123 miles. As the Florida Trail curves its way north and west between Buckman Lock and the Suwannee River, it touches on centuries of Florida’s history, from the British colonial period atop the dikes at Rice Creek to the boom of Civil War cannons through the pine forests at Olustee. Connecting an array of public lands, including the smallest of Florida’s national forests, Osceola National Forest, with walks on backroads and a stroll down a former rail line, now the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail, it’s an introduction to a different pace of life.
- Deer hunting season is underway throughout the region. Break out your orange shirts! See the sidebar for dates and details.
FT symbols indicate trailheads and access points. Click on symbols for details and directions.
North of the Ocala National Forest, the scenery shifts. Leaving Buckman Lock, you enter a managed forest owned by Plum Creek Timber, the trail tacking through it on forest roads that get deep puddles in the middle. Most of the time, you can slip around them on the edges. Entering Caravalle Ranch Conservation Area, you’re on public land again, although both areas are open to hunting. Here, more natural habitats prevail north of Hunter Road. Crossing SR 20, you round a retention pond with unusual monuments to DOT before heading up forest roads – which can often be under water in places – to the edge of Nine Mile Swamp. It’s here that Hoffman’s Crossing provides a unique perspective of the swamp, as seen in the photo at the top of this page.
In 1970, the Hudson Pulp and Paper Corporation established Rice Creek Sanctuary west of Palatka. Selmer Uhr, manager of the Woodlands Technical Department at Hudson, convinced his company to allow the Florida Trail to cross their lands. The Rice Creek Trail – a loop built on dikes through a British colonial rice and indigo plantation – became the first trail in Florida to be designated a National Recreation Trail in 1976. It showcases the heart of the swamp. The Florida Trail follows the west side of the loop. On the east side is the “Rice Creek Hilton,” a gorgeous two-story trail shelter with flat, dry areas for camping around it.
North of SR 100, a busy and dangerous road to cross, the trail goes west along the rail corridor of the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail to Carraway. Heading north on dirt roads, it passes in and out of hunting leases and portions of Etoniah Creek State Forest. Home to one of the tallest known loblolly bay trees, the forest is a botanical delight. Among its gentle hills, the rare Etoniah rosemary thrives. The Florida Trail winds past sinkholes, through bottomlands, and along the bluffs above Falling Branch and Etoniah Ravine, a surprising dropoff of more than 40 feet.
After a ramble on and along back roads, the trail enters the back gate of Gold Head Branch State Park, where one of the earliest pieces of the Florida Trail, built in the late 1960s, circles around Little Lake Johnson and Devil’s Washbasin into sandhills that extend into the next piece at Camp Blanding. This Florida National Guard military reserve offers an immersion into forests with views across Magnolia Lake, a former segregated state park. A roadwalk through a residential area to the west side of Keystone Heights reconnects you with footpath in the Combass Tract, which adjoins the next portion of the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail. This unpaved corridor through rural North Florida is a surprising delight to walk. It terminates in the trail town of Lake Butler, although there is hope it will extend towards Lake City to eliminate the roadwalk needed to reach Lake Butler Forest, another stretch of private timberland owned by Plum Creek. Here, you may encounter deer hunters at any time of year.
The section’s finale is among the tall pines of Osceola National Forest. The smallest of the National Forests in Florida, it is nourished by the waters of Pinhook Swamp to the north and subsequently is always quite wet, especially west of Turkey Run trailhead. It, too, was one of the first pieces of the Florida Trail to be completed, with sporadic boardwalks leading through cypress swamps. The forest surrounds Olustee Battlefield, one of Florida’s oldest state monuments and home to a Civil War museum and annual re-enactment each February.
7.9 miles. Zigzagging down timber roads after emerging from the entrance road to Buckman Lock, this segment of trail works its way around wetlands and stands of timber before entering Caravelle Ranch Conservation Area en route to SR 20.
Florida Trail, Rice Creek
5.8 miles. In the middle of one of the trail’s most haunting segments, burrowed deep in an ancient cypress swamp, the walk through Rice Creek features a lengthy boardwalk, Hoffman’s Crossing, and a lush forest amid the remains of an 1780s rice and indigo plantation. The hike can be shortened to focus on the most beautiful part of the preserve by doing a day hike from the Rice Creek trailhead.
Florida Trail, Palatka-Lake Butler East
3.2 miles. A hike along the easternmost open section of the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail, mostly unpaved, from Rice Creek to Carraway. It tunnels through hardwood forests and past swamps along the boundary of private timberlands.
Florida Trail, Carraway to Etoniah
3.5 miles. A roadwalk connector on dirt roads and forest roads north of SR 100 in Carraway, leaving the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail to enter a corridor between private hunting leases and Etoniah Creek State Forest. Wear orange when hiking this section and be respectful of hunters you meet, as they allow the trail to cross their private land.
Florida Trail, Etoniah Creek State Forest
8.1 miles. From the deep ravine of Etoniah Creek to the delight of the Iron Bridge Shelter, the Florida Trail through the eastern half of Etoniah State Forest is a don’t miss-section of trail. An out-and-back hike to Etoniah Ravine is an excellent way to sample this section. The western portion of the forest is in high and dry scrub and sandhills, skirting around sinkholes.
Florida Trail, Etoniah to Gold Head
8 miles. A roadwalk segment of trail along the Old Bellamy Highway and other paved back roads and clay roads to connect Etoniah Creek State Forest with Gold Head Branch State Park.
Florida Trail, Gold Head Branch
5.4 miles. Crossing one of Florida’s oldest state parks, the trail provides access to camping, cabins, and canoes, as well as a peek into the pretty Gold Head Ravine. After passing the park entrance, the hike continues through colorful sandhill habitat to end at the Keystone Bike Path across from Camp Blanding.
