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 RIVER
It’s hunting season in Florida as my Dad and I drop off our vehicle at the Holton Creek trail-head where we will end our hike. The hunters are already in their hunt stands so we double-check that we brought our hunters orange and then compile gear into the other vehicle and drive to our starting point: Camp Branch trail-head. My last hike along the Suwannee River ended at this trail-head so I’m excited to pick up where I left off.
Around 1:30 in the afternoon, we set off down the wide, easy path from Camp Branch trail-head to the blue blazed Disappearing Creek loop. I wasn’t able to see this display of nature when I came out of this trail-head previously, but it sounds magical. A meager mile and change brought us to the loop and we decided to hike against the current, counter-clockwise.
Disappearing Creek Loop
Sure enough, the creek dropped several feet and a fantastic Florida waterfall brought the water to a pool against a wall of limestone where the water disappeared under the ground. As we hiked the short loop, we found several smaller waterfalls feeding down towards the pool. We eventually had to cross the creek on a questionable bridge that was quite slanted. I took the lead to test the bridge and my dad followed when I didn’t fall (or slide) to my untimely demise.
After crossing the bridge, we noticed a “Caution” sign leading to the bridge from the opposite direction. We didn’t see the sign but we did exercise caution, ha ha. We eased back to where the loop joins back to itself and looked back into the pit where the water disappears underground. Two large turtles had shown up to sunbathe at the bottom. Perhaps this is their personal paradise. Just down the trail, there is another spot where the water comes out of the ground, winds around a single bend and then disappears once more underground. The cutaway of the earth’s crust was like a sneak peek at an underground river.
After having our fill of the unique waterways, we re-joined the Florida Trail and the familiar orange blazes led the way. We planned extra mileage today since we want to stop early on Sunday, so we sped up in preparation for our 7+ mile jaunt. Just one mile later we came across another questionable bridge at Crooked Branch creek. It looks like new boards were installed to cross the creek, but they were heavily skewed and uncross-able so we crossed on the older boards.
The Effects of Michael
We got a small taste of what Hurricane Michael left behind as we made our way along the Suwannee River. This section was not heavily affected like sections on the other side of Tallahassee were, but rerouting around this tree would be the first of many. The trail crew who maintains this section next will certainly need a sawyer to cut a path through the fallen trees. This first set was a mess because two trees appear to have taken each other to the ground at the same time.
If you followed my Appalachian Trail section hike, you will know that my Dad has been working to get his body in hiking shape. On the AT, he wasn’t taking on food or water well and was experiencing energy drops that were similar to a sugar drop or a low blood pressure occurrence. He prepared more in the gym before this trip and lost a decent amount of weight (more than 20lbs – go dad!) but after about 3.5 miles today, he found himself in a similar situation.
His energy tanked and he had to sit down to recover. Scratch that, he had to lay down. In what is still a mystery, his energy level drops and it’s hard for him to fully recover. Not to worry, I’m patient and he’s a trooper. He and I talked through what he was experiencing and it wasn’t critical, just something to manage. I had already let him set the pace so that he could get a feel for his limits. He was planning a longer, solo hike in the next few weeks and I wanted him to make the decisions and have confidence regardless of what the limits were.
The good, the bad and the Spanish Needles
We rested, recovered and set out again. As if to dampen our spirits, we went through a huge patch of Spanish Needles. These annoying seeds come off the plant easily but they don’t come off your clothes easily! Spoiler alert: we spent the next two days picking these off every time we took a break. We were covered in them.
Just as quickly as we ran into trouble, the trail turned magical. As we walked out of the Spanish Needles and through a small field, we were treated to a grand display. The ground seemed to shift and the field came to life as butterflies burst into the air! I’ve never seen such a variety of butterflies fill the air at one time.
I found out later that the small yellow flowers that eventually produce Spanish Needles are VERY popular with the butterflies. Sometimes you have to push through the bad parts to find the rewards and what a unique reward it was!
