Weekend Backpacker: Jacksonville
This is one of the special treasures of north Florida. Deeply ditched from decades of downcutting, the tea-colored waters of the Suwannee move sluggishly here, rippling through the shallows over smooth limestone shoals; there, tugging at grand banks of snow-white sand. Periodic flooding broadens and deepens the channel, scouring away at ancient cypresses, their smoothly eroded root systems gleaming like polished driftwood. A woodpecker pounds away at one of these riverside sentinels, its knocks resounding up and down the channel. The Florida Trail undulates along the river, into and upon the creases and ridges carved by those rare times the Suwannee floods its banks, creating alternate channels lying more than 50 feet above the river's normal level. It's Florida's equivalent of ridgetop hiking -- the Suwannee spread out at your feet, the trail swinging up and down through side channels. Elevation gain! Elevation loss! A joy for hikers grown tired of the Sunshine State's mildly rolling hills; a must for panorama-lovers.
While the Florida Trail dances with the Suwannee for many miles, a linear 33 miles of trail from the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center to the Suwannee River State Park runs almost continuously along the river. It's not an easy section -- there are numerous cable bridges to cross, frequent ups and downs, and several short (but not short enough!) roadwalks. And never mind that I-75 runs close enough to the river to carry traffic noise upstream through the otherwise silent night. But the rewards are many: sweeping views of the river and its wildlife; the opportunity to pitch a tent on a sparkling white sand beach; the fragrant blooms of wild azalea in the spring. If you only have two days to spare, go for an out-and-back from White Springs to the beach near Jerry Branch; plan three busy or four relaxed days (with a car at each end) for the entire trail segment.
At the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center, follow the loop around to the gazebo and riverboat landing. A side trail leads down to the riverside trail from the right-hand side of the gazebo; the trail is blazed in white until it leaves the state park boundary, where it reverts to the classic Florida Trail orange blazes.
To start at the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center, take I-10 west to I-75; head north on I-75 to the first exit you encounter, SR 136. Follow SR 136 east to US 41; watch for signs. The park is on the left. Driving time: two and a half hours. To leave a car at Suwannee River State Park, follow I-10 past I-75 to Live Oak; exit at US 90 and head west six miles to the park entrance. Driving time: three hours.
No permits are required for camping, although you must inform park rangers that you'll be leaving a car overnight in their park. State Park day use fee (around $3.25) applies.
Beach camping is one of the delights of this hike, but be sure to exercise leave-no-trace camping. Water is only a problem when there's too much of itdon't attempt this trail if the river is anywhere near flood stage. Due to land ownership issues, the trail occasionally reroutes onto back roads to skirt riverside homesteads -- show homeowners consideration by respecting their property lines. Since the trail runs across private property, you should be a card-carrying member of the Florida Trail Association to utilize the private segments (annual membership around $25, although it's rare anyone will ask to see your card when you're hiking); check the maps for details.
GUIDEBOOK AND MAPS
The Florida National Scenic Trail Map 14, Suwannee River, details camping and creek crossings along this route. It can be purchased via the Florida Trail Association; visit their website for an order form.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication