My home state of Florida hosts one of our nation’s 11 national scenic trails: The Florida National Scenic Trail. The Florida Trail or “FT” is 1300+ miles of trail and runs from Big Cypress Preserve in south Florida to Fort Pickens just south of Pensacola, FL.
Section Hiking the FT: Suwannee East
This section hike along the Suwannee river marks an exciting “first” for me… my Dad is joining me! He will be testing some gear and seeing where he stands physically in the hopes that we can do a section on the Appalachian Trail later this year.
I started this hike fairly close to the end of my last section hike (Deep Creek trail head in Osceola) by starting with the trail head closest to Deep Creek that parallels the river (Bell Springs trail head). My dad and I dropped a car off at our exit point and arrived at Bell Springs WAY ahead of our other hiking partner, Neal. Neal is traditionally my hiking partner in that we get together at least once or twice a year and hike a section of trail here in Florida or Alabama.
Since we arrived early, Dad and I decided to take the 1.4 mile trail from Bell Springs east to Florida’s ONLY class 3 rapids: Big Shoals.
Only a short distance into the hike, the trail runs along the Suwannee with a significant size bluff (for Florida) and we spot two alligators swimming upstream – that was fast! These are the first gators I’ve seen while on the Florida trail. They are just far enough away to make them hard to see in photos/film.
We find a waterfall about half-way along this trail and stopped briefly for the views. If you want to see it from both sides, you can view the east side of it by creeping through some palmetto bushes. Sometimes you have to go “get” the views, I guess.
We hiked on and discovered a water crossing. We almost turned back, not wanting to wade through water on this short hike, but noticed a side trail that looped around the bank and found a log bridge. We decided to go for it. The log bridge held it’s own (very sturdy) and we progressed onto Big Shoals. The rapids were loud and certainly a change of scenery when it comes to Florida hiking. After a snack by the river we headed back to the trail head to meet up with Neal.
Thankfully, Neal took a little longer than expected because our side-trail did too. We rested for only a few minutes before Neal pulled up. We all knew that our first couple miles to our campsite would put us past sunset, so we all got to experience night hiking for the first time!
We showed up at Waldron’s Landing and found some other hikers camped already. After a brief “hello” we were anxious to setup. We backtracked a little ways looking for a spot to pitch our tents and hammock. Dad pitched his tent in the wild for the first time and I did the same with a tent (ZeroGram Pathfinder 1) he gave me to test … in the dark. Both tents are dependent on trekking poles but we managed to set them up and they didn’t come down during the night. Which is especially exciting because it was a COLD night for Florida.
My Dad and I were also using a down quilt for the first time and since the temperatures have been dropping lower than expected in March, we got to REALLY test that temperature rating. The company rates the quilt at 0° – 5° Celsius (32° – 41° F) and my personal experience can attest to the fact that this is pretty spot on. Here’s how the night progressed as the temperature dropped:
- Pulling the quilt over my head to stay comfortable (in about the 40°F-45°F range)
- Staying under the quilt but becoming uncomfortable, still mostly sleeping (approx 40°F )
- Waking up frequently and “helping” cold spots by moving, changing positions etc. and being VERY uncomfortable; not sleeping much (40°F – 35°F)
In the morning, I discovered Dad had probably slept worse than I had in the quilt. We were both less than well-rested. I probably would have packed more to accommodate for the low night-time temps but the forecast had projected a low of 40°F and it’s Florida… so I don’t usually expect the Low to get LOWER!
We packed up camp and made a stop just across the footbridge to filter water for the day and chatted with the other hikers before making our ascent. Grant it, this ascent was probably only 50ft but the trail had been classically flat the night before. The rest of the day would confirm the Suwannee section holds more than a few more ups and downs. These changes provide a rare treat in Florida: scenic bluffs. It wasn’t long before the bluffs treated us to a view of Little Shoals, a stretch of class II rapids. The sound of rushing water makes the trail feel more adventurous!
After turning away from the river briefly, we came back to the river, crossed under a railroad bridge and immediately climbed the hill and crossed the US41 bridge. Crossing under and then next to the railroad bridge was more interesting than I would have imagined; it has a lot of character for a bridge. We decided to take a short sit-down break at the little park just across the bridge. The picnic tables made it easy to offload the pack for a minute and we took advantage of the trash cans and offloaded some weight/trash. A couple miles down the trail we turned away from the river and made a slight climb up to the short road walk that leads into the town of White Springs. We even met another section hiker coming out of town who was headed southbound.
