Okaloosa County discusses large pedestrian bridge to close gap in Florida National Scenic Trail

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 […]

Backpackers crossing Eglin bridge PHOTO CREDIT: Robert Coveney / Florida Trail Association

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.”
Backroads hiking in Eglin AFB. PHOTO CREDIT: Robert Coveney / Florida Trail Association

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.
One of Eglin’s many bridges. PHOTO CREDIT: Robert Coveney / Florida Trail Association

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.
Camping at JR Walton Pond. PHOTO CREDIT: Robert Coveney / Florida Trail Association

At Tuesday’s meeting, commissioners gave consensus for Boyles to continue working with county staff to pursue the bridge project.

8 Responses

    1. I don’t support this at all, people will be attacked on this lonely place.
      Save this wasted money that can benefit all people.

      1. As an activity leader for the Florida Trail Association, this is awesome. It will keep the hikers safe and bring more people this area. The trail is safer than being in town. This is a beautiful part of the trail, but it dead ends at the yellow river. You would have to back track 8.8 miles to hwy 85 then road hike 20 miles. This is a win win situation for everyone involved.

      2. Attacked by what? I hike all over this area as well as being a trail maintainer for Okaloosa and Walton county.

      3. They aren’t being attacked on other lonely bridges along the Florida National Scenic Trail. In fact, the road walk is probably more dangerous to their physical well being.

  1. Solace and beauty is what the florida national scenic trail offers those who use it. Absolutely. free. 500,000 hikers have participated and our chapter is privileged to maintain it for okaloosa and walton counties.
    James wilson
    Chair choctawhatchee chapter

  2. I fully support the Yellow River predestination bridge initiative! The Florida National Scenic Trail (Florida Trail) has been a presence on the Eglin Reservation for 25 years. The trailhead just south of the Shoal River on State Road 85 is already very popular with walkers, runners, bird watchers, backpackers and anyone seeking a mind clearing walk in the woods. The 60+ mile of the Florida Trail on Eglin was built and maintained by local volunteers. Six trailheads along the Eglin corridor provide public access. It’s recreational asset to the public and those seeking to get away in nature for an afternoon day hike or a week+ of backpacking. A footbridge over the Yellow River would close a long existing GAP in the trail that now has trail users on the shoulders of busy SR 85 and U.S. Hwy. 90. Yep, the bridge and closing the GAP is a positive for locals and tourist.

  3. Yes! Thank you Commissioner Boyles for
    looking into making this pedestrian bridge
    a reality. As a citizen of Okaloosa County
    and a member of the Florida Trail
    Association I support this initiative 100%.
    Closing this gap and getting hikers off our
    dangerous highways just makes good
    sense and is a very worthy cause. This will add to recreational opportunities and exploration of the scenic beauty in Okaloosa County for locals and visitors.

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