2/1/16 update: The Big Oak Trail remains in two fragments due to a private landowner blocking access from CR 141. However, local volunteers are maintaining the loop and have blazed a number of trails across it. Day use parking is permitted at the Suwannee River boat ramp off SW 46th Ave, but it’s not recommended to leave a car there overnight. Backpackers can make use of the loop by hiking the Florida Trail from Gibson Park and overnighting on the peninsula of the Big Oak Trail. Blue blazes connect the Florida Trail to the Big Oak Trail down SW 46th Ave.
The Big Oak Trail is one of the most scenic hikes in North Florida and is part of the statewide Florida Trail. Much of the hiking parallels the Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers, which meet here at a confluence where the Withlacoochee (not to be confused with the one in Central Florida) flows south from Georgia to enter the Suwannee River. Along the loop portion of the hike, there are many deep sinkholes and tall trees, including the namesake Big Oak, which has a base big enough it takes eight people holding hands to circle around it.
Length: Up to 8.6 miles
Lat-Lon for Hike #1: 30.385477, -83.168830 (park) or 30.386771, -83.175193 (annex)
Lat-Lon for Hike #2: 30.414222, -83.159629 (boat ramp at SW 77th & SW 46th)
Type: linear and balloon
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: low to moderate
For Hike #1, either start as described inside the state park OR take US 90 west over the Suwannee River to the first turnoff, old US 90, to park at the Suwannee River State Park Annex.
For Hike #2, take US 90 west to CR 141. Follow it northwest to cross the Withlacoochee River. It’s a rough series of dirt roads from there (see map) to get to the boat ramp parking area. Use this parking area for day hikes only. Do not leave a car here overnight.
This hike is now two separate trails because of a landowner blocking access to the peninsula.
#1: Out and back from Suwannee River State Park Annex or main parking area (up to a 5.8 mile round-trip)
#2: Loop trail on the peninsula between the Suwannee and Withlacoochee River (from 4.7 to 8.6 miles)
HIKE #1: BIG OAK CONNECTOR / FLORIDA TRAIL
From the main parking area in Suwannee River State Park, follow the signs to a boardwalk you see in the distance that takes you over the Confederate earthworks. The trail continues to an observation deck overlooking the river confluence, at which point a blue-blazed trail leads south along the Suwannee River. It emerges at a road to cross the railroad tracks (a live railroad line, take caution) and leads you through a small neighborhood out to US 90 and then to Old US 90, where you cross the Old US 90 bridge over the Suwannee River, now open to pedestrians only.
The paralleling railroad bridge was of special concern to the Confederacy, as it was the primary transportation link between Jacksonville and Tallahassee during the War Between the States, key for feeding the troops amassed at Camp Milton near Baldwin. A detachment was sent to what was then the town of Columbus to build protective earthworks at the confluence and set up a small garrison to protect the rail line and the old ferryboat crossing for wagons, below.
Crossing the bridge, you walk along the old highway past a long boarded-up tavern. Turn right to walk down to the Drew Mansion Ruins trailhead. Governor George Drew took office in the aftermath of the Civil War, and escaped from his duties in Tallahassee to relax here on his riverside plantation. The historic home, built in the late 1800s, remained here until just a few decades ago, when an arsonist torched it. A short unmarked loop leads past the ruins of the mansion and a nearby spring. A picnic area provides a place to relax, and this trailhead is your secondary (and free) access to the Florida Trail and the Big Oak Trail. Look for the blue blazes entering the woods west of the picnic area and those will lead you to a junction with the orange blazes of the Florida Trail.
Where the blue blazes meet the orange blazes of the Florida Trail, be sure to turn right (north) to continue. Climbing up an embankment, you come to the railroad tracks and must cross them again. The trail drops down a steep embankment on the other side and enters the ghost town of Ellaville, with the only hints of this timber boomtown bits of broken clay pots and brick foundations. The trail winds out to the edge of the river bluff along the Withlacoochee River and turns to follow it north.
At 2.6 miles, you reach a campsite with a picnic table, fire pit, and river access. It lies very close to a forest road in Twin Rivers State Forest. Continuing to parallel the river, you can see some of the rocky shoals when the water is low. The Withlacoochee is known for rough and rugged kayaking thanks to its shoals, and don’t be surprised to see kayakers at the backpacking campsites. The trail emerges from the deep shade of the river forest at a bridge along CR 141. This is your turnaround point for this portion of the Big Oak Trail, a roughly 7-mile round trip.
0.0, Suwannee River State Park Annex parking. Follow blue blazes into woods.
0.3, Junction with Florida Trail. Turn left.
