Hiking the Big Oak Trail at Suwannee River State Park

One of my favorite trails of last year was the Big Oak Trail, which winds through Suwannee River State Park and visits two of Florida’s most impressive rivers – the Suwannee and the (north) Withlacoochee.

There are a number of ways to hike this trail, and a number of trailheads (some official, others less so), but the main loop of the trail is between 11 and 12.5 miles, depending on who you ask.

Perhaps the biggest challenge of hiking at the park is finding where to park.  You have  a few options:  Starting at the ranger station (where admission is $5), the hike is a full 12.5 miles.  Starting from the parking area across the Withlacoochee (free admission), the hike is 9.5 miles.  And starting from the “gas pipeline entrance” along C.R. 141 (free side-of-the-highway parking), it’s only about 4.5 miles.  All of these hikes are possible day hikes, but you’ll want to make sure you bring the right provisions for the longer ones.

I parked near the abandoned bridge across the Withlacoochee.  Heading west on U.S. 90, take the first right after you cross the Withlacoochee – follow that road to the right until you reach the dead end.  To your left will be a small parking area, straight ahead will be an abandoned bridge, and to your right will be a single home with a rabbit farm (you’ll smell it).

Withlacoochee Bridge

The abandoned bridge over the Withlacoochee, once a vital passage for livestock transport.

Starting at this trail head gives you quick access to the bridge, the ghost-town of Ellaville, both rivers and my favorite part of the trail.  Also, it’s a fairly secure parking lot with free admission.

You have three options from here, and all of them are worth exploring.  You can head across the bridge to hike back toward the Suwannee River State Park, you can hike out on the blue-blazed trail that connects to the parking lot, or you can head through the opening into the woods.  I’d suggest the third option.

Even though this is an unofficial and unmarked area, there’s an amazing number of things to see back here.  It’s the shortest walk to the river, and it’s also the quickest route to some of the more interesting ruins from the town of Ellaville, which disappeared from the map about a hundred years ago.  But in the late 1800s, Ellaville was a town of about 1,000 and home to Florida’s first governor, George Drew.  Ruins from this town can be found all over the park and all along the trail, but the greatest concentration is right near the abandoned bridge trailhead.

The most interesting of these is the dammed Suwannacoochee Spring, which flows into the Withlacoochee.  I haven’t found a definitive answer to the function of the dammed spring, but I’d imagine it was used as a source for clean, cool, fresh water with easier access than the river itself.

Suwannacoochee Spring

The spring flows through the ruins of the old dam and out into the Withlacoochee.

Hiking along the river from the spring, you’ll run into all sorts of old brick structures, wells, storage silos and machinery.  It’s a bit of a puzzle to figure out what any of them are, as most are in the process of being swallowed up by the vegetation.

If you decide to hike along the river here, be careful.  There is something of a trail, but there are no blazes or other markers, and often the trail disappears altogether.  Clearly, people hike here, but it would be easy to get lost.  Stay within sight of the river and you should be OK.

Ruins Ellaville Suwannee

A 20-foot deep brick storage silo (maybe?) along the river.

For better hiking, though, you should head back to the parking lot and get on the trail marked with the blue blazes.  Hike for about a half mile on this trail and you’ll come to a split.

Ellaville cemetery

The most well-preserved of the tombstones in the Ellaville cemetery.

Blue blazes head to the left, orange blazes to the right.  The blue blazed trail is about two miles long (four miles roundtrip) and takes you out to the old cemetery and the former site of Governor Drew’s mansion.

The cemetery is one of the oldest in the state and is in pretty dour shape.  A very, very rough logging road runs nearby, but otherwise, there’s no access to this cemetery but by foot.

Finding the governor’s mansion is a little more difficult.  It’s along this same trail, but the remaining wood structure was burnt to the ground by arsonists in the 1970s.  I found it impressive that it lasted that long, abandoned in the woods as it was.  If you’re looking, you’ll still find some broken piping, a well and a foundation, under a foot of fallen leaves, if you’re there in early winter.

There’s also a picnic table that has somehow made it’s way out into the woods.  It’s a good indicator of the home site, though probably an improbable place for a picnic.

Ellaville cemetery

The remains of the Ellaville cemetery.

Drew Mansion

The Drew Mansion in its heyday.

Drew Mansion Site

The Drew Mansion “clearing” today.

Drew Mansion ruins

Ceramic drainage pipes near the Drew Mansion site.

Heading back to the blue-orange split, you can enter the actual Big Oak Trail and begin the nine-mile loop.  If you imagine the Withlacoochee and Suwanee Rivers coming together in a Y shape, the loop sits in the bowl made by the upper arms of the Y.  Leaving from the Blue-Orange split, the trail hikes up along the Withlacoochee, then cuts east to meet up with the Suwannee.  Hiking down the Suwanee and back across the abandoned bridge, you’ll eventually return to the parking lot where you began.

This section of the trail is part of the Florida Trail, meaning it’s well maintained and well marked by our friends at the Florida Trail Association.  The hike offers wonderful views of both rivers, more ruins, sinkholes, wildlife, and some of the more interesting terrain in Florida.  There are no major inclines or declines on the hike, but it is rarely flat either.  At several points, unofficial side trails lede down to the river, and they are certainly worth taking.

Florida Trail entrance

Florida Trail Entrance at the Blue-Orange split.

Suwannee River railroad

Crossing the old, but still active, railroad tracks along the Florida Trail.

Withlacoochee River

The Withlacoochee River in December.

On the back side of the hike, as you follow the Suwannee south, you’ll pass the big gas pipeline that crosses the river.  Shortly after, you’ll notice the massive Big Oak, for which the park is named.  It’s big.  You can’t miss it.

Big Oak Trail.

Hiking the Big Oak Trail.

The whole trail is great, but it’s important to have a plan and a good map before you head out.  There are side trails and shorter loops within the big loop (along the pipeline), and getting side tracked on a full-day hike could leave you out in the cold.

If you plan to hike overnight, and there are primitive campsites along the river, I’d suggest leaving from the official park entrance, where the parking lot is secured and maps are provided.  Leaving from the other two spots, while shortening the hike and providing quicker access to the highlights of the park, are a bit of a gamble in terms of parking lot security – especially overnight.

Make sure to bring water and snacks if you’re heading out on the longer hikes.  There’s nowhere to stop along the way – once you’re out there, you’re out there.  And again, make sure to have a plan.  This is a big park with lots to see, but it can get confusing once you’re out on the trails.  A trail map is must-have:  Here’s the map provided by the park (PDF).

On the map below, I’ve marked the three trailheads.  Any of the three would make for a great day of adventure, but my recommendation is the abandoned bridge trailhead.

Enjoy!

 

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A Florida “bucket list” for 2013

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions, and I don’t have a bucket list.  But I do like making goals (for example, seeing all of the National Parks) and I’m a sucker for a good list.

In that spirit, I’ve compiled a list of adventures I want to experience in the year 2013.  Some are things I’ve never done but feel like I should.  Others are things that I’ve recently discovered.  And a few are things I’ve already done but want to do more of.

Please add your suggestions in the comments section and share with friends!

 

1) Explore the Florida Caverns

Yep, that’s right.  If you’re not a panhandle-ite, you’ve likely never heard of the Florida caverns.  Located in Marianna, these caves are the only ones in the state park system, and park rangers offer “moderately strenuous” guided tours Wednesday through Sunday.  There are also opportunities for kayaking, camping, biking and hiking at the park – I’m planning on making a weekend of it.

Florida Caverns

The Florida Caverns | Photo from Florida State Parks

2) Swim at Devil’s Den in Hawthorne

Situated in the middle of an admittedly hokey-looking themed campground, Devil’s Den holds its own as a unique geological formation and one-of-a-kind dive spot.  The crystal-clear spring waters are almost entirely enclosed in a cave formation, save for a small vent directly above the spring (in the mornings, steam rises up through the vent, giving the spot its underworldly name).  Snorkelers and divers are allowed in the water, but no swimmers or gawkers.  It’s a narrow staircase down to the spring and a small platform from which to enter the water, so they don’t allow onlookers to clog them up for the divers and snorkelers.  Bring some gear and get ready to dive.

Devil's Den

Devil’s Den in Hawthorne, Fla.

3) Hike a section of the Florida Trail

OK, this is one I’ve done (in part) before.  But the Florida Trail runs for 1,400 miles, and I’ve not seen nearly enough of it.  The central Florida section is great for long section hikes, particularly as it winds through the Ocala National Forest.  And there are some wonderful sections in the panhandle, which make for great day hikes along the Suwanee River.  But I’m looking forward to getting out onto the southern sections of the trail in the cool early spring months.  Hiking along Lake Okeechobee sounds like a great February adventure to me.

Florida Trail

The Florida Trail winds all the way up the state and through the panhandle.

4) Kayak the rapids at Big Shoals State Park

Big Shoals boasts the only class III whitewater rapids in the state of Florida, and it’s calling to me for an adventure.  Of course, you can kayak or canoe the river and portage around the shoals, if that’s more your speed.  Make sure to call ahead and check the water levels before you go, as low water makes the river impassible, high water makes it flatwater paddling, and between 59 and 70 feet above mean sea level, it’s whitewater.  The park also has miles and miles of riverside hiking trails (maintained by the Florida Trail Association) with great views of the river.

Big Shoals State Park

Big Shoals State Park | Photo by B A Bowens Photography

5) Dive in Biscayne National Park

There are good reefs to dive all over Florida, but I hear some of the best are at Biscayne National Park.  I’m waiting for some warmer weather, but I couldn’t be more excited to explore Florida’s least-well-known national park.  The park itself doesn’t offer dive trips, but an outside company, Biscayne Underwater, offers daily snorkel and SCUBA trips to reefs throughout the park.  Located in the waters off Homestead, there are plenty of hotels and campgrounds nearby.

