When you think about Florida’s rivers and streams, the image of raging, foaming water never springs to mind. Yet up on the Suwannee River, just a few miles outside the historic town of White Springs, the Suwannee hides a secret that canoeists and kayakers kept to themselves for many years—Big Shoals. Inside Big Shoals State Park, the Big Shoals Trail leads you past the remains of a historic bridge across the Suwannee to scenic perches high atop the river bluffs when you can watch Florida’s only Class III rapids turn the tannic waters to root beer foam.
Location: White Springs
Length: 2.2 miles or 4.9 miles
Lat-Long: 30.352167, -82.687617
Type: round-trip or loop
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
The park is open from 8 AM to dusk daily, and provides restrooms and picnic tables at the trailhead. Avoid walking the forest roads during hunting season (dates posted at the trailhead kiosk)—stick to the yellow-blazed Big Shoals Trail and the Long Branch Trail, which also departs from this trailhead.
From downtown White Springs, follow US 41 south until you see the Big Shoals sign. Turn north onto CR 135. Drive past the Little Shoals entrance to Big Shoals Public Lands, and continue another 2.3 miles to SE 94th Street. Follow this sometimes-rough road 1.7 miles to where it ends at the parking lot. You will pass one end of the Woodpecker Trail at the park gate.
Follow the yellow blazes and meander under hickories and laurel oaks past the old Godwin Bridge piers. Climbing up atop the river bluff, you have a view of the river framed by oaks and saw palmettos. Turn right to follow the trail as it weaves through the saw palmetto at the top of the bluff, providing sporadic panoramas of the calm black water below. A gnarled canopy of sparkleberry and sand live oaks shades your walk. You hear the muffled rumble of the rapids. The sound of rushing water amplifies with each footfall, increasing your anticipation.
After a mile, you reach a spot where the water below seems to be increasing in speed, flowing over submerged rocks. The air feels thick, saturated with the droplets of water kicked up by the rapids. Farther along, peer through a break in the trees for a glimpse of the river flowing through small chutes. Clinging to limestone perches, healthy growths of aquatic grasses create the green patches in the dark water. At the next overlook, you have a sweeping view of the rapids of the Big Shoals. At the base of the bluff, the largest rapid bubbles like cola out of a soda fountain as it tumbles over the rock ledges, creating hydraulics. Water roars through a series of chutes in the limestone ledge.
Although the “official” nature trail ends within a few paces, the adventuresome hiker can keep going. When the yellow blazes end at a T intersection, turn right. Continue down along the river using a single-track bicycle trail created by the Suwannee Bicycle Club. You won’t be disappointed in the views.
Small sets of rapids continue well past the canoeists put-in, after their portage on the far side, and a line of limestone flowerpot formations—stone eroded into long, slender vase-like structures—stand up to 80 feet tall above the river. When the single-track ends, keep making right turns on the forest roads until they lead you back to the T intersection with the yellow blazes at the Big Shoals, providing a 4.9-mile loop. New to the park, the Woodpecker Trail is a 3.4 mile paved linear path between Big Shoals and Little Shoals, which can also help you complete the loop.