state land north of US 98 that is the Tate's Hell State Forest. The forest's only hiking trail is the High Bluff Coastal Hiking Trail, which is a loop that leads to several tall sand dunes near the coast. This trail is unique, because there are very few locations in Florida where you can be hiking on relatively pristine and remote trails near the ocean. Originally, the High Bluff Trail was only about a mile long roundtrip, but with time, the trail was extended to a second trailhead, and then later, several different forest roads north of the original trail were blazed and became part of a loop. In my opinion, the north side of the loop, which follows forest roads (some of which are actually accessible to cars), is not very scenic, but the south side of the loop - that follows single-track trail the entire time - is an excellent hike.
I chose to begin the hike at the East Trailhead and hike the single-track portion of the trail first (thus hiking the loop in a clockwise direction). To hike the loop clockwise, pass to the left of the trailhead kiosk, through a gap in the fence, and onto a blue-and-orange-blazed pathway. You'll see three different types of blazes on this hike, but to hike the outer loop, you must follow the orange blazes. Blue blazes mark the east loop and red blazes mark the west loop; there is quite a bit of overlap between red and orange blazes and blue and orange blazes. Pines and palmetto dominate the landscape in which the sandy trail starts out. At 0.4 miles, there is an intersection in the trail. Here, the main trail continues straight, while a slightly longer offshoot of the trail (which later returns to the main trail) turns right. I decided to hike the offshoot to see where it leads. Turn right and enter denser forest to reach a shaded picnic table at 0.55 miles, which is actually the primary attraction of the longer trail. After the picnic table, the path returns to the main trail at 0.6 miles; turn right to continue on the main trail. At 0.8 miles, the trail reaches Forest Road 83 - turn right onto this road, passing some houses to the left past the forest boundary. At 0.9 miles, an arrow points out the trail as it bears right off the road and back into the forest. At 1.05 miles, the trail passes through a titi thicket, where a small footbridge takes the trail across a seasonally wet area.
After the titi thicket, the trail passes through a more open area with great views of surrounding pine flatwoods and then reaches Forest Road 38 again at 1.25 miles. Turn right on the road and reach an intersection at 1.3 miles. here, the blue-and-red-blazed shortcut trail continues straight along the forest road, so if you want to hike just the blue east loop, that is where you must continue, but to hike the orange outer loop, turn left off the road and onto a path at the sign with arrows. At 1.55 miles, the trail turns noticeably sandier and makes a quick ascent to the top of an line of ancient sand dunes that is about 20 feet taller than the surrounding land. At 1.7 miles, do not miss an unmarked spur trail that leads left (south) for 100 feet to Forest Road 83A at the forest boundary and a notable elevated vista looking southward. The area in the foreground is not forest property and appears as if it is undergoing some sort of development. However, shifting your gaze outward into the distance, you can see the sparkling blue waters of St. George Sound past a line of pine-topped sand dunes. Elevated views are uncommon in Florida, so this short side trip is definitely worth it.
Back on the main trail, cross a sandy powerline clearing at 1.75 miles with another view to the south. The trail continues along the top of the sandy dune past low pine trees before descending back into the flatwoods at 2.0 miles. At 2.2 miles, the trail passes through a titi thicket along a plank boardwalk. After crossing Forest Road 83B, the High Bluff Trail passes through another dark titi thicket - that could also be a swamp, depending on recent rainfall - using a long boardwalk at 2.45 miles. After this, the trail ascends to another sand dune with views of a marsh lined by pines to the left (south) at 2.9 miles. I found numerous signs of bear activity (bear scat) in this area. The trail then descends the sand dune and nears the marsh (although never quite reaches it), before crossing a slough via a large footbridge at 3.25 miles. A picnic table is positioned next to the footbridge. As a forest road leaves to the right and connects to Forest Road 77, bear left to continue on the trail, which soon passes through an area that has recently been burned. At 3.85 miles, the trail approaches Forest Road 77, parallels it for a short distance, and then bears southeast away from the road, crossing a footbridge across a potentially muddy area at 3.95 miles. Then, the footpath reaches the West Trailhead parking area at 4.1 miles.
From the West Trailhead, you can either retrace your steps along the same trail or continue to hike the loop. To be honest, if you retrace your steps, you won't miss much, because the rest of the loop is entirely on forest roads of varying quality, and the scenery is less picturesque than on the south side of the loop. However, I still hiked the loop as I prefer to not retrace my steps on hikes, if it is possible. To hike the loop, pass through the parking area and turn right onto Forest Road 77, which is open to vehicles, as are most of the forest roads that the rest of the loop follows. That said, I did not run into a single car or ATV on my hike. After a long walk through pine flatwoods, there is a sort of turnaround at 5.0 miles. Forest Road 77 continues on the map but is impassable by vehicles. The trail crosses a pair of footbridges across sloughs and then scrambles up to another forest road at 5.15 miles, which seems to be the continuation of Forest Road 77. Turn left to continue on the trail (the road to the right leads to the slough footbridge with the picnic table that you passed earlier). Continue following this road northward through denser woods for another half-mile until the intersection with Forest Road 6 at 5.65 miles. The trail turns right on Forest Road 6, which is the most "trail-like" road on the north side of the loop and does not appear to get much if any vehicle usage. A sign labeled "SFR 6" and two pairs of double blazes (orange and red) mark the turn.
After a lengthy walk through more pine flatwoods with a mostly dense understory, Forest Road 6 ends at 6.7 miles at Forest Road 38. This is where the shortcut that you saw much earlier ends. The shortcut trail heads right, while the outer loop turns left onto Forest Road 38. At 6.8 miles, turn right onto Forest Road 81 to continue following the loop. This road is very sandy and does not allow a fast walking pace. The road crosses a powerline cut at 6.9 miles with a wetland to the right. At 7.7 miles, turn right onto Forest Road 40, which does not differ much from Forest Road 81 in both quality and scenery. The forest is still predominantly pines. The final turn is at 8.5 miles, where the trail turns right onto Forest Road 40C. This road is supposed to be gated, but on this day, I found the gate to be open. Follow this road south back to the East Trailhead, reaching it at 9.0 miles and concluding the hike.
0.0 - High Bluff East Trailhead
0.55 - Picnic Table
1.7 - Scenic View
3.25 - Slough Footbridge and Picnic Table
4.1 - High Bluff West Trailhead
9.0 - High Bluff East Trailhead
Hike just the East Loop - 3.5 Miles
Hike just the West Loop - 5.6 Miles
Hike the south side of the High Bluff Trail out and back - 8.2 Miles
Also in Tate's Hell State Forest, the Ralph G. Kendrick Cypress Boardwalk is a quick walk to a view of one of north Florida's most unique botanical sights. It is well worth the visit before or after the High Bluff Trail hike.
Mark Oleg Ozboyd
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