Sugar Sand Dunes

The Gulf Coast is beautiful, but walking away from the beach to the other side of the sugar sand dunes there is a beautiful area that has salt marshes, sand live oak shaded walkways, a rare dune lake, and beautiful scenery. Are you ready to go for a walk in Grayton State Park? There’s an inviting entrance–let’s go.

sand live oak trail

Sand live oak trees twist and turn forming scrubby thickets like we see here.

sun through sand live oaks

Let’s take a closer look along the trail. Although it is January, you never know what flowers, lichen, fungi, and other sights we will see.


A closer look at the sand live oaks and we find a type of foliose lichen (those with leaf-like lobes). Lichens are so amazing. They are a partnership between algae and fungi. The algae in lichen are tiny green balls that make food from sunlight to feed the fungi. The fungi makes a protective layer around the algae and holds water. Lichens are particularly sensitive to air pollution and are used by scientists to indicate the quality of the air. There are over 20,000 species of lichen, most growing on rocks and trees.


Here are the berries from the Yaupon Holly, a small evergreen shrub that typically grows in dense, shrubby clumps. They are loaded with berries right now. These berries will feed may kinds of birds all winter as well as different wildlife.

yaupon holly

As we come out of the far side of the thicket, we walk along the dunes but cannot see the Gulf of Mexico from here. These dunes are 20-30 feet high, and the white sugar sand makes for a beautiful landscape.

dunes fence

One of the most common sights on these dunes are the Sea Oats. These grasses can reach up to seven feet tall. They do well in salty environments.  Sea Oats are often used to stabilize the dunes because their long root structure firmly holds loose soil in place.

sea oats-

Heading back into a forested area, notice that the growth on the dunes is getting more varied with low palms, pines, hollies, and grasses.


Well, it is the rainy season here in Florida and it did rain last night. Looks like we will be getting just a little wet as we dance along the edge of the trail.


There are are a number of pine trees that grow in this sandy, salty environment, but the most common is the Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii). These pines can yield commercial quantities of products made from pine sap including tar, pitch, rosin, and turpentine. The name slash comes from the slash that is cut into the bark to collect the sap. Since we are in a state park, these pines will likely grow to the 100 feet they are capable of achieving. Right now they are busy shedding needles to prepare for next year’s growth.

slash pine-4435

Now we have a different holly, the Dahoon Holly. This holly is also an evergreen, but more likely to be a small tree with a rounded, dense crown and abundant, bright red berries. This holly grows best in the moist, fertile soil of wetlands near streams and swamps. I guess we can thank all the fallen pine needles for enriching the soil and keeping the ground moist for these thriving holly trees.

dahoon holly-4296

The Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens) is very common on the dunes yet it is the only species currently classified in the genus Serenoa. A one of a kind; an unusual event in plant life. Needless to say, this is a fan palm, but did you know it is the most cold hardy palm? It has been successfully grown in states like Alaska, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and more. Of course the trouble with palms is that once they establish, they are a bear to dig out. Might want to think twice before planting, but they do grow slowly. They can grow up to ten feet tall and five feet wide, but most of the palmettos we are seeing here seem to be putting their energy into width rather than height.

saw palmetto-4312

Oh look, a very different lichen. Here we have bushy beard lichen (Usnea strigosa). It is very common, but who cares? It is just intriguing appearing to have spiky flowers and growing on and among other lichens. Just so cool!

bushy beard lichen-4396

This is growing all over the ground as we walk the trail. It is typically called Deer Moss or Reindeer Moss, but it is actually a lichen, Powderpuff Lichen (Cladina evansil) to be exact. This lichen is unusual in that it grows on the ground rather than on rocks or trees. It is a slow-growing lichen that only gets a few inches tall, but can form large colonies over time. If, however, there is a forest fire, the lichen will not survive. The name Deer Moss came from the filaments of lichen which resemble deer antlers, and deer have been know to eat this lichen. Like all lichens, deer moss has no roots and gets all its moisture from the air. When the weather is dry, it is brittle and crunchy, but after rain it can become as soft as a cotton ball. Well, you know I had to touch it. It was not soft today.

deer moss-4309-

We are starting to come to shorter trees and a brighter canopy so there are different plants here than we have seen so far. This is a Wax Myrtle, sometimes called a Southern Bayberry. In areas such as these the trees rarely reach a height of more than ten feet. See the berries? They are the traditional source for those old-fashioned Christmas decorations called bayberry candles.

wax myrtle-4432

We haven’t see any flowers, then again it is January, but here’s a bush covered with them. This bush is in the blueberry family, but exactly which one of the many species found in that family, I don’t know and I tried to find out. Next trip, I ask someone  😉 .


Speaking of not knowing, here we have a beautiful growth on the trunk of a tree and I have no idea where to even start looking for what exactly it is–a succulent or a fungi of some sort? If you know be sure to let me know, but it sure is beautiful so I’m sharing it with you.

who knows-4455

We are heading out of the woods onto the dunes for our return trip. Ah, the sun is bright and it is getting warmer. Here is one of the most amazing sites of the trip. The rare dune lake, this one named Western Lake. This is the second largest dune lake in the Florida panhandle, and there are very limited numbers of these unique lakes worldwide. They can be found along the coasts of New Zealand, Australia, Madagascar, and in the United States, along the coasts of Oregon, South Carolina, and Northwest Florida, including 26 miles of Walton County coastline, where we are walking today. Dune lakes are found within about two miles of the coast and are typically shallow and irregularly shaped. They are usually permanent water bodies, but their water levels fluctuate since at times they break through the dune system and flow into the Gulf of Mexico, known as an outfall, then allowing salty sea water to flood back into the dune lake until water levels stabilize.

dune lake-

The result is a rare brackish ecosystem that’s home to both fresh and salt water species. There is also a good amount of iron in the waters in this area, and you can see it here too.

Western lake iron-4264

On the far side of the lake are those amazing sand pines standing tall. This particular species is unique to this area, but sand pines are common throughout the South.


Oh my, there are mushrooms all over this area growing up out of the sand–in the bright sun. Well, another mystery as to a name, but definitely something I’ve never seen before.


A flower–I can’t believe it–but there are flowers here that bloom all year and this may be one of them, the commonly found Blanket Flower (Gaillardia pulchella). We have Blanket Flowers in Montana and they fill the meadows with beauty all summer. They are found throughout the continental U.S. and are also known as Firewheels and Indian Blankets.

blanket flower-4510-

We’ve been seeing these plants in all the open areas on our walk. They are called Pennywort or Dollarweed, and they are weeds. Looks like a nice ground cover to me, but then again, I don’t live here to know the annoyance factors. I did read that they make great water garden plants. Guess I won’t take a side on this debate.


Well, it has been a great morning as we head back to the car. Beautiful, diverse landscape and a great walk in this special place called Grayton State Park. Watch out for the sand spurs. The “fruit”, little spurs with hooks on them, can get in your socks and just keep digging deeper. Ouch, I should have stayed on the trail.


Until next time . . .


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