In Crystal River, you can immerse in the beauty of a palm and cedar hammock right across the street from the Crystal River Mall. A wooden boardwalk leads into jungle-like cabbage palm flatwoods, with a staircase to access the natural portion of the trail (called “Pathway to the Past”) that meanders through a bottomland hardwood forest with surface limestone out to a boardwalk into the estuary that borders Crystal River.
While the most obvious and accessible, Churchhouse Hammock is just one of many trails found in Crystal River Preserve State Park, which stretches up and down the coast of Citrus County. Other hikes include the Ecowalk and Eagle Scout Trails, a little farther north off US 19, as well as Redfish Hole, Lake Loop, and Dixie Shores, off Fort Island Trail.
Location: Crystal River
Length: 1 mile
Type: two loops
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: moderate to rugged
Bug factor: high
Mosquito repellent is strongly recommended. Wear sturdy shoes – no flip-flops – as you’ll stub your toes on rocks – yes, rocks – if you don’t. Trail markers are blue disks with silver arrows. Be cautious of poison ivy along the wild portion of the trail.
The 0.3 boardwalk is wheelchair accessible, but the Path to the Past is not, unless you have an ATV wheelchair (lots of rocks to cross). A picnic pavilion is available at the trailhead.
The trailhead is directly across the street from the Crystal River Mall, north of downtown Crystal River along US 19.
Start your walk from the boardwalk access to the left of the restrooms. The boardwalk at Churchhouse Hammock was the first part of the trail system to appear, just in time for me to include it in Hiker’s Guide to the Sunshine State. It’s shade, glorious shade, as you plunge into the woods. You immediately spy a catfaced pine, of which there are many in these woods, tapped for turpentine perhaps fifty, perhaps one hundred years ago. Most of the older longleaf and slash pines along Florida’s Gulf Coast show these marks, since turpentine and its byproducts are essential for keeping wooden boats sealed against the water.
Take the first left turn off the boardwalk into the woods. Here’s where the adventure begins. You’re immersed in a beautiful coastal hammock with tall longleaf pines and slash pines, dense stands of cabbage palms, hanging vines, sweetgum – turning brilliant colors right now – as well as magnolia, tall oak trees, and yes, poison ivy.
Passing another catfaced pine, the trail begins to get rocky underfoot. Watch your step! This is karst topography, surface limestone that erodes as it rains, causing crevices and sinkholes. Coontie, a primitive fern-like plant, grows throughout the understory, with bright red seeds drawing attention. Watch your feet! Limestone boulders are scattered around the forest, where yaupon holly – its leaves used by ancient peoples for the “black drink” – appears along the edges of the forest. Walking beneath a hickory tree, mind the footpath, since it’s covered with a jumble of rocks, sweetgum balls, and hickory nuts.
As the trail gently descends, the forest lightens up off to the left. There’s a slight clearing, where in winter, you can peek out to the estuary. Built in the floodplain of the estuary, this part of the trail can get mushy or wet – or even underwater – at times. The churned-up earth is from wild hogs rooting around in the forest. You reach a trail junction at 0.3 mile. Continue straight ahead.
You can see a boardwalk up ahead, beneath the palms. Follow the ramp up to emerge from deep shade into the sun-drenched estuary, where needlerush swarms around an island topped with cedars and cabbage palms. Tidal channels snake through the grasslands. Off in the distance on the left, Crystal River sparkles under the sun. Trail’s end is at the island, which is blocked off from access. Return along the boardwalk, enjoying the beauty of the coastal hammock as seen across the grasslands. That chirp in the air that sounds like parrots probably is – monk parakeets, now wild along both coasts of Florida – use holes in slender cabbage palms to nest.
Returning to the trail junction at 0.6 mile, turn left. The footpath becomes very squishy underfoot and may be flooded. You’re back in the deep shade of the palm hammock. A blue marker confirms your path, which also parallels a forest road, likely built to get materials back to a boardwalk. Some folks use that to hike on, but the main route is much more fun.
Twisting and turning to the left into the dense understory, the trail has that wild feel, and indeed, it’s surrounded here with poison ivy. Walk cautiously. More rocks appear underfoot to trip you up, but it’s worth it – here’s an oak that looks centuries old. And another. You’ve entered a cathedral of the ancients, a timeless gathering of live oaks.
An arrow confirms your route. With more rocks and roots, and trees to duck under, you get a bit of a workout in these woods. Rocks like sculptures emerge from the forest floor, under the ancient pines. Coming to a junction with the forest road at 0.8 mile, take the right to continue on the narrow trail. It winds its way through more dense, jungle-like hammock with a last few rocks to trip on, reaching the main boardwalk at 0.9 mile. Turn left.
Follow the boardwalk as it meanders back and forth over the forest floor, under more towering oaks and pines. Oddly, most of the cabbage palms next to the boardwalk have been trimmed back. Benches provide resting places along the way. The boardwalk emerges from the forest back to the trailhead, just north of where you entered the hammock, completing your 1-mile hike.