Biscayne National Park

The lighthouse at Biscayne National Park | Photo courtesy of Corey Butler

6) Try to find Fort Caroline in Jacksonville

Fort Caroline (the fort) was built in 1564 as part of Fort Caroline (the settlement) by French explorers near present-day Jacksonville.  Fort Caroline (the settlement) was the first French settlement in the United States.  The main defense at the settlement was a fort by the same name – although it was mostly ineffective.  A year after it was built, the Spanish destroyed the fort and built their own on the same spot.  Two years later, the French set the new fort ablaze.  The Spanish rebuilt the fort again (this was all great news for the Spanish construction companies), but abandoned it a year later.  Now, nobody has any idea where the fort is or was.  There’s lots of speculation, and a lot of people think they know, but archaeological digs and satellite images haven’t proven anything conclusively.  I’m going to find it.

Fort Caroline National Memorial

Fort Caroline National Memorial | Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

7) Make a donation to the Florida Trail Association

If you hike in Florida, chances are you’ve been on trails blazed, maintained or built by the Florida Trail Association.  This volunteer army of intrepid hiking enthusiasts keep trails marked, remove fallen trees, build boardwalks and provide information to hikers across the state.  They are partly funded by a federal grant but still rely heavily on donations.  Money is tight for everyone nowadays, but if you’ve got some extra bucks, send them their way.

Florida Trail Association

The folks who pave your trails | Photo courtesy of Florida Trail Association

8) Fly around in a hot air balloon.

Never done it.  Always wanted to.  Hot air balloons are one of the most peaceful ways to see the state (so I’ve heard).  Out in the fresh air, no noisy engine and nothing between you and the ground except a wicker basket and 1,000 feet of air.  Big Red Balloon Sightseeing Adventures offers untethered flights in and around Hillsborough County – a welcomed departure from balloons-for-hire in Orlando, the city with the most balloon companies in the state.  Flights at Big Red Balloon leave every day of the week at sunrise.

Hot Air Balloon Ride

Photo by dfbphotos

9) Check out the remains of the steamboat Madison in Troy Spring

The steamboat Madison was intentionally sunk in Troy Spring in 1863 to prevent it from falling into Union hands.  This Civil War-era ship is still visible to snorkelers and divers at Troy Spring State Park in Branford.  Troy Spring is a first-magnitude spring, one of only 27 in the state.  Better still, kayakers can stop by this park on their way to a number of other springs down river.  Before you go, read this fascinating National Geographic article about the Madison and the sunken boat at Troy Spring (which they speculate may not be one in the same).

Troy Spring Madison

Some remains from the Madison in Troy Spring | Photo by Phil’s 1st Pix

10) Hang Gliding in the Florida Keys

…And you thought hang gliding was for the mountains.  At Paradise Hang Gliding in the Florida Keys, you can soar over the beautiful blue water near Islamorada.  After you’ve been strapped into your glider, you get towed behind a boat until you reach altitude (1,500′-2,500′) – at which point you’re cut free and left to sail back down to earth.  Sounds awesome to me.

Hang Gliding in the Florida Keys

Hang Gliding in the Florida Keys

That’s our top 10 Florida adventures for 2013.  What’s on your to-do list for the new year?

 

 

An interview with Lars Andersen, river guide and Florida author

If you are even moderately involved in the Florida canoe/kayak scene, it won’t take long before you stumble upon Lars Andersen.  His name pops up all over – he’s an author, a river guide, owner of Adventure Outpost, lifelong Floridian and an expert in the natural and cultural history of north Florida.Lars Andersen

With his wife, Lars owns Adventure Outpost, an outfitter and guide service in High Springs.  He offers tours at more than 60 Florida waterways, including the Suwannee, Silver River, Chassahowitzka, and trips to Cedar Key and St. Augustine.

He writes about many of his adventures on his blog, and even wrote a wonderful history of Paynes Prairie in his 2003 book “Paynes Prairie: The Great Savanna,” which also includes a complete guide for hikers, bikers and kayakers.

Lars keeps a busy schedule guiding kayakers down Florida’s best waterways, so I was thrilled that he was able to take some time to answer a few of my questions.  He told me all about his interest in Paynes Prairie, his favorite rivers, and his go-to kayak.

Swimming the “world’s shortest river” at Falmouth Spring

There are so many things to do on, along and near the Suwannee River, I could type until my fingers fall off.

There’s hiking trails,  fishing spots, and miles and miles or scenic kayaking.  But the most uniquely Florida experiences along the river are at the many springs which feed into the Suwannee on its journey from south Georgia to the Florida Gulf Coast.

There’s the wonderful Fanning and Hart springs, and the slightly less lovely Otter Springs.  And further north, there’s Falmouth Spring.

The boardwalk down to Falmouth Spring.

The boardwalk down to Falmouth Spring.

Falmouth is a first magnitude spring, pumping out over 65 million gallons of water a day.  Unlike Fanning, Hart and Otter springs, Falmouth doesn’t visibly connect with the Suwannee; instead, the spring run heads under ground before eventually meeting up with the mighty river.

[Read more…]