In Search of a Bald Cypress Wetland – Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida

This was going to be a straight forward outing at Topsail Hill Preserve, a 1200 acre venue that we had hiked numerous times before. When we were there last October, hiking to the Old Growth Trail, I had noted a cluster of medium sized bald cypresses off in the distance, suggesting the presence of a wetland that we had not explored. As a hiker and amateur naturalist, wetlands are always a destination because they teem with wildlife and hold promise of some exciting sightings.

The plan was a 45 minute walk to the wetland, some wildlife viewing, and then a quick departure for a lunch at a nearby brewpub. What was not anticipated was the thick understory of Saw Palmetto prohibiting entry to the wetland: We could see the cypresses but could not find access. Saw Palmetto grows in thickets and the plants get their name from the barbed nature of the leaf stalks.

Dressed for the typical wide open trails of Topsail, we were wearing shorts or light pants, and would have needed armor.

Plan B was quickly developed; which was to diagonally transect from the northern edge of the preserve, marked with the highlighted BC (Bald Cypress) on the map below, to the southwestern corner, for our first visit to the most western of the coastal dune lakes, Morris Lake. Somehow it looked doable on paper.

We utilized the southern arm of Deer Track Trail that was in the shade of some towering Long Leaf Pines.

The transit was not without its rewards, as we paused to take in the beauty of the environs. One of the first stars was the flowering Prickly Pear Cactus which is seen sporadically throughout the trail system.

A new plant/flower to us was Candyroot. Named such because of the licorice-like flavor of its roots.

Along the way we found ourselves under the watchful eye of this bald eagle.

Frequently found along the path were the massive cones of Long Leaf Pine.

The fun flower of the day were these Florida Sensitive Briers, that resemble an exploding skyrocket firework. The term “sensitive” refers to the way the leaves close up when touched. It is a vine that is armed with thorns, and we only saw it in this one location.

I enjoy getting into less familiar ecosystems and then reading about some of the species that we have seen. Such was the case with Gopherweed, a member of the indigo and pea families. With its uniform greenish gray coloration, and its symmetrical habit, it could be considered somewhat boring. But it plays a critical role in the life cycle of numerous butterflies; serving as a larval host plant for the Orange Sulphur, Clouded Sulphur, Frosted Elfin, Eastern Tailed Blue, Hoary Edge, and Wild Indigo Dustwing butterflies in Florida.

A more challenging identification was this plant. It was not until I magnified the photo that I could see the prickly hairs of Stinging Nettle. While we have a similarly named plant in my part of the midwest, the leaves and flowers are drastically different, although the discomfort is similar.

I’m glad that we kept our distance as this is the description provided in Complete Guide to Florida Wildflowers, by Roger Hammer. “Contact with the hairs will result in an intense stinging or burning sensation followed by a red rash that may leave the skin discolored for weeks. If left alone, the stinging will eventually dissipate, but scratching makes it worse. Placing tape over the affected area and pulling it off will remove the stinging hairs.”

As the trail neared the coastal dunes I caught a glimpse of this – a bald cypress just starting to leaf out.

And sure enough, he had friends. My original goal was met as we found ourselves in a Bald Cypress wetland, at the western edge of another coastal dune lake, Campbell Lake. In this photo you can see Campbell Lake just east of the cypress wetland.

The area is marked with a highlighted W on the earlier map.

Notice the classic buttressed bases of the trees in the title photo and the photo below.

We had been to the 100 acre Campbell Lake before, but never to the western tip. The water was shallow and featured water lilies; some with their flowers at water level, some held well above.

One of the classic characteristics of Bald Cypress are the “knees” that arise from the root system and appear above the water surface or the soil of the bank. It is unclear exactly what their function is but some hypotheses include that they are involved in respiration, provide structural stability in soft wetland soils, or possibly play some role in nutrition storage. I have included a link to an excellent review on cypress knees from the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University at the end of the article. The next two photos show some knees in the foreground.

As anticipated, the wetland was teaming with wildlife. I was so awestruck of the setting that I failed to get an audio recording of the chorus of tree frogs vocalizing their virility. But we did find this Great Blue Heron making easy pickings of lunch in the shade.

The only thing missing was a bench.

Leaving the wetland we caught this image of a line of Bald Cypresses on the western edge of the swamp. While I have no way to prove it, I suspect that the trees further to the right, which are closer to the Gulf of Mexico, are stunted in their growth due to the wind and salt spray that they are more exposed to. The photo also shows that the wetland was quite extensive and reached to the base of the large dunes that separated us from the Gulf of Mexico.

As we exited the marshland we tried to soldier on but the trail turned to loose sand and, while beautiful, it was harder going. The trail wove through a scrub of pine, Yaupon Holly, and Scrub Live Oak that laid between the pine woods and the large dunes sheltering the area from the Gulf of Mexico.

We stopped for some water at a covered picnic table, somewhat short of our goal of Morris Lake, and realized we were way past lunchtime, which someone failed to think of while developing “Plan B” for this “short outing”. It was implied that I was on “planning probation”, and we started back toward the parking lot.

In this beautiful spot on Earth it is easy to get distracted along the way. There are too many gifts of nature to appreciate, even with an empty stomach. Where does one start?

Yellow-bellied Woodpecker on a large Long Leaf Pine trunk, Branded Pennant Dragonfly:

Double-crested Cormorant, Leavenworth’s Tickseed

Southern Magnolia, Sky-blue Lupine:

Goldenmane Tickseed, Oakleaf Fleabane:

To be honest, at Topsail the gifts are endless.

But then there are fun things. Like when our daughter who accompanied us on this hike tried to convince the photographer and I that there was a good size lizard on this log 6 feet in front of us . We spent several minutes trying to locate it and finally told her to take a photo so we could see it later. Can you see it?

I do think that magnification helps.

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park is one of our go to places to enjoy the great outdoors, and especially “the Real Florida”, as Florida State Parks likes to say. I wish that everyone could find a place that gives them peace, as this place does for me.

And the good news is that we still had a relaxing, but late, lunch with an excellent flight of beers at the Beer Camp Brew Pub at Grayton Beach, Florida.

And lastly, the photographer’s favorite photo from the day. The reflection is spectacular. posts are released every Sunday morning and some bonus content is added periodically. Please click on a social media icon above to follow for future posts and to make sure that you catch all our reflections on, and adventures with, the great outdoors.

Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns, with the exception of the lizard on the log photo which was from sharp-eyed Ellen Burns.


Parking – excellent large asphalt lot just 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. Many of the trails arise off the asphalt “all persons” Campbell Lake Trail which doubles as a bike trail.

Benches – along the Campbell Lake Trail and anywhere a trail leads to a view of the lake, but not the swamp.

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

Dogs – welcomed on a leash.

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



  1. Very nice and l wished I lived in Florida
    I remember when I was a child going to Florida with my aunt and uncle.
    We went to cypress Gardens
    There is something special about Florida. I hope maybe one day I can move there

    Fishing , wetlands and the nature it holds

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