Monday, October 30, 2006

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, in southern Walton County, is a 1,637 acre gem tucked away from the congestion and roar of nearby U.S. 98 and County Highway 30A which frame it's boundaries. It is named for an especially tall sand dune, which from a distance appears to resemble the topsail of a ship. The park was set aside because of the unique natural ecosystems found here, 14 in all, which include two freshwater coastal dune lakes, wet prairies, scrub, pine flatwoods, marshes, cypress domes, seepage slopes and 3.2 miles of sparkling white sand beaches. In fact Topsail Hill is the most intact coastal ecosystem in Florida.

We explored this lovely park on a sunny afternoon in late October with clear bright skies and temperatures hovering in the low 80's. A perfect day to explore this pristine preserve. Setting out from the Morris Lake trailhead, this 2.5 mile loop led us through a variety of diverse and interesting terrains. Starting out in a coastal scrub zone and eventually encountering the shores of a freshwater dune lake. From there we made our way across large dunes out onto a beautiful white sand beach set astride the crystal clear aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Trail through long leaf pine and oak scrub

Morris Lake

Morris Lake is a rare freshwater coastal dune lake. These lakes are rare because the water flows through the dunes and out into the Gulf of Mexico when the lake basin becomes full. The lakes are separated from the Gulf by a barrier beach and dune system which may be intermittent with or without a meandering tidal outlet. Some of the coastal dune lakes have dune systems 500 feet wide with ridges extending 10-30 feet high. Despite being considered low in nutrients, they nonetheless support a large diversity of plants and animals such as bladderworts, alligators, fish and osprey.

The intermittent connection to the Gulf is what makes these lakes rare and much is yet to be learned about how these natural treasures of the Florida coast function. The rapid rise of development in this part of the state, including around coastal dune lakes, raises the concern that nutrient runoff and sedimentation may impact their fragile ecosystems. More study is needed as these lakes experience increased encroachment from expanding human populations.

Campbell Lake

When coastal dune lakes flow out into the Gulf of Mexico saltwater can then make its way back into the lakes. Hurricanes also wash a substantial amount of saltwater into these lakes. The mixture of saltwater and freshwater has created different enviornments in these lakes supporting both freshwater and saltwater plants and animals.

Heed the warning sign on Campbell Lake

Small sink pond and cypress stand near Campbell Lake.

Beautiful white sand dunes separate the lakes from the shoreline of the Gulf.

Florida's dunes have changed dramatically over time as sea levels have risen and fallen. They are the result of the constant battle between the sea and shore. Sand is normally deposited by the surf where it accumulates on the beach. As the tide recedes it dries and is blown inland until it hits vegetation like sea oats or other shore plants and settles to the ground out of the direct path of the wind. Sand will continue to accumulate like this until it eventually forms massive dunes. They eventually erode when huge storm surges hit the front of the dune and the sand is inexorably drawn back into the sea.

Dead pines in the scrub zone

Rangers tell me that during Hurricane Opal, in 1995, a storm surge pushed into this area killing many of the established pines, like the ones pictured above. These dead trees or snags are important for birds, because they become infested with insects who gnaw at the dead wood tissue which attract birds who then feed on them. They also make excellent perches and nesting sites.

Topsail Beach

The white quartz sand beaches, of which this part of Florida is justifiably famous, comes from the Appalachain Mountains by way of the Appalachicola River which drains the uplands of Georgia and Alabama. The crystal clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico in this region have inspired the name Emerald Coast to describe a span of shoreline stretching from Panama City to Pensacola. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park has some of the loveliest sections of beach in the entire area, with many points of easy access.

In addition to natural beauty this park also contains a large full-service RV campground with camp store and shuffle board court (a fun Florida pastime). For more information you can go to:

New blog about the natural world of Florida

Welcome to my new blog about the incredible adventures one can have exploring the many and varied landscapes of Florida. This blog will dedicate itself to exposing and sharing places of interest that I travel to up and down the byways of the Sunshine State, with an emphasis on sites of natural and cultural interest. I hope to eventually cover all of the state parks and many of the national park areas that have been set aside in this scenic paradise under the bright southern sun.

Join me for an adventure to discover the wilder side of America's fourth most poulous state, where mysterious and hidden beauty can be found without looking very hard. Please mind the gators and crocs.