Point Washington State Forest

Point Washington State Forest: First-rate Outdoor Recreation Near Santa Rosa Beach
Local Expert's Rating:
4 / 5
The Bottom Line:

Encompassing more than 15,000 acres, the Point Washington State Forest is one of the great outdoor destinations on the Emerald Coast. Popular among hikers, cyclists, equestrians, hunters, anglers, and campers, this preserve includes such specific attractions as an old-growth forest of longleaf pine, part of the shoreline of Eastern Lake, and fantastic opportunities for birdwatching and photography.

- The FloridaPanhandle.com Local Expert Team

Established in 1992 on lands formerly long owned by the St. Joe Paper Company, the 15,407-acre Point Washington State Forest is both a precious wildland preserve and an outdoor-recreation hotspot near Santa Rosa Beach. It lies between Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, and its southern boundaries partly abut Grayton Beach and Deer Lake state parks to form quite the protected, publicly accessible mosaic.

A variety of native habitats compose the natural fabric of Point Washington State Forest, including extensive sandhills, wet flatwoods, and wet prairies as well as cypress swamps and titi swamps. Much of the pineland here is second-growth, but the forest is notable for containing a magnificent example of a virgin longleaf pine stand: a rare—and majorly pretty—picture of what much of the Florida Panhandle’s uplands once looked like. 

Forest managers use prescribed burning extensively to help maintain habitats here in conjunction with the sustainable forestry that goes on. Low-grade fire is an important natural element in longleaf-pine woodlands and many other Panhandle ecosystems, and these controlled burns help carry out its beneficial effects while lessening the chances of a more severe blaze.

The extensive preserved acreage and ecological variety of the Point Washington State Forest provide refuge for quite a number of rare species, among them Curtiss’ sand grass, which exists here as part of ts largest population anywhere. Others include white-topped pitcher plants, flatwoods salamanders, and that iconic Florida denizen the gopher tortoise. The forest’s incredible value for birds and other critters—and its potential as an ecotourism spot—is reflected in its inclusion along the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail.

You can get a taste for the beauty of these natural landscapes via the Point Washington State Forest’s extensive trail network. It includes the three double-track loops of the Eastern Lake Trail System, which gives hikers and mountain bikers options for 3.5-, six-, or 11-mile circuits. The Longleaf Greenway Trail, accessed via Satinwood Road, runs some eight miles through the western and central portion of the forest, linking at its eastern end with the Eastern Lake Trail System.

(The ultimate plan is to link trails in the Point Washington State Forest with others in Grayton Beach State Park, Deer Lake State Park, Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, and other areas to form a long-distance greenway, expanding recreational opportunities mightily.)

Visitors on horseback, meantime, can ride the three- or five-mile loops forming the McQuage Bayou Horse Trail in the northern sector of the state forest.

Several primitive campsites amid the pines and palmettos lie along the Eastern Lake Trail System, providing a welcome opportunity to tent out in the Emerald Coast backcountry.

The Point Washington State Forest is also open during designated seasons to hunting and trapping as well as fishing. Hunters come here to pursue deer, turkey, quail, feral hogs, small game, and other quarry. 

Outdoor pleasures along the Emerald Coast aren’t confined to sandy beaches and saltwater fishing expeditions, as the Point Washington State Forest shows. Representing an impressive large block of interior pineland and other native habitats, it serves as an absolutely invaluable venue for recreation and nature appreciation in Walton County.

Insider Tip:
Be sure to check the website of the Point Washington Wildlife Management Area or contact the state forest directly to inquire about what hunting seasons may be going on when you’re visiting here. If you are recreating on the forest during hunting season, wear blaze-orange to heighten your visibility out on the trails!