Okaloosa County officials are looking into plans to construct a pedestrian bridge over the Yellow River to close a gap in the Florida National Scenic Trail that currently forces hikers onto main roads.
The Florida Trail, which stretches 1,500 miles across Florida, has a roughly 5-mile gap in Okaloosa County between Eglin Air Force Base and the Yellow River Water Management Area.
- Currently, thru-hikers must walk about 20 miles along the shoulders of State Road 85 and U.S. Highway 90 to connect the trail sections, county officials say.
At Tuesday’s county commission meeting, Commissioner Nathan Boyles brought up the issue and proposed the county partner with the state government and other agencies to build a bridge over the river.
“I think we have an opportunity with the Tourism Development District expansion that Okaloosa County may have a role to play in helping to close that gap,” Boyles said at the meeting.
Boyles said after recently hiking a 40-mile stretch of the Florida Trail, he was shocked to learn of the gap in his own district.
- “It’s worse than being a detour, it’s technically a backtrack,” Boyles said about the current hiking route. “You actually have to go back to Highway 85, make your way around to Highway 90, trek Highway 90 all the way to Holt, and then go Log Lake Road back down to find your way back to recommence the trail.”
Boyles said initial estimates show building a 200-foot suspension bridge over the river would cost around $2 million — $1 million for construction and $1 million for permitting, planning and design. But he said the bridge could become a tourist attraction for the county.
“We actually have the opportunity to build what would be the longest pedestrian bridge on the Florida National Scenic Trail,” Boyles said. “The bridge in-and-of-itself, I think, has the opportunity to become a showpiece and potentially a tourism piece.”
The trail is managed by the U.S. Forest Service along with the Florida Trail Association and other partners. Boyles said he hopes to bring a proposal to the county’s Tourist Development Council to make Okaloosa a financial partner in the project.
Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel also voiced support for the bridge proposal at Tuesday’s meeting.
- “I think that this bridge is something we ought to work with to get grants, not only from tourism development, but also I think the state of Florida would support this because they’re behind these trails as well,” Ketchel said.
Deputy County Administrator Sheila Fitzgerald outlined in a white paper that the bridge would connect public lands on both sides of the Yellow River, removing a dangerous 20-mile road walk for hikers. It would also support the military mission on Eglin Air Force Base under the Sikes Act.
The pedestrian bridge would provide new public access to scenic conservation lands along the river that are currently difficult to reach, the white paper said. It could also become an ecotourism attraction, bringing economic benefits to local communities.
- Additionally, it would create one of the longest sections of wilderness hiking trail that is not interrupted by long road walks along the entire length of the 1,500-mile FNST, according to the county.
The Florida Trail draws almost 400,000 users per year statewide, according to the Florida Trail Association’s latest study. And though there is no trail count data specifically for the Okaloosa gap site, other trail sections in the Panhandle see several thousand hikers annually.
- The Forest Service and Florida Trail Association have identified a location for a potential 180-200 foot suspension bridge south of Wilkinson Bluff. The bridge could be built from barges in the river to avoid environmental impacts to the surrounding bottomland forest.
At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners gave consensus for Boyles to continue working with county staff to pursue the bridge project.