We wound our way along the river and found a few nice views along the bluffs. We climbed Devil’s Mountain shortly before sunset and stopped to soak in the moment and grab a snack. Now, this is Florida so the ascent up Devil’s Mountain was short (less than 100ft) and worth the view over the river. It was decision time, as well. This area would be conducive to camping if we wanted to stop or we could walk a couple more miles into the sunset and night hike a little into out intended campsite. Dad chose to night hike to our intended campsite.
Wilderness EDM (Electronic Dance Music)
At this point, we had already begun to hear the sounds of music along the Suwannee. Our campsite for the night would be very near the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park and we could tell they had a concert going. As we hiked towards the waning light, we were treated to louder, more distinguishable music. It wouldn’t be a quiet night.
As the light faded, I joked with my Dad that I was onto his secret: He really just wants to night hike on the Suwannee. Both times we have hiked on the FT, we have unintentionally ended up doing some night hiking for one reason or another. Don’t get me wrong, i’m starting to like night hiking. It’s just a unique experience. Though it’s currently cool outside, night hiking usually offers a reprieve from the Florida heat. There are fun things to see at night, too. I’ve hiked through areas that have thousands of glistening sparkles alongside the trail and discovered the sparkling gems were actually the eyes of innumerable spiders residing in the moss covered ground.
Another benefit of night hiking on this trip is that I got a chance to try out a new headlamp, the Nitecore NU25. Although a headlamp doesn’t seem exciting I actually reduced my weight by 1.6oz and added more lumens as well as a red lamp/mode. That’s a significant increase in benefits and decrease in weight for just changing out a headlamp! It worked like a charm.
We found our campsite on a small bluff overlooking the river and had quite the soundtrack playing from the music festival by which to setup our gear. I had also made a rookie mistake on this trip while packing and left without my trekking poles. Not such a big deal except that my tent requires two trekking poles to set up. Thankfully, Dad had a new tent which only required one trekking pole, so i borrowed one of his poles for the head of my tent and foraged until I found a stick to prop up the foot of my tent. Dad’s tent was so new that this was the first time he had ever pitched it; he didn’t even have a chance to set it up in the yard before he came. This is the second time he’s pitched a brand new tent in the dark for the first time so I gave him a hard time about that too, ha ha.
We both ended up with a good pitch on the tents and decided to eat something. I tried a PackIt Gourmet meal for the first time: the Kickin’ Chicken Hot Wings wrap. It was a cold soak recipe, but I opted to add warm water and it proved to be quite tasty. We both crawled into our respective tents and drifted to sleep to the sound of EDM still filling the air. I didn’t mind too much and decided to see if I could sleep without ear plugs.
Sunrise on the River
The next morning I woke to a chill the likes of which we hadn’t seen yet in Florida this year. Lucky for me, I had another new piece of gear: my puffy down jacket! I’ve managed without one so far (because Florida), but I am very excited to have it on this brisk morning. We got a beautiful look across the river from the sunrise and I enjoyed coffee and oatmeal to get the day started.
I had slept through the night without earplugs and soon found out just how successful that had been. “Did you hear the grande finale last night?” Dad asked. “No, I figured there would be one around 3am but I never woke up to it,” I replied. “You didn’t wake up!?” he said. “No… should I have?” I asked. “Well, the music clearly got louder.” He continued, “Then the sky lit up with fireworks for several minutes and the booms were directly overhead complete with loud screaming from the crowds of people.” I burst out laughing and couldn’t believe i had slept through the entire thing. Dad laughed and probably wasn’t sure if he should be jealous or just shocked that I could sleep through such a barrage.
The Houses Have Eyes
The first part of our hike passed under a bridge that appears to be used frequently (not by hikers) and then a short road walk on some residential dirt roads. I didn’t mind this stretch at all because most of it passed by riverside houses with quaint names and “river life” decorations of all kinds. The quiet houses almost seemed to look down upon us from their stilts with a similar fondness until we reached the end and turned back into the woods.
