The trail system includes seven short hiking trails on limestone bluffs above the floodplain of the Chipola River. If you’re heading to the park to hike, start with the Floodplain Trail at the far corner of the parking area. If you’re doing the cave tour first (highly recommended), it’s harder to do the outer loop without backtracking on yourself. One of the delights of this trail system is Tunnel Cave, the only place in Florida where a hiking trail intentionally goes through a cave.
Length: 1.5 mile outer loop
Type: Loops with cross-trails
Fees / Permits: State park entrance fee
Bug factor: Moderate
There are restrooms at the interpretive center where the cave tour starts. Don’t miss the tour! It’s an extra fee above state park admission but well worth the 45-minute walk through underground wonders in the only public show cave in Florida.
From US 90 in Marianna, follow SR 166 north to the Florida Caverns State Park entrance. Once within the park, keep to the left at the fork in the road and park in the same parking area as you would to visit the caverns.
The Floodplain Trail is flat and straight, running through the floodplain of the Chipola River. If the water is high, the floodplain will flood and it’s best not to hike the trails below the cave. If you have time to do nothing but the Floodplain Trail, do, since it leads to Florida’s weirdest little trail, right through Tunnel Cave. You won’t have to crawl, but you will have to stoop pretty darn low to get through it, and as the name suggests, you can see light at the end of the tunnel. A flashlight isn’t necessary, and without it, it’s a little spooky. For those who are troubled by dark, tight spaces, the Short Cut Trail lets you cheat by going around the cave.
BLUFFS HIKING TRAIL
Once through Tunnel Cave, you start the Bluffs Hiking Trail. This is the most rugged of all the hikes in the part, passing several cave entrances and clinging to the rocky, crevice-filled limestone karst bluffs above the Chipola River floodplain. It’s a real scramble to do this hike, and you need to watch your footing. The forest is lush and green, with a high canopy and plenty of needle palm edging the trail. In early spring, columbine and trillium bloom all along the footpath. A cross trail leads back to the parking lot, and this trail also connects with the paved path. But don’t stop there!
The Magnolia-Beech Trail is the one footpath encountered by most folks exiting the cave tour. It winds through its namesake forest, crossing small creeks on bridges and passing a few sinkholes before looping around to the back of the visitor center.
UPPER CHIPOLA TRAIL SYSTEM
At the northern end of the park, a short hike leads along the Chipola River sink and rise, paralleling a canal built to shunt water from one to the other. The entrance to the Upper Chipola Trail System is near Blue Hole, where miles more hiking await on trails shared with bikes and horses. I’ve not traversed this myself, since it’s multiuse, but the forest is dense and shady, reminiscent of trails in the Appalachians.