St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve: Deal Tract Trails (Old Pine Bay Trail and Hammock Spur Trail), Port St. Joe, Florida
St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve is a 5000-acre preserve near St. Joseph Bay that was created to protect the bay's water quality and conserve the natural shoreline habitats. The main tract of the preserve lies just east of County Road 30A, providing numerous hiking possibilities in the sand dune system there along many forest roads. A separate small tract of the preserve, known as the Deal Tract, is located on St. Joseph Peninsula near Cape San Blas. This preserve is home to two short hiking trails that lead through several island ecosystems and to great views of St. Joseph Bay. This hike occurred on Saturday, August 13th, 2016. My plan was to hike the Old Pine Bay Trail out and back to the fire tower and observation area at St. Joseph Bay. On my return trip, I would also hike the Hammock Spur Trail out and back.
R/T Length of Trail: 1.4 Miles
Duration of Hike: 0:35
Type of Hike: Y-Configuration (Out and Back)
Difficulty Rating: 1 out of 10
Total Elevation Gain: Minimal
Cons: Mosquito problem in Richardson Hammock during summer; St. Joseph Bay observation deck seems to be closed to public due to structural issues
Points of Interest: Views of St. Joseph Bay at the end of Old Pine Bay Trail and Hammock Spur Trail; Ancient shell midden in Richardson Hammock
Trail Blaze Color(s): None
Best Season(s) to Hike: Year-round (winter might be chilly due to location)
Beginning Point: Deal Tract Parking Area
Directions from Port St. Joe, FL: From the intersection of US Route 98 and FL State Route 71 in downtown Port St. Joe, follow US 98 South for 2.1 miles. Then, bear right onto County Road 30A, and continue for another 6.7 miles. You will pass the St. Joseph Bay Preserve Center along the way, as well as the Main Gate Trailhead. After driving 6.7 miles along County Road 30A, turn right onto County Road 30E (Cape San Blas Road). Continue for 4.1 miles, until you see the Beach Parking sign to the right. There is also a sign "Welcome to St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve Troy Deal Unit". Turn right onto the entrance road and shortly afterwards reach the parking area and trailhead.
The Port St. Joe area of the Panhandle has surprisingly few hiking possibilities, as much of the land is privately owned, and the few hiking trails are overshadowed by the far wider range of recreational opportunities in the Apalachicola National Forest just to the east. The single best-known hiking trail in the Port St. Joe vicinity is the St. Joseph Peninsula Wilderness Trail at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. I have yet to do this trail. However, far fewer people are aware of an excellent short hiking trail that begins at the back of an inconspicuous parking area near Cape San Blas Road, across from a row of upscale homes along the St. Joseph Peninsula beach. This trail showcases some of the typical ecosystems found near the coastline of Florida.
Begin the hike at the gate at the back of the new parking area for Deal Tract. There is a trailhead kiosk and a sign nearby that says "Foot Traffic Access Only". This is the Old Pine Bay Trail, which follows a sandy forest road northeastward into coastal pine flatwoods. It is possible that you will not see anyone on this hike, despite its proximity to numerous houses. At 0.3 miles, the trail comes out of the pine flatwoods at an unmarked junction. Here, the Hammock Spur Trail leaves off to the left. You will check it out on your way back. Bear right and continue on the Old Pine Bay Trail into scrubby flatwoods near the shore of the bay. The fire tower comes into view. There is no public access to the fire tower, and probably for good reason, for the old structure does not appear to be very safe. The trail passes the fire tower and reaches the shore of St. Joseph Bay at 0.5 miles.
There is a concrete walkway at the end of the trail, which leads out into the bay and provides panoramic views of the St. Joseph Bay. As of this writing, a portion of the walkway was damaged, near its end, but it is still possible to see the beautiful shoreline of St. Joseph Bay. The view of the pine-fringed marshes along the edge of the bay to the left is particularly picturesque. From the observation area, you can observe a variety of shorebirds fishing or flying by, including gulls, pelicans, and ospreys.
From the end of the Old Pine Bay Trail, return to the Hammock Spur Trail and turn right onto it at 0.7 miles. This narrower trail appears to receive less use. Lose some elevation and enter Richardson Hammock at 0.8 miles. Live oaks and palms dominate this denser area of forest. I found mosquitoes to be a bit problematic here, due to the deep shade given by the canopy overhead. At 0.9 miles, the Hammock Spur Trail ends near the shore at an ancient shell midden, nestled in the middle of the hammock. This shell midden, which was left behind by Native Americans hundreds or thousands of years ago, is an ancient campsite. Please remember: do not disturb or remove any of the ancient artifacts at the shell midden. While the official trail ends here, a narrow path to the left leads out to the bay with another great view of the watery expanse.
From here, retrace your steps back to the Old Pine Bay Trail and then back to the trailhead parking area, concluding this short hike at 1.4 miles.
0.0 - Deal Tract Trailhead
0.5 - Old fire tower and walkway with great views of St. Joseph Bay
0.9 - Ancient shell midden and more views of St. Joseph Bay
1.4 - Deal Tract Trailhead
Hike the Old Pine Bay Trail out and back without the Hammock Spur Trail - 1.0 Miles
For an additional hike in the vicinity, consider any of the following:
Year 1: 540.0 Miles
Year 2: 552.3 Miles
Year 3: 518.4 Miles
Year 4: 390.5 Miles