One of the lesser-known trails of Little Big Econ State Forest, the hike to Culpepper Bend leads you to a panorama of where the Econlockhatchee River flows into the St. Johns River. Along the way, the trail’s delights include hammocks of ancient live oaks and scenic views of the river from the bluffs above. On this route, you can hike a round-trip of 9 miles or a shorter option of 7.9 miles using the equestrian trail as a loop.
Length: 7.9 or 9 miles
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate to high
This is a hunting zone, so check ahead regards hunting seasons and wear blaze orange if hiking during hunting season.
From the trailhead parking area on Snow Hill Rd in Chuluota, drive east 0.8 mile on Snow Hill Rd to Avenue H. Turn right. Make an immediate left on Brumley Rd. After a mile, it reaches a T intersection. Turn left. Continue along Brumley Rd until it ends after 2.4 miles. The trailhead parking is on the left. Do not block the gate.
From the trailhead at the end of Brumley Road, follow the forest road into Little Big Econ State Forest. It starts out trapped between two fencelines as it leaves the trailhead, but eventually emerges into open pastureland, where ponds covered in water spangles flank both sides of the road.
After a curve through the pasture, the trail transitions into a deeply shaded hammock with beautiful old-growth live oaks covered in resurrection fern and bromeliads. Look high overhead for orchids dangling from the tree limbs. “Volunteer” citrus trees grow throughout the forest, their seeds planted by birds, creating a bounty of oranges and grapefruit in an unexpected place. They may be sour, but the blossoms smell heavenly in winter.
Reaching the first junction with the White Trail at 1.3 miles – it heads off to your right, to the east, to connect with Bronson State Forest – continue straight ahead on the forest road. In another tenth of a mile you reach the second junction with the White Trail. Turn left here and follow the white blazes into a palm hammock.
By 1.7 miles, you reach the bluffs of the Econlockhatchee River, and with it, a T intersection of trails. Even if you hike no farther, this beauty spot is worth seeing, a bower of live oaks decorated with a thick fur of bromeliads, ferns, and orchids. The White Trail turns to the left. Currently, it’s a dead-end spur trail with nice views; it was built in preparation for the day when the Florida Trail might utilize it to cross the Econ at a yet-to-be-built pedestrian bridge. It’s time to turn right and follow the Yellow Trail. This spur leads to Culpepper Bend.
After 2 miles, past more live oaks festooned with orchids, the trail makes a sharp right away from a bend in the river and into a stand of oaks and cabbage palms, all heavily laden with bromeliads and orchids. As the trail draws close to the river again, the river is broad at this point. Here, its floodplain nature is obvious. When the waters of the Econ rise, they carve a ditch through the landscape. The sand bluffs on the far side of the river are deeply sculpted by flooding. As the trail works it way back to the bluffs on this side of the river, you pass a garden of cypress knees surrounding an otherwise diminutive cypress tree. Perhaps a much larger cypress once stood here.
A natural drainage area sits off to the right, providing nourishment for Virginia willows. The river is almost still, but you can see occasional ripples in the water around the logs and around the bends. The trail follows the direction of the river’s its flow towards the St. Johns River. There are many tree roots in the footpath. You can see watermarks several feet high on the palm trees, again making it obvious that this is a floodplain river and that there are times you can’t hike this trail because of the depth of the water. Much like the Suwannee River, water flows over the bluffs of the Econ and into these low spots, creating side channels.
At 2.5 miles the trail passes beneath a massive live oak. Watch out for the large roots in the footpath. The trail makes a sharp curve to the right, following the river’s flow towards a bend in the river ahead of you. At a confusion of footpaths, watch for the yellow blazes and follow the path closest to the river along the blazes. You start seeing an open prairie off to the right. The trail goes uphill into the prairie, then turns to cross the roots of a tree which form a natural bridge over a small waterway.
Floodplain ponds appear more frequently, edged with trees like sweetgum and cypress. If you look across the river you can now see open prairie beyond the line of palms on the river bluff. The trail makes another sharp bend around a floodplain between you and the river. As you walk between the palms and oaks, some of the oak limbs reach down to the ground.
Where the trail comes back to the river, there’s a needlerush marsh edged by cabbage palms. The trail makes the curve to the right, and goes up to the bluffs again. You pass under a very large live oak at 3.5 miles. The trail curves to the right, and heads out into the palm-dotted prairie. Beware of fire ant nests in this section. Spartina grass forms a soft carpet across the prairie. Off in the distance you can hear airboats, which launch from the Jolly Gator off SR 46. To the far right, you can see a radio tower. Beyond the needlerush marsh, there is a line of cypresses in the distance.
The footpath narrows dramatically, and leads you through a tall stand of dog fennel on the river bluff. Squishy gooey mud surrounds a pond. Keep alert for alligators. The trail rises up and enters a palm hammmock. If there are hikers ahead of you, you may be tempted to take a shortcut across this prairie towards where they are. Don’t do it! It’s wet, it’s muddy, and you don’t want to get stuck in it. Instead, the blazes lead you down a corridor of cabbage palms and then out to the rim of the floodplain ponds along this open prairie. The root balls on some of these cabbage palms are gigantic.
At 4 miles, the Yellow Trail reaches the junction with the Equestrian Trail, which joins in as a two-track forest road. Turn left to join the road. There is a copse of live oaks to your right. As you head out into the prairie, look for blaze posts with yellow blazes to stay on the right trail. Flying over in waves, cattle egrets wing their way across this vast floodplain.
The Yellow Trail approaches the edge of Puzzle Lake off to the right, while the Econlockhatchee River continues its sinuous route on your left. You’re now firmly in the floodplain, and at times of high waters, the rivers merge here. Airboaters buzz past on the Econ since you are not far from the boat ramp at SR 46. Communications towers wink in the distance.
The equestrian route and the Yellow Trail part ways at an arrow with a horse symbol. Continuing a little farther through the open prairie on the two track road, the trail makes a sharp left to a peninsula on a bend in the Econ. There is a large sign that says “Hiking only.” Traffic on SR 46 near the St. Johns River Bridge is visible at this point.
After 4.6 miles you reach the shelter at Culpepper Bend: with a roof and a deck, it’s both a wonderful observation point and a place to get out of the rain. The shelter is your turnaround point, as well as a nice place to relax before you start the hike back.
Continue back along the footpath to the two-track road. Follow that across the prairie until you reach the point where the Yellow Trail leaves it to head back towards the river. This is your decision point. You can follow the Yellow Trail back the way you came for a 9-mile round-trip hike. Or you can continue along the two-track road to follow the Equestrian Trail back to the White Trail. It’s a pretty walk and, once it gets into the woods, treats you to more enormous live oak trees shading the trail. Once it merges with the White Trail, stay on the forest road (ignore any more Equestrian Trail signs) to exit to the trailhead.