Endearingly scenic, surprisingly rugged in places, and unlike any other piece of the Florida Trail statewide, this 9.3-mile trek along the Aucilla River showcases some of Florida’s top natural features in one hike. This is a landscape featuring limestone boulders and rocky bluffs, ancient cypress trees, yawning sinkholes, rainbow swamps, a historic site, and spectacular rapids. Much of the hike is spent walking along river bluffs with sweeping views.
Stretching between CR 14 south of Lamont and Goose Pasture Road, this segment of the Florida offers unparalled scenic views as it hugs close to the Aucilla River for most of its length. It’s rare you don’t see the river once you first reach it, and when you don’t it’s where the trail leads you past other interesting features like cypress swamps, sinkholes, and healthy forests where random camping is possible. An immersion in natural habitats while following a pleasant footpath makes this one of the most enjoyable sections of the Florida Trail to hike, once you get past the first mile and a half down forest roads.
Parking is limited at both ends of this section of trail. Access to the trail at Goose Pasture Road may be difficult depending on recent rains: the dirt road features deep mud and puddles when wet. Day hiking, however, should be done using the Goose Pasture trailhead, since the shoulder of CR 14 is not a good place to leave a car.
No matter whether you take a round-trip hike out to the river bend (4 miles) or to Burnt Bridge (6.8 miles), a long day hike to the rapids and back (9.8 miles), or get dropped off on CR 14 to do this whole linear section, this is one of the most scenic stretches of the Florida Trail and well worth a visit despite the lack of paved access at the south end. For backpackers, there are two designated primitive campsites as well as flat spots suitable for random camping for a tent or two, and numerous access points for filtering water.
Seasonal hunting is permitted in Aucilla WMA and a hunting lease blankets the first mile and a half of the trail at the CR 14 end – the important reason for using Goose Pasture trailhead as your day hike parking area – so always wear bright orange when hiking through this section. Check hunt dates in Aucilla WMA.
This trail should not be hiked when the Aucilla River rises to flood stage, as the riverside ravines and the sinkholes overflow with water and blur the line between bluff and river. Always check the river gauge for water levels on the Aucilla before heading out here for a hike. You can also call the Suwannee River Water Management District for information on river levels at 386-362-1001.
A southbound (due compass north) hike of the Aucilla River section from Goose Pasture trailhead to CR 14.
FT symbols indicate trailheads and access points. Click on any symbol for more details and on FT symbols to obtain custom directions to trailheads.
0.0 > An inauspicious start for such a spectacular segment of trail, your access to the Aucilla River is via a maze of private forest roads between CR 14 south of Lamont and the Middle Aucilla Conservation Area. Always wear blaze orange as this land is leased to a hunting club.
1.5 > Leave the forest roads and pine plantation and enter the bluff forests of Middle Aucilla Conservation Area.
1.9 > The trail makes its way towards the river, and you begin to hear the rumble of the upper rapids, which you can sometimes see between the trees in winter. Like the last section of the Florida Trail along the Suwannee, the Aucilla River section runs compass south (trail north) with the river always to your west (trail east).
2.2 > Cross a forest road where a blue blaze leads towards the river through a clearing known as Upper Aucilla Camp. Certain habitats lend themselves to random camping along the Aucilla section, but this shaded clearing is the first of two designated campsites between CR 14 and Goose Pasture Road. It has good access to an old landing on the river for filtering water.
2.9 > After working its way around a cypress swamp with some remarkably large trees, the trail scrambles through the first of several deep dips along the river, this one with water flowing through it. Soon after, logs provide a tricky crossing over a deceptively deep tributary.
3.4 > The trail returns to the river’s edge amid a tiny forest of cypress knees before visiting another cypress swamp edged by towering trees. It’s here that, when the angle of sunlight is just right when the needles are off the cypresses in the wintertime, you can see the phenomenon known as a “Rainbow Swamp” – pastel hues caused by the oils from the cypress creating a subtle rainbow across the swamp’s surface.
3.7 > Cross the first of a number of vehicle access roads that lead to the river, RA 41. You can get to the river for water down at the end of the road if you need it. The trail passes its first sinkhole, which is nearly obscured by the forest on the right, before crossing a road paved with crushed limestone.
4.4 > Just beyond a flat area on the river bluffs that would serve as a nice campsite, the landscape opens up, providing a nice view of the river. You start to hear the sound of rapids as you approach the next access point to the river, where you can see the rapids start. Around the next bend, the sound gets louder. Scramble down off the trail through the cut in the bluff to the rocky shoals along the river’s edge to see the Aucilla Rapids, which churn and froth over limestone blocks edged by cypress knees. It’s one of those rare places in Florida where you will feel compelled to linger for a long time, entranced by the beauty.
4.6 > As you return to the trail and continue along the river bluffs, you catch glimpses of the lower rapids through the dense vegetation. When the view opens up, it’s of an island in the river, the dark tannic waters surrounding it.
5.0 > From a steep bluff on a cove off the main flow of the river, notice the whirlpool action of the waters below. The trail continues along the bluffs well above the river.
5.9 > An even steeper drop-off comes at Burnt Bridge. A railroad trestle once crossed here, but now it’s a sheer dropoff to the river from the concrete abutment upon which the bridge once stood. Burnt Bridge is a historic site that harkens back to the Civil War, when a Union sympathizer set the bridge on fire. According to Confederate veteran S.M. Hankins, “We were going down grade and around a curve. The Engineer called for Brake, with a loud whistle from the locomotive. Then he began to blow distress whistle as fast as he could. There was not enough brakes to check his speed. He found he could not stop, so he put on all the power his engine had, and landed us all O.K. across a burning bridge on the Aucilla River! Some of the bridge fell in as the last car got off of it.”