Florida Trail, Camp Blanding
5.9 miles.The trail through Camp Blanding, an active Florida National Guard reservation, takes you through undulating sandhill terrain. Scattered longleaf pines and oaks provide shade, and you enjoy some spectacular scenic views from the hilltops, particularly of Magnolia Lake, which the trail circles.
Florida Trail, Keystone Heights
5.2 miles. Roadwalk through Keystone Heights neighborhoods to the south of Crystal Lake in order to bypass a closed segment through Keystone Airpark and Camp Crystal Lake to SR 100. Passes Tony’s Food Mart en route.
Florida Trail, Keystone Heights to Hampton
6.9 miles. After a short, pleasant traverse through a forest along the edge of a cattle pasture and through the new Cow Creek campsite, the Florida Trail joins an unpaved segment of the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail that parallels CR 18 to Hampton. The trail is flanked by rural residences and farms for much of its route, crossing CR 18 before it reaches busy US 301.
9.3 miles. A surprisingly pleasant section of the Florida Trail that sees very few hikers, the most remote part of the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail stretches southwest of Starke through farmland and timberland, crossing the Sampson River along the way. A connecting 5.5 mile roadwalk around the damaged New River Bridge leads to the next segment.
4.8 miles. The final portion of the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail leading to Lake Butler is mostly paved, but it spends most of its route tunneled through the woods before reaching the residential outskirts of Lake Butler. You’ll cross several city streets before reaching the Lake Butler Depot; the trail continues past it along a grassy greenway to the edge of town. A connecting 6.3 mile roadwalk along SR 100 leads to the next segment.
Florida Trail, Lake Butler Forest
9.8 miles.This trail segment is in a private pine plantation owned by a timber company and overlaid by a hunting lease. Always wear blaze orange in this segment, since hunting occurs here year-round. Look for remnants of historic turpentine activity, such as pieces of clay cups, in the roads.
Florida Trail, Osceola Experimental Forest
4.7 miles. Following forest roads through stands of tall longleaf pines, the Osceola Experimental Forest south of US 90 is surprisingly majestic. It offers up the unexpected, like “rainbow swamps” that occur in winter and clusters of pitcher plants in wetland areas. A 0.8 mile roadwalk along US 90 and Box Cut leads to the next segment.
Florida Trail, Osceola National Forest
21.8 miles. Florida’s smallest national forest is a very swampy place, with ribbons of cypress amid wet pine flatwoods. Historically timbered, it’s a mix of pine plantation and natural habitats, including pine flatwoods, bayhead swamps, and cypress swamps. You will get your feet wet through this section, no matter the time of year.
. Established in the early 1970s to showcase the beauty of the ancient cypresses at Rice Creek, the trail is a double loop consisting of the white-blazed Oak Hammock Trail and the yellow-blazed Cedar Swamp Trail. The Florida Trail follows the west perimeter of the loop, passing three signposted trail junctions as it parallels Rice Creek. A boardwalk also leads off the Florida Trail at a small cypress sign to an overlook of one of Florida’s largest cypresses.
47 miles. With a corridor spanning nearly 50 miles between Palatka and Lake Butler, the Palatka-Lake Butler State Trail provides two paved segments for riders and a lengthy unpaved corridor used by the Florida Trail in two areas: one as a connector between Rice Creek Conservation Area and Etoniah Creek State Forest, the other as a protected corridor between the north end of Keystone Heights to Lake Butler.
Loblolly Bay Trail
0.4 miles. A side trail only accessible via the Florida Trail, the blue-blazed Loblolly Bay Trail is a short round trip through a usually-dry bayhead swamp to the base of the Emeritus National Co-champion – one of two of the largest trees of its kind in the USA – loblolly bay tree. It is more than 95 feet tall and 10 feet around.
Longleaf Pine Trail
4.8 miles. One of the Trailwalker trails for Florida State Forests, the blue-blazed Longleaf Pine Trail extends from the Tinsley trailhead out towards the Dry Pond area of Etoniah Creek State Forest, and shares a portion of its route with the Florida Trail. You will find the rare Etoniah rosemary along the loop at the trail’s eastern end.
Keystone Bike Path
6 miles. The Keystone Bike Path is a paved trail paralleling SR 21 between the Gold Head Branch State Park entrance and downtown Keystone Heights, where it almost links up with the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail. A small piece of the trail is missing right near downtown, in front of businesses south of Johnny’s BBQ.
. The hike through Olustee Battlefield is short, but its historical significance is great. More than 2,000 men died in this forest on February 20, 1864, when Confederate and Union forces met and fought the bloodiest battle on Florida soil. The trail starts across from the visitor center.
1.6 miles. Using a portion of the Florida Trail in the longleaf pine forest just west of Olustee, the Nice Wander Trail is a short accessible-with-assistance loop hike that shows off a red-cockaded woodpecker colony as well as pitcher plant bogs.
- There are two very nice trail shelters along this section, one at Rice Creek and the other at Etoniah Creek (Iron Bridge). They are popular destinations for weekend backpackers.
- Expect mud and water while traversing the trail north and south of SR 20 near Palatka, both across the forest roads and in the woods north of Hoffman’s Crossing up to the dike system at Rice Creek.
- Be cautious of loose dogs along the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail and along the roadwalk sections. A hiker was bit by a small dog near Carraway and required medical treatment.
- Camping options are limited along the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail because of the narrowness of the corridor and the many swamps that flank it. Plan your stops ahead of time.
- It’s a lot of fun to arrive amid the Civil War reenactment at Olustee. It is held in mid-February. Learn more about it here.