Beyond Destin: Blackwater River State Forest-Sweetwater Trail & Bear Lake Loop (PHOTOS)
Destin has a lot to offer, and although its beaches are world-famous and its seafood delicious, there are hundreds of hidden treasures in the surrounding area of Northwest Florida that yield for fun adventures, day trips and weekend getaways. This column which will be featured on Wednesdays, will follow the wanderings of reporter, Savannah Vasquez, and explore the many opportunities in Destin’s surrounding area. I invite you to explore with me Beyond Destin.
Hikers rejoice! Northwest Florida has some amazing diversity when it comes to trail ecosystems and one such place you may not expect to find so close to the coast is the Blackwater River State Forest. The state forest, named for the river that meanders throughout it, boasts 3 million acres of long-leaf pine forests, numerous creeks and lakes, and around 75 miles of hiking trails.
This weekend my husband Cristian and I decided to take advantage of the spring-like weather and check out the six-mile hike of Sweetwater Trail and Bear Lake Loop. Sweetwater Trail begins in the parking lot of Krul Lake, a man-made lake, camping area and recreation spot. Unbeknownst to us, Krul Lake had been drained for maintenance, and so instead of a placid lake we found a giant dirt crater with ghostly boardwalks and ladders leading to nowhere. However, we were undeterred as Sweetwater Trail leads away from the lake and follows the creek into the forest.
A wooden boardwalk leads the way and we were quickly enchanted by the bubbling creek below and the arching greenery above. Only a few steps into the hike we passed a replica of a grist mill, complete with a water-powered wheel once used to refine flour. Next, we came upon a suspension bridge that spanned Sweetwater Creek and made for a great view of the sandy-bottomed waterway.
The boardwalk continued for about half of a mile before giving way to a dirt footpath and soon we found ourselves standing amongst a sloping forest of pines that stretched as far as the eye could see. Dwarfed by the height of the trees, we had some fun photographing how just small we were in comparison to the tall, skinny pine wood forest.
After a mile and a half, Sweetwater Trail ends at Bear Lake, a sparkling boggy waterway open for fishing and canoeing. At this point hikers can choose to turn back to Krul Lake or take the four-mile Bear Lake Loop, we chose to continue on and explore the lake-side.
The forest along Bear Lake Loop began to resemble a tropical ecosystem with low-lying palmetto palms and wiregrass. On one stretch of the hike, birds flew to and from the lake into the brush and we also spotted trails in the grass hinting that deer had been there. Halfway through the loop we came to a clearing with an outhouse and boat ramp and decided it was the perfect spot for a picnic. Water and snacks are a must for this hike as the hot and humid Florida weather will quickly wear you out without the necessary fuel.
As we continued the hike we found spots on the trail that have recently been rebuilt with brand new boardwalks and gravel paths on the bends closer to the Bear Lake campground. Also a nice surprise was the cypress tree groves growing in the water giving it the true southern boggy feel.
The loop trail ended at Bear Lake campground where tent and RV campsites are available. Full bathrooms with showers are located on the grounds as well as picnic areas, a pier, and canoes for rental. After a quick stop at the campground we headed back across the dam to meet back up with Sweetwater Trail for the short hike to Krul Lake. All told, the hike took us about three hours as we took a slow pace and added plenty of stops for photo ops, lunch and soaking in the glorious views.
Sweetwater Trail is located an hour northwest of Destin within the Blackwater River State Forest at the Krul Lake Recreation Area on Krul Lake Road, in Milton. Cost to enter the park is $2 per person and must be paid in exact cash by honor system envelopes. Make sure to bring water and snacks for the hike, and sunscreen or bug spray depending on time of year. For more information visit www.freshfromflorida.com and search Blackwater River State Forest or call 957-6140.