Spring has sprung, and it is time to get outside and explore this great Florida Panhandle area.
In neighboring Santa Rosa County, a terrific destination for a variety of outdoor activities is Blackwater River State Park. Visitors can canoe, kayak, tube, fish and swim the river.
Hikers can enjoy trails through nearly 600 acres of undisturbed natural communities. Bring a picnic and hang out at one of several pavilions or white sand beaches that dot the river (restroom facilities available). Near the pavilions, stop and see one of the largest and oldest Atlantic white cedars, recognized as a Florida Champion tree in 1982.
The park also offers 30 campsites for tents and RVs. Park entry is $4 per car, payable at the ranger station or via the honor system (bring exact change, please).
The Blackwater River is considered one of the purest and pristine sand-bottom rivers in the world. The water is tea-colored from tannins and organic matter that color the water as it weaves through the predominantly pine forest. The river is shallow with a beautiful white sandy bottom, a nice feature for those tubing or paddling the trail.
The river flows for over 50 miles and is designated as a Florida canoe trail. Multiple small sand beach areas line the river and provide plenty of space to hang out, picnic, or throw a Frisbee.
Blackwater eventually flows into Pensacola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, bringing high quality fresh water into this important estuary.
A favorite trail in the park is the Chain of Lakes Nature Trail. Parking for this 1.75-mile loop trail is at South Bridge on Deaton Bridge Road. The trail head is well marked and has a boardwalk that leads into the floodplain forest. The trail winds through a chain of shallow oxbow lakes and swamp that dot the former route of the river.
If you are lucky and it is a clear, blue-sky day, you may see a beautiful rainbow effect as the sun hits the water. We call this the pastel swamp rainbow effect. This is a result of the natural oils from the cypress cones settling on the surface of the water and associated trapped pollen.
The trail then turns to sneak through the sandhill community in the park with giant longleaf pines, wiregrass and turkey oak. Evidence of prescribed burning shows management efforts to maintain the forest. Cinnamon ferns, bamboo and other native plants appear in pockets along the trail. The trail in this section is blanketed with a mosaic of exposed root systems, so be careful as you step. Finally, pack some bug spray and a water bottle for this fun hike.
Visit https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Blackwater-River for more information.
Laura Tiu is an agent at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension office in Crestview.