6.3 > After a nice view across the river from the bluffs, the trail scrambles through another deep deep which a tributary trickles through at times. If there isn’t enough water here, watch for the next point of river access at another low spot in the next quarter mile.
7.3 > A dirt road, RA 36, ends at a boat launch. This area is a beauty spot on a bend in the river, complete with a rope swing out from a large flat rock. Unfortunately, because vehicles can access the area, it is heavily used for car camping, especially on weekends, and heavily trashed. Filter water down near the rope swing hanging over it, the area least impacted by trash. Leaving this area, the trail crosses the access road and numerous paralleling roads.
7.9 > Excellent views of the river open up along the bluffs again, as the trail stays right above the river, deeply shaded by the bluff forest. After crossing a limerock road, the trail reaches RA 34, which ends on the bluff. A small cut leads down to the river and depending on water levels, may allow access for filtering water.
8.5 > A bench above a side channel of the river and a nearby sign call your attention to South Aucilla River Camp, the second designated campsite along this section of trail. It’s an odd spot, as the only flat ground is inside the old side channel, and you must clamber down into it. However, it provides an interesting perspective on the river itself. The trail returns to the river bluffs after it rounds the bluffs above this old side channel, once again providing outstanding views.
8.9 > A land management boundary sign appears stating this is the end of Aucilla WMA, which means you’ve entered a no hunting zone. The reason for this appears quickly, as the trail winds beneath massive trees, one of which was painted with a silver blaze back in October 1984 to commemorate the connecting of the Florida Trail from its northern terminus at that time at the western edge of the Apalachicola National Forest to the completed arc of the Florida Trail east and south of this point to the south end of the Ocala National Forest. You’ve entered the Aucilla Sinks. This unusual landscape, where the Aucilla River vanishes underground, starts right here at The Vortex. This river sink usually has an obvious whirlpool in it, but over the years, it’s gotten choked up with a raft of logs, leaves, and trash that floated downriver and got stuck here.
CAUTION: If it appears that The Vortex is overflowing its banks, you need to get out of the Aucilla Sinks basin. Do so by heading compass east through the opening in the trees, RA 33, to the unpaved road that parallels the river. Follow that road south to Goose Pasture Road. The trailhead is compass west from this point. If you are hiking through, bypass the sinks by taking Goose Pasture Road compass east instead to Powell Hammock Grade, and turn right. You’ll meet up with the orange blazes again on that road after a few miles.
9.1 > Entering a bluff forest with tall decidious trees and palm fronds from young growth throughout the understory, you begin to encounter the Aucilla River in its new form as it appears through windows into the bedrock of the earth. The first is showy Overflow Sink, which has the feel of a portal to another world. Its rocks cradle the dark waters of the Aucilla River, but no flow is obvious here unless the river is, indeed, overflowing. Just beyond it are two more sinks. We dubbed one of them Half Moon Sink. From the bluff above, it’s obvious that water is moving through the crescent-shaped at the bottom.
9.3 > Circling Roadside Sink, a steep dropoff into the aquifer that is so perfect an example of a water-filled sinkhole that it looks, as John said, “as if Disney had built it,” the trail reaches Goose Pasture Road. Turn left and walk past Roadside Sink towards the trailhead sign. The Florida Trail continues through the Aucilla Sinks section next to the sign, and the small trailhead parking area is across from the sign.
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This area is somewhat remote so services, particularly for those on foot, are scant. The only nearby service is a seasonal campground at the end of Goose Pasture Road. If you have a car, JR’s Store along US 98 is the closest place for food and gas; the roadwalk between the Aucilla and St. Marks sections leads long distance hikers right past JR’s.
CAMPING: Another 2.6 miles west past the trailhead, Goose Pasture Campground is a camping area managed by Suwannee River Water Management District. Keep left at the fork past the trailhead when driving there. Campsites are along the Wacissa River and are first-come, first-serve; fill out a permit when you arrive. The sites can accomodate either tents or small campers / vans, and are free, although there is a 10-day-stay limit. Camping is not permitted here during general gun season in the fall/winter months. There is a group campsite that can be reserved by calling 386-362-1001.
To reach the CR 14 access via paved roads, follow US 27 (from Perry or Tallahassee) to Lamont. Across from the gas station, take CR 257 south. Continue down CR 257 for 9.3 miles. Along the way, the name changes to CR 14 and you cross the Aucilla River on a highway bridge. Keep alert after you pass Rocky Ford Road, as the unnamed forest road that provides access is 0.7 mile south of Rocky Ford Road. Look for orange blazes and an FNST sign. Although there is room to park on the shoulder, long term parking is not recommended.
To get to Goose Pasture Road trailhead from Perry, follow US 98 west to Powell Hammock Grade. The southern portion of Powell Hammock Grade is part of the roadwalk between the Aucilla and St. Marks sections. After the pavement ends, keep heading north, passing the sign for Aucilla WMA on the left. Another 1.5 miles past that sign is Goose Pasture Road, a dirt road. Turn left. Avoid driving into puddles, as they may be deep. The trailhead is 1.1 miles west along this road on the right across from a large kiosk. There is only room for a few cars.