0.5, Ellaville ghost town. Look for foundations of buildings and wharf remnants in river
1.0, Withlacoochee River campsite with picnic table
2.1, Emerge from woods below CR 141. Turn-around point
4.2, Suwannee River State Park Annex parking
Add 1.6 miles if starting near the Confederate earthworks in Suwannee River State Park.
HIKE #2: BIG OAK LOOP
Since you can no longer access the loop from CR 141, your hike now starts at the boat ramp along the Suwannee River off SW 46th & SW 77th. Follow the blue blazes west a quarter mile to access the Big Oak Loop. When you reach the White Trail, turn left to follow the river. The joy of hiking along the Suwannee River is to be so far up on the bluffs, savoring the views. When you reach the junction with the Yellow Trail after 0.7 mile, keep to the river along the White Trail. Continue along the river’s edge as you reach a landmark, an overhead power line.
After 2.4 miles, at the junction with the Blue Trail, keep to the river along the White Trail unless you want to hike a shorter loop. The Blue Trail passes The Big Oak, which is truly an immense tree and is the namesake of this trail. There are many large oaks along this stretch of the trail, but the Big Oak towers over them all. It took nearly eight people to get their hands around it when we tried to during one group hike.
You can use the Blue Trail and the Yellow Trail to make a 4.7 mile loop back to the boat ramp if you’d like to start heading back at this point. Otherwise, continue into the forest along the Suwannee. When you cross the gas pipeline, the landscape opens up briefly. Star rush peeks out of the taller grasses, and wild indigo grows in large clumps, enjoying the full sun. You can easily see the Suwannee River to your left.
Swamp chestnut oaks, bluff oaks, and large American holly shade this portion of the trail. As you walk along the river, look carefully at the water’s surface to notice the upwelling from numerous small spring vents. Scan the far shore and listen for the sound of flowing water, and you’ll eventually notice Lime Spring on the far shore. Eventually, you can also see the main portion of Suwannee River State Park and its boat ramp on the far side of the river.
At 3.1 miles, the White Trail reaches the confluence of the Withlacoochee River with the Suwannee River. It’s here you’ll find the backpacker campsite, and a short trail down to the confluence itself for water. Keep in mind that this is not a quiet camping spot: trains cross a trestle just around the bend, and as there are two at-grade crossings nearby, they blow their horns as they cross and the sound echoes up the river. But it is a pretty campsite, with picnic table and fire ring.
An old forest road leads out of the campsite and along the Withlacoochee River. Keep following the white blazes. Dropping down towards the river’s edge, you dip through a side channel and come to a series of very deep sinkholes to the right. The deepest sink is nearest the trail, dropping down with sheer rocky sides to an inky pool, a window to the watery confines of the Floridan Aquifer. Continue along the White Trail to enjoy the undulating landscape and views of the Withlacoochee River. Massive bluff oaks and tall yellow pines provide a canopy. One yellow pine sports a broad canopy more than 130 feet above the forest floor.
After you work your way around another set of sinkholes, the trail makes a sharp left away from the river at 5 miles to follow the park boundary fence. You quickly reach the Yellow Trail. You can use that to start your return loop. It follows the gas pipeline easement briefly before re-entering the lush and deeply shaded bluff forests. There are sinkholes and floodplain forests in depressions along this route. Returning to the parking area via the Yellow Trail and White Trail creates a 6.9 mile day hike.
Alternatively, continue a little farther on the White Trail to the Blue Trail. The Blue Trail intersects with the Yellow Trail and joins it briefly before you reach your final decision point: whether to return to your vehicle via the Yellow Trail (much shorter, but away from the river) or the Blue Trail to the White Trail to return along the river bluffs. Returning to the parking area via the Blue Trail and the White Trail creates a 8.6 mile day hike.
0.0, Boat ramp at SW 77th. Follow Blue Trail west.
0.3, Junction with White Trail. Turn left.
0.7, Junction with Yellow Trail. Stay on White Trail.
1.5, Cross under powerline
2.4, Junction with Blue Trail. Big Oak. Stay on White Trail.
2.6, Cross gas line easement
3.1, Campsite at confluence
5.0, Leave Withlacoochee River for property boundary fence
5.1, Junction Yellow Trail
5.2, Junction Blue Trail
5.4, Blue and Yellow Trails merge briefly. Join Yellow Trail eastbound.
6.2, Junction of Yellow and White Trail. Left on White Trail.
6.6, Junction of White and Blue Trail. Right on Blue Trail.
6.9, Return to boat ramp parking area.
Thank you to local trail maintainer Carol Thurlow for providing this map of the newly re-blazed Big Oak Trail Loop.