4.4 miles. With ripples of dark waters reflecting against pockmarked limestone walls, dense palm fronds obscuring sudden dropoffs into yawning sinkholes, and a footpath that winds you among the most geologically weird piece of any National Scenic Trail, the Aucilla Sinks are by far the most fascinating segment of the Florida Trail.
Karst, the limestone bedrock of Florida, is particularly porous in this area, and at some time in Florida’s misty past, the Aucilla River sank into it. You see the river as you hike, but it’s chopped up in bits and pieces flowing through sinkholes. Some are gaping holes with a steep dropoff down a cliff into them. Others, like Long Sink and Half Mile Sink, look like sections of flowing river. And others are little rocky traps, where the landscape drops off into them.
If you feel like you’ve entered a primordial forest, you’re not far off. The ghosts of the past are strong here, as the Aucilla Sinks have been identified as the earliest known site of human occupation in the southeastern United States, thanks to a double-edged stone knife found in one of the sinks. With the knife was a mastodon tusk and skull, and the knife had been used to remove the tusk. Prehistoric peoples – pre-Clovis, in archaeological terms – settled in this region when it was more than a hundred miles from the coastline. Since 1902, archaeological expeditions have removed a treasure trove of artifacts from the sinks, including the first-known work of art in the Americas, a carved ivory tusk.
Built in 1983, this is one of the older segments of the Florida Trail, so the path is well-worn. However, the palm canopy is very dense, so if you step off the footpath – or a storm knocks over a blazed tree or two – you may have a hard time finding it again. This segment includes one designated campsite with no easy access to water. Ironically, although there is water almost everywhere you look, the sinks are generally steep-sided, so there are few places where you can reach the water.
The chain of sinks themselves start at the Vortex, the main sink that swallows the river and forces it underground. It’s less than a half mile north of Goose Pasture Rd, with several showy sinks along the way, should you wish to add a mile to your hike to visit them first.
Hiking northbound from Goose Pasture Rd to Long Suffering Rd, the Aucilla Sinks section runs compass south (trail north) with the river always to your west (trail east).
Parking is limited at both ends of this section of trail. Access to the trail parking areas may be difficult depending on recent rains: the dirt roads feature deep mud and puddles when wet.
If the Aucilla River is in flood stage, it can rise up right through the porous limestone and make it impossible for you to determine what is footpath and what is a deep sinkhole. Always check the river gauge for the Aucilla before visiting, and never hike this section if water is flowing across any portion of the footpath. You can also call the Suwannee River Water Management District for information on current conditions at 386-362-1001.
Seasonal hunting is permitted in Aucilla WMA. Wear bright orange during hunting seasons. Check hunt dates in advance.
From Perry, follow US 98 west to Powell Hammock Grade. