With Florida’s only Class III whitewater and the beauty of a Florida waterfall along a stretch of trail that is rugged but extremely scenic, this 2.8 mile section of the Florida Trail is a real winner. Although the full segment is still “thru hiker only” from its eastern access point along the back roads near Deep Creek, you can do a pleasant round-trip hike from the trailhead at Bell Springs out to Big Shoals and hit all the high points. With a campsite and plenty of rocky perches at the shoals themselves, it’s a superb destination for a day hike. What’s especially great about this hike is you can get right up close to the river and the shoals, unlike the approach from the Big Shoals Trail on the north shore.
Location: White Springs
Length: 2.8 miles
Lat-Long: 30.329298, -82.689613
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: moderate
Ticks can be a serious problem on any hike along the Suwannee River. Protect yourself by using bug spray and wearing light clothing. This is a rugged section of trail involving a tricky water crossing. There is a lot of poison ivy along the trail. A hiking stick is recommended.
From the I-10 interchange at US 41 between Lake City and White Springs, drive north 5.3 miles to Lassie Black Road, on the right. Turn right and continue 1.8 miles to turn left onto Morrell Drive. Follow this road until it ends at a cul-de-sac turnaround in front of a house. Continue through the gate in the middle of the cul-de-sac to the parking area for Bell Springs.
Starting at the Bell Springs trailhead at the end of Morrell Drive, follow the unmarked forest road into the forest to meet the Florida Trail at a clearing with a historic marker commemorating the preservation of this land for the public. Follow the blue blazes. You’ll soon see water on the right, the outflow pool of Bell Springs. This fourth-magnitude spring discharges more than 350 gallons per minute and is the northernmost spring flowing into the Suwannee River. At the fork, keep right, following the blue blazes.
The trail climbs up into the forest and turns towards the Suwannee River, emerging to a view of the river near a very large oak tree and the remains of an old log slide used by timber companies decades ago to drop logged trees down into the river. From this point on, the footpath will frequently become rugged, rooty, and rocky in places, so use a hiking stick to help keep your balance and watch your footing. The trees here, particularly the oaks and loblolly pines, are incredibly large and old.
After crossing a series of bog bridges over a small tributary, the trail weaves in and out of the bluff forest, following the flow of the landscape, always in the shade. It pops out to the bluffs to provide spectacular views over and over again. After 1.1 miles, you reach Robinson Branch Falls, which you can hear well before you see it. This beautiful cascade drops over a steep limestone lip into the deep ravine below. The trail now works it way upstream to lead you to a safe crossing of Robinson Branch above the falls, a wade using an old road. It then follows the stream back down towards the Suwannee River.
Once east of the falls, you can look back down on them from the trail as it works it way back out to the river bluffs and drops down a very steep slope that leans towards the edge of the bluff. The trail continues beneath the roots of a large pine tree on a narrow ledge above the river, and drops down again to cross a deep but narrow tributary draining into the river near a small rocky beach. This is the first of several places where you can stop and enjoy the roar of Florida’s only Class III whitewater, taking in the sweep of the rapids around the curve in the river.
The trail climbs uphill to the top of the bluffs and continues through the forest to reach a campsite with benches. You’ll see signs of activity here, as the camp is often used by paddlers and those that choose to portage around the rapids (generally recommended) may be passing through with kayaks and canoes along various portage trails.
Continue past the campsite, and the trail opens up to the width of a forest road. Follow it, and just a little ways down on the right is the take-out point for paddlers, at 1.4 miles. You can climb down it and enjoy the rush of the water into the rapids. From here, turn around and retrace your path back to the campsite. For a close-up view of the river, look for one of the places you can scramble down to the water’s edge and check out the big limestone boulders. There is a narrow path down at this level, near the water, that you can use to start heading back on your return trip; it joins the Florida Trail right near the put-in for the portage trail.
Start your scramble back up and over the bluffs and ravines – and past Robinson Falls – back to the trailhead at Bell Springs, following the blue blazes back to the parking area.