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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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.

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Otter Springs in Trenton, Fla., has lots of promise, little payoff

Coming off of my guarded endorsement of Hart Springs, we’re headed 10 minutes south to Otter Springs, which, like Hart, feeds the Suwannee River.  Otter Springs sign

Otter Springs is a second-magnitude spring, meaning it pumps out an awful lot of water (somewhere between 7 and 70 million gallons every day).  The park is privately run, and it has a modest entrance fee – only $4 a person.  The entrance fee gets you access to the springs, the boat ramp and a few miles of hiking trails.

The park also has a large RV campground near the springs.  Not close enough to be disruptive, but close enough to offer campers easy access.  I’ve been RV camping many, many times, and I’ve got to say, I’ve never seen sites as tightly packed as these ones.  I like to keep a little space from my neighbors, but that’s out of the question here.  On the plus side, there is an indoor swimming pool.  Frankly, I was a little surprised to see an indoor swimming pool a few hundred yards from a natural spring.  But then I saw the spring, and it all made sense.

I hate to be disparaging about this place.  The woman in the office was extremely helpful, answering all of my questions with a smile, and she gave me plenty of maps to help me get around.  But the springs are in rough shape.

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Hart Springs in Bell, Fla., offers convenient dive location

The Suwannee River runs south from Georgia and cuts a diagonal line through Northern Florida, separating the panhandle from the Florida peninsula, before eventually dumping into the Gulf of Mexico.  It has a fascinating history, as it has been more-or-less continuously occupied for thousands of years.  At one time, the river was well-known for its antebellum steamship, the Madison – a sort of floating Wal-Mart for folks living near the river.  After the Civil War, steamships ferried customers from inland to the port of Cedar Key, which, today, is a quaint town with more seafood restaurants than residents.

For the outdoor enthusiast, there’s plenty to do along the river.  About 40 miles west of Gainesville, there’s a wonderful cluster of natural springs that are great for swimming and exploring.  Heading north to south, you could easily visit Hart Springs, Otter Springs, Fanning Springs and Manatee Springs in one day.  Going in order, the drive between parks is never more than 10 minutes.

Suwannee Springs Map

Hart, Otter, Fanning and Manatee Springs all located on a small stretch of the Suwannee River

Unfortunately, all of the parks are managed by separate entities.  Some are state parks and some are owned by private campgrounds, and they all require a separate entrance fee.  The going rate for most small parks is around $6 per car or $3 per person.  Still, head out with a group of friends for the day and you can explore all the springs for less than $15 a person.  It’d cost you more to spend two hours at the movie theater.

What’s more, all of the springs are accessible by kayak or canoe, and particularly with Hart, Otter and Fanning, you could easily get from to another without ever getting in your car.  We’ll take a look at what each has to offer, starting with Hart Springs.

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