White Springs is what I would consider one of the few “real” trail towns on the Florida Trail and is named after a White Sulfur spring which still feeds into the Suwannee River. We had planned to stop for lunch in town if possible, so we swung into Fat Belly’s BBQ and enjoyed some food. The food is good and the staff was very friendly. Unfortunately, between the bad night’s sleep and some feet issues, my Dad decided it would be best to stop his hike and address these issues. Whatever was affecting his feet was transferring to his knees and back, so we agreed it was the right call. Remember, this hike is essentially a shake down hike for my Dad as he is planning to section hike on the Appalachian Trail with me this year (pretty stoked about that!). On a hike like this it’s better to discover issues and take time to sort them out rather than overdo it and hurt yourself. We spent most of lunch trying to find a ride to take him back to the trail head.
Having found nothing, we went to the gas station across the street and found no help there either. Not to worry, because what happened next was practically divine. Since we weren’t getting help from “normal” resources, I decided to walk up to strangers at the gas pump and see if we could find help. The FIRST person I asked was a hiker and card-carrying member of the Florida Trail Association! He knew exactly where the trail head was located and offered to give my Dad a lift! As an extra bonus, my Dad drove back through town while we were checking out the original White Springs building and dropped off the charging cord I had forgotten – score. Can’t wait to hike with him again.
Neal and I set out through Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park and found ourselves back on the banks of the Suwannee. Not long after, we came upon Tiny Shoals where more limestone bottoms produce a series of rapids a bit smaller than any of the rapids we’ve encountered so far. Shortly after, the trail crosses a ravine called Sal Marie Branch. Luckily, the water levels were low because the bridge that crosses has fallen into the water. It required a stride-length jump to get from the downed bridge to the other bank.
We came out of the woods shortly after this and down a dirt road that appeared to serve as a driveway for several homes just off County Rd 25A. We turned off the dirt road through a Management district gate and strolled into Swift Creek campsite. Our home for the night seemed like hitting the jackpot. There was a fire pit with a full set of benches surrounding the fire. The whole camp sat at the top of a bluff above the river. While setting up camp Neal noticed that some discomfort in his knee was accompanied by some minor swelling. He decided to see how it was in the morning before making any decisions.
With tent and hammock pitched and hung, we decided this perfect fire pit needed to be used. I pulled together the firewood we needed to have a small, enjoyable fire and it kept us warm as the temperature dropped. As we sat by the fire enjoying dinner we both spooked at some rustling along the edge of the woods. A fox! We watched him saunter by and finished our dinner. We talked into the night well past hiker midnight (just after sunset) as old friends tend to do. The fox made one more appearance for the night, hanging around just long enough for me to snap a terrible photo and then we headed to bed.
The next morning Neal decided that his knee hurt, but not bad enough to call off his hike. With some minimal swelling still visible, he was worried about unnecessarily carrying his pack since he wouldn’t need it that night and we decided he should make a short trip back to the gate entrance we passed yesterday and conceal his pack in the brush, a sort of self-initiated slack packing effort for the day. We would be able to pass by the area by car later and pick it up.
A little less than 3 miles later we came across my favorite part of this section: Swift creek. There is a new bridge that crosses a fast moving creek channel and I just love the sound of moving water out in nature. I took a small path that leads down to the water and enjoyed it for a few minutes while Neal explored the trail along the top of the channel. The path down to the creek was a bit dicey but dropping your pack at the top makes it do-able. I would have stayed here MUCH longer if I had been by myself. It was cooler by the water and calming even though the water lives up to its name: swift. While looking around the eroded rocks that make the channel I found a sand dollar. Not sure how a sand dollar gets into this fresh water creek bed, but this little trail treasure was stuck in a pocket of rock just waiting to be enjoyed.
Shortly after, we passed underneath I-75 via some ladders that hop the fence. The distinct smell and sound of bats permeated the experience. The bats must have a good thing going because we couldn’t see any of them but there is NO DOUBT they have been there quite a while. Down the trail, we found a few more scrambles that were among the more difficult sections so far. To give you an idea of what I mean by “difficult”, one spot on this section had a knotted rope to assist hikers up the sandy slope. There are no technical scrambles.
Another view from the river bluffs punctuated our trip before we turned away from the river for the last time and connected to the Camp Branch Trail which leads to the trail head. Most of the camp branch trail is an unpaved road walk with some gradual ups and downs so we coasted in to the trail head reflecting on the highs and lows of the weekend. Overall, the Suwannee River has given me the most elevation change I’ve seen in Florida and has some great views. It’s well maintained and definitely worth the effort!
Neal and I hopped in the car and retrieved his pack before heading to Steak-n-Shake for a victory meal. The trail almost took 2 out of 3 hikers off the trail this trip, after all. Not even the terrible service put a damper on our celebration meal as milkshakes and burgers brought an end to the trip.
Can’t wait to hike some more of this section! Check out the Donate page to support my 2018 Charity and #HikeWithHeart
Bell Springs Trail head – Camp Branch Trail head
(PLUS the side trail to Big Shoals)
Total Miles: 25.2
Florida Trail Miles: 22.4
Start: Bell Springs Trailhead
End: Camp Branch Trailhead
Side-trail: Big Shoals (2.8 Miles round-trip)