Turpentine/Gopher Tortoise Trails – Topsail Hill Preserve, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida

Over the past 15 years we have hiked more in the 1643 acre Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in Santa Rosa Beach Florida than anywhere else. Drawn by the wide variety of ecosystems, the diversity of wildlife, the number and quality of the trails, and the Longleaf Pines; every outing is unique and stimulating.

The Florida State Parks recognize 14 ecosystems in Topsail, including “the rare freshwater coastal dune lakes, wet prairies, scrub, pine flatwoods, marshes, cypress domes, seepage slopes and 3.2 miles of sparkling white sand beaches”. Their website states that Topsail Hill is the most intact coastal ecosystem in Florida.

Every visit to Topsail begins at the Day Use Visitor Parking Lot and one can walk along a lightly traveled road or take a tram the half mile to the trailhead that leads to all eight trails, that in total cover over 15 miles. The walk along this main tram way has its own merits, including a couple of small lakes with abundant wildlife (Pickerel Weed, Fragrant Water Lily, Blue Dasher Dragonfly, Purple Gerardia).

The main trail is the paved biking/all person Campbell Lake Trail, with access to the other trails arising off it. Despite being paved it really embeds you into the forest and ecosystems, and has little elevation change, making it accessible to folks of all abilities. It is a great trail for children biking and the birding along this trail is outstanding.

Our outing was to hike the Turpentine Trail and then cross over to the Gopher Tortoise Trail. The Turpentine Trail meanders through a relatively mature Longleaf Pine and Slash Pine forest that in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was used for turpentine production. Slashes were made in the bark of the trees and the resin was collected and then distilled down; the distillate would be collected as turpentine. Scars from this process are still noted on some of the oldest trees.

Along the trail we encountered some outstanding wildflowers (Downy Foxglove, Scarlet Sage, Flowering Spurge, and Orange Milkwort).

At the end of the Turpentine Trail we took the trail extension to Campbell Lake, a coastal dune lake that always mesmerizes me. As you walk along the northern shore you see the dunes on the southern edge. They are impressive, and even though you are quite a distance away, you can hear the pounding of the Gulf surf from just the other side of the dunes. At the end of the Campbell Lake extension there is a bench that affords the hiker these outstanding views.

These coastal dune lakes are rare around the world but there are many in the south Walton County area. They are unspoiled and have productive wetlands.

We exited the lakeshore and headed toward the Campbell Lake Trail to cross over to the Gopher Tortoise Trail, which meanders through a more inland forest, and came across a flock of Magnolia Warblers darting energetically from tree to tree in front of us.

This part of Topsail is a symposium on Longleaf Pine, with numerous specimens of its life stages: grass, seedling, sapling, and tree.

The “grass” stage can last for over 10 years or until the conditions become conducive to its growth from grass stage to seedling.

Here the preserve is a mixed forest and an old friend, the Southern Magnolia, shows its colors.

As we have noted on some of our previous hikes “textures” are everywhere (deer moss, bark of Longleaf Pine, Palmetto, immature Longleaf Pine cone, and a native grass).

Beside the Longleaf Pine, perhaps my favorite plant at Topsail is Scarlet Sage. It has a very long blooming season and I have seen it flowering in April as well as November. It is found in small groupings throughout the park. Here it provides nourishment to a Cloudless Giant Sulphur butterfly.

Turkey Oak – A common inhabitant of the trails that we hike in the panhandle. As oaks go he is small, generally getting to 20 to 40 feet in height and less than a foot in diameter. His scraggly appearance reminds me of Post Oak in my home range. It gets it name from the shape of its leaf which resembles a turkey footprint.

The New Plant of the Day

Deertongue – Also known as Vanilla Plant, is native to the US coastal region from North Carolina to Florida. It has a cluster of leaves at its base that are shaped like a deer’s tongue. The leaves smell of vanilla and were used historically to flavor cigarettes and by early homesteaders as an air freshener.

If you vacation at Okaloosa Island, Destin, San Destin, or Santa Rosa Beach, consider a visit to this beautiful place. I think that you will appreciate this unspoiled piece of Earth. As the Florida State Parks say, experience “The Real Florida”.

Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.


Parking – excellent large asphalt lot right inside the park entrance.

Facilities – very nice restroom at the parking lot.

Trail Conditions – excellent and well marked. Most trails are compacted sand and soil with the exception of Morris Lake Trail which is soft sand and a little more demanding.

Benches – along the Campbell Lake Trail and anywhere a trail leads to a view of the lake.

Kids – Should do well and you frequently see them on the trails. There is minimal elevation change.

Suggested Paired Hikes – many to chose from. The boardwalk to and from the beach gives walkers an up close look at the outstanding dune system.




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