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. While it makes its own quarter mile loop, adventuresome hikers can ramble a lot farther.
A staircase leads to the Pathway to the Past, a rough natural trail that meanders through a bottomland hardwood forest with surface limestone.
Trail’s end is a glorious view from a boardwalk stretching into the estuary that surrounds Crystal River.
Resources for exploring the area
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Location: Crystal River
Length: 1 mile loop
Address: 857 N Suncoast Blvd (US 19), Crystal River
Restroom: At the trailhead
Land manager: Florida State Parks
Open 8 AM until sunset daily. Leashed pets welcome.
The trailhead includes an accessible picnic pavilion, and the boardwalk loop is accessible.
From the intersection of SR 44 and US 19 in Crystal River, drive north along US 19 for 2 miles. The parking area for Churchhouse Hammock is on the west side of the highway directly across from the Crystal River Mall.
Start your walk from the boardwalk access to the left of the restrooms. It’s shade, glorious shade, as you plunge into the woods.
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. There are dense stands of cabbage palms, hanging vines, and sweetgum as well as magnolia, tall oak trees, and yes, poison ivy.
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.
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.
Limestone boulders are scattered around the forest, where yaupon holly – its leaves used by indigenous 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.
Reach a trail junction at 0.3 mile. Continue straight ahead. You can see a boardwalk ahead beneath the palms.
Follow the ramp up to emerge from deep shade into the sun-drenched estuary, Tidal channels snake through the grasslands.
Needlerush swarms around an island topped with cedars and cabbage palms. In the distance, 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. Some folks use that to hike on, but the main route is much more fun.
Twisting and turning through dense understory, the trail has that wild feel, and indeed, it’s surrounded 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. 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 the 1 mile hike.
While the most obvious and accessible of the preserve’s trails, Churchhouse Hammock is just one of many trails found in Crystal River Preserve State Park.
See our photos of Churchhouse Hammock
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
At Crystal River Archaeological State Park, a paved interpretive trail winds through a ceremonial mound complex built more than 2,500 years ago. The park is the home of Florida’s only petroglyph.
The sweep of salt marshes and the salt breeze surround you on a walk through the trail system at Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve, a 413-acre preserve in Yankeetown
Looking for manatees? You’ll see them up close at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, where families can get up close to Florida wildlife in a natural setting.