We soon found a spot atop part of a dismantled bridge and stopped for a mid-morning snack. It was quiet and the water gently made its way around the riverbend and what was left standing of the bridge. Our overlook felt secluded and like we had this riverbend all to ourselves, but we soon saw two people across the river and assumed they came down to enjoy the river, too. Then we noticed one of them was carrying a roll of toilet paper. Knowing that leave-no-trace ethics require waste to be at least 200ft from a water source, much less a river bank, we thought surely these people wouldn’t be waterside looking to use the toilet paper. We were wrong. Thankfully, before anyone got “serious” I let out a purposeful cough from across the river. That worked perfectly and one of them looked over, smiled, waved and then they both retreated up the hill.
PRO TIP: If you’re going to break all the rules, at least look across the river to see if anyone is on the other side. 😂
Whirlpool & Waterfalls
Two miles down the trail, a broad beach appears along the river complete with a picnic table. At the far end of the beach (or just down the trail above it) you can see a whirlpool swirling in the bend of the river. It’s noticeable spinning and I’ve never seen anything like it before. We spent time watching it circle on the beach and above it on the trail where it overlooks the whirlpool before moving on.
Mill Creek Falls was around the riverbend and was flowing pretty well for such a low water level. In fact, it’s one of my favorite waterfalls along the Florida Trail so far because it free falls several feet (maybe five or six feet) down off the creek bed to the river. Well, at least it does when the Suwannee river water levels are low. There’s so much character in the walls of the river that the waterfall cuts through. The pocketed limestone and swirls of sand make a unique canvas for this show of nature.
Speaking of unique, we soon entered the Holton Creek Conservation Area and it seemed to turn into a miniature hillside landscape. The reason it seemed miniaturized is because these weren’t hills and valleys. This was flat land with sinkholes and soft terrain that had created many small, rolling ups and downs.
Before nightfall, we made it to Holton Creek River Camp. This camp is usually pretty busy and reservations are recommended, but when we rolled in we had it to ourselves. There are several screened-in shelters, showers, bathrooms and potable water. We even snagged from firewood from the groundskeeper for a few dollars and made a campfire. If it was summertime, I am sure we would be sharing this luxurious camp with paddlers making their way down the Suwannee River. Instead, Dad and I conversed over the campfire and made dinner to the sounds of the forest. There’s not many things in this life that sound better than spending time with family around a campfire in the great outdoors.
Around bedtime, an armadillo crashed our party barreling across the forest floor with enough noise that it could have just as easily been a bear. So loud for a night creature! He moved on just as fast as he showed up so I had no problems drifting off to sleep in the shelter.
After our morning routine was over, we poked around the northwest side of the camp trying to find where the FT came out of camp and although it only took a few minutes we found a few more cool features at the camp we hadn’t noticed before such as a group fire pit area. We enjoyed following the river yet again for our final day.
The main features we came across in the final few miles were two sink holes and a spring. The first sinkhole was deep, but currently free of standing water. One particular tree stood out to me. In fact, it was a large tree stump with a small tree growing out of the middle of the stump. I have no way to know if the original tree dropped the seed that brought this younger tree to life, but either way it seemed like a picture of resilience and couldn’t help but to stop and capture it from the trail.
We turned away from the river and into the woods but the trail was soon following water again. This was Holton creek, but it was large enough that i did a double take to make sure it wasn’t the Suwannee itself. It’s a decent sized creek and we soon found out why: It’s fed by Holton Spring. The point where the trail loops around the spring is high above the spring, but we could see it moving and had no doubt this was the source.
In our final mile or two, we walked through the most active hunting areas I have ever hiked in. Handicapped hunters use this area during this time of year so we passed many vehicles parked along the roads that cut through these woods and heard voices among the woods. We passed green sink was exactly what it sounds like, a sink hole full of water that is covered with a green film. Shortly after green sink, we found the side trail for the trailhead and popped out right at the parking lot. After a quick chat with a few hunters, we said goodbye to the trail and the great outdoors… for now.
Camp Branch Trail head – Holton Creek Trail head
(PLUS part of Disappearing Creek Loop)
Total Miles: 21.2
Florida Trail Miles: 19.4
Start: Camp Branch Trail head
End: Holton Creek Trail head
Side-trail: Disappearing Creek Loop (1.8 miles connecting from the trail head to the FT)