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 West
It’s time! I’m finishing the last part of the Suwannee River section of the Florida Trail, not including the long road walk on the west end. My Dad and I started our hike at Black Tract trail-head headed “Southbound” (more like eastbound) just because it sounded like more fun for this particular segment. The Black Tract trail-head is kind of remote, with dirt road access and a small parking lot with a big tree. There’s only room to park a couple cars. We opened the mailbox with the trail register and Dad signed our names.
Mere minutes later, we saw a deer bound away in the tall grasses just past the trailhead. This section of trail starts in the woods away from the river then meets back up with the Suwannee. As we got closer to the river, I noticed the smell of the natural area. A pleasant but damp smell that comes off the river. I asked if I was the only one that thought the Suwannee has its own, recognizable scent. Dad agreed it brought back memories of the previous sections we have done. It’s a unique sensory experience and a fresh reminder of why we come to these beautiful outdoor spaces.
We stopped for lunch where the trail crosses under I-10. Not as dirty as I thought it would be as people don’t seem to be able to access it from the interstate (and therefore trash it) as badly as I would have expected. It was quite accessible for hikers, though. The well plowed/mowed area was a welcome resting spot despite the spiderwebs and cobwebs everywhere as it came with a great view of the river and some shade
We meandered along crossing many power line areas and sinkholes that punctuate the area. One small sinkhole about 8ft deep dipped right off the side of the trail and had apparently been used as a trash can for a glass bottle. I pulled out my Groundskeeper gear and carefully got in there and removed it. Some of the other sinkholes exposed the reason they were present in this area: the higher ridges of the sinkhole had limestone (karst topography) visible while the sinkhole crater clearly didn’t have the same support. Fun to see how this ground ends up the way it does.
We passed Coopers Bluff campsite later in the day and stopped for a break. I checked out the old dilapidated cabin complete with holes in the roof. It was pretty dank but had me wishing it was somehow usable. It’s not; don’t stay there. There’s a “shelter” here, but it’s not what most hikers would think. It’s a roof on four posts with a concrete pad that also has picnic tables. A person could cowboy camp here or possibly set up a tent between the tables in inclement weather. There is a TON of open grassy space to setup a tent at this spot, though. We just sat at the picnic tables and snacked, drank some water and had a leisurely chat.
Highlight of the day (until a day later; stand-by for an bug bite story) was stopping at the Suwannacoochee Spring just above where the Withlacoochee River and Suwannee River merge. It was the end of August so the Florida heat was still hotter than Satan’s armpit. My Dad and I decided to cool off in the spring – we weren’t disappointed. The spring comes straight out of the rocks and flows strongly towards the river. The small basin is guarded by an old rock wall so it’s manageable to get in without being affected by the Withlacoochee River current. It’s not really big enough to swim unless you want to use the natural flow of the spring out of the ground as a lap pool and swim against it’s current. I did try that for a minute and it was fun but I wasn’t there to exercise so I spent most of the time just sitting in the cold water and hopping from one spot to the next in the spring to explore it’s nooks and features.
A dog named “Sophie” and her owners showed up and we chatted with them for awhile as I got out to dry off. Before I got out we managed to coax Sophie into the cold waters but she didn’t stay long once she hit the cold water. She wanted to be in the water, and feigned entering several times but bailed. She really wanted to hop into the window that is in the rock wall but it wasn’t possible without hitting the water. Eventually, her owner climbed in the window (opposable thumbs and grip spots make it possible for hoomans) and it was too much for Sophie so she took the plunge again in order to get in the window with her owner. Another mom with her 3 boys strolled by to dip into the spring as well but we didn’t chat with them much. She had her hands full with the boys convincing them to get in the cold water.
From the spring, Dad and I could see tonight’s campsite from across the river. We contemplated just swimming across and saving ourselves several miles of walking but it wasn’t actually a good idea since we had packs. We hiked on. There was some interesting abandoned stuff in the area which we found out was remnants of a logging town long-gone. At this point, we’re still following a river, but it’s the Withlacoochee River as the FT turns north to go up to a bridge crossing and then come back down the banks to re-join the Suwannee. This recently re-routed FT path crosses the bridge and skirts around a private property boundary before heading back into the woods.
We happened upon a large timber rattlesnake sitting across the trail. It was in no hurry to move and we weren’t thrilled about venturing into the tall grass off the trail so we covered the snake just behind its head with a branch in the hopes that this would prevent it from lurching/striking backwards the length of it’s body at us as we crossed behind it. We kept an eye on it and gave it the widest space possible without bushwhacking through the grass. Crisis averted. Glad it was laying across the trail and not hidden in the grass.
We rolled into camp with plenty of time to set up shop and cook/eat. Our campsite is called “confluence campsite” for a reason as you can see the spring across the river as well as the confluence of the two rivers. Tonight’s meal was Backpacker Bistro’s spaghetti bolognese plus I stole a beef bouillon cube from Dad again. I think i’m gonna have to carry some of those as they taste excellent every time. Maybe it’s the salty flavor, I don’t know. The Spaghetti Bolognese was good, but not awesome. The flavor of the veggies and meat was good but the noodles had a strong wheat/flour taste that mostly overpowered the dish for me.
Some people moved into the Spring across the river and I do mean “moved in”. They set up camp right at the spring including putting a tent on top of the rock wall which the spring flows through. Distasteful at best and dangerous in my eyes. Not to mention it’s not a camping area, so never mind leave-no-trace ethics.
Sunset arrived fairly quickly after dinner so we pitched the bear bag in a pretty high branch, the best spot from what we could see, and climbed into our tents. The humidity is off the charts and it’s burning up inside the tent. I was staring at the ceiling wishing for a breeze, but the stillness remained. I didn’t even pull out my quilt at first. In fact, I only pulled out my quilt because my pillow sprung an air leak and deflated on me. I filled my quilt’s stuff sack with my clothes and used it as a pillow. I eventually covered my legs with my quilt at some point in the night.
I discovered my phone had signal and hopped on Instagram while I was laying in my tent trying to fall asleep. A message popped in from Sunshine State Seekers, Honey Bee and Water Bear, asking what part of the Suwannee I was hiking. Long story short, they were directly across the river from me. I mean directly across the river. They ended up shouting to us from the bank across the river, to which I shouted back a greeting from my tent. I messaged them that I was already in my tent and didn’t want to trot out to the sandy precipice where I would be able to see them. I didn’t mention I had just shoved all my clothes into a stuff sack and was currently laying on them. I’m fairly sure the glaring whiteness of my skin would have blended in with the white sands of Suwannee river banks anyway.
We made a makeshift plan to try to meet in-person for the first time the next day as they were going to be hiking this section of trail in a loop the next day. What a fun coincidence! The Sunshine State Seekers are my counterpart Groundskeepers in Florida this year so I’m looking forward to officially meeting them.
The Suwannee Princess
After breakfast, breaking camp and shoving whatever micro-trash would fit into my already full trash sack, we sped off down the trail towards Big Oak. With the hurricane looming off the shore of Florida, I was fairly sure the Sunshine State Seekers would be about the only other people on the trail today. I was wrong.
Not far from our campsite a fit, slender figure appeared quickly from a bend on our shaded section of trail. I was staring at the Suwannee Princess herself, Madeleine Pinaire. She’s the Suwannee Princess for a reason as this part of the Florida Trail is her home base and she hikes/runs it often. I assumed our paths would cross one day. I suppose it was only fitting that this local legend was the only other soul who wanted to be out on trail without regard to the storm.
We recognized each other, exchanged pleasantries and I introduced my Dad. Some trail chat ensued and after an obligatory photo-op, we parted ways and she left with the lightest gait. We traipsed forward.
The trees along the river gave us a mix of sunlight and shade as the light filtered through the canopy overhead. The trail was lined with grasses and fallen leaves. I spotted something bright orange ahead on the trail and was ready to scoop it up and deposit it into my overflow trash receptacle (my pocket) but was stopped short. As I approached, the grass thrashed just inches away from the bright trash – it was a snake, now primed to strike. We couldn’t decide if he was venomous or not, though it looks convincingly like a copperhead. We chose to let him calm down and move along from his sunning spot. Once he had retreated to a pile of twigs a safe distance away, we retrieved the trash (a lighter as it turns out) and moved on. Close call averted once again.
After snaking our way along the river a little more, we found Big Oak. I spent more time enjoying the spectacle than I did taking pictures but it’s truly a highlight of the Suwannee section if you enjoy a majestic old-growth canopy towering above you.
Not long after, we trekked up another mound along the river and began hearing voices. We crested the sandy Florida peak just in time to greet the Sunshine State Seekers Chris and Chelsea in person for the first time. A second round of trail talk ensued for the day, albeit slightly more dominated by the topic of litter and future hiking plans. Chris and Chelsea mentioned packing up a box of trash and leaving it due to logistics. They were hoping another hiker would be able to carry it out later. I asked about it but apparently it’s on the end of the Big Oak loop I won’t be covering. Still EPIC! High-fives and sweaty hugs were exchanged before we moved on. It wasn’t long before we hit the parking lot and took a break near the boat launch.
We ate snacks and I went to collect water by the river. A couple guys pulled up in their boat and offered us some fresh drinks from the cooler. We happily accepted some juice pouches and downed the ice cold trail magic. I put the trash I collected so far on my digital scale and it turned out to be just shy of 2.5lbs. I started looking for a trash receptacle over near the parking area when Madeleine came out of the woods arriving back at her car. She had found that bin of trash the Sunshine State Seekers had packed up and carried it out! She was planning to take it home in her car and dump it since there isn’t any trash receptacle at this parking area. She offered me a spare bag and took my 2lbs+ trash as well – you rock, Madeleine!
A solid 2lbs lighter, we moved on. We saw a few giant spiders and spotted a couple large turtles sunbathing at the edge of the water-filled sinkholes. I began to feel an uncomfortable spot on the back of my leg and ignored it for awhile, dismissing it as a bug bite since it was below my sock but nowhere near my shoe disqualifying it from possibly being a blister. Dad was slowing down a little so I decided to take a short side trip to a spot on a tiny peninsula that juts out into the river and grab some water. Beautiful spot with some of that exposed rock that makes this area so memorable.
I gathered water and checked the spot on my leg that felt so off-putting. Not only was it a blister, but it was about the size of a nickel and raised my sock off my leg a solid quarter-inch. How!? My sock can’t rub a blister that size on my leg. [Spoiler alert: I would go on to find out that some form of allergic reaction and dermatitis occurred… all. over. my. legs. Photos + update at the very end of this post.] As I hiked on, my feet became more uncomfortable and I could tell I had a multiplicity of blisters below the knees on both legs. It would end up becoming a nightmare.
I came back to Dad and we chatted about it during our water break and then moved on. We were now following the Alapaha River. We soon reached a short road walk and for the sake of time and energy, Dad decided to sit out the last bit of this hike and wait for me to pick him up.
The final Stretch
I picked up the pace and knocked out the .7mi road walk and stopped to get a little cold water from the spigot at Gibson park before I popped into the woods. It was a short section of trail that would lead me back to the car at Holton Creek trailhead about 1.4 miles ahead. It’s amazing how one part of the trail can be so different from the part you just came through. This small section was full of pine and didn’t feel like it was close to the river at all. What wasn’t pine was overgrown patches of grass with tall shoots that resembled bamboo. I snapped a couple photos but wanted to keep moving for the sake of my legs.
It wasn’t long before the woods opened up and I recognized the wooded area was close to the hunt camp at Holton Creek trailhead. I took the tiny side trail to the parking lot and got the car, picked up my Dad who was snacking alongside the lazy river and we ended our trip with some fond memories (aside from my growing blisters). The Suwannee River section of the Florida Trail is in the books, I met some friends who I’ve only known online until now and I left the trail a few pounds of trash lighter. I’ll probably be back here. I can see why the Suwannee Princess got her name repeating this stretch of trail along the river.
Total Miles: 23.3
Florida Trail Miles: 23.3
Start: Black Tract Trail head
End: Holton Creek Trail head
There are photos below if you’re not faint of heart, but those apparent bug bites, of which i never saw a bug or felt a bite, ALL turned into blisters. I ended up going to my doctor for a steroid to help them heal and eventually an allergy specialist who was pretty puzzled as well. He reached out to some colleagues and the best we can tell is that it was likely an allergic reaction resulting in dermatitis caused by a sand flea or something like it. Unfortunately this has happened to me before and the only similarity was that I was near a body of fresh water with a sandy bottom. Last time it was in Alabama at a creek bed and this time it was at a spring along the Suwannee River. My Dad didn’t get any bites or any blisters despite being in the same place for the same amount of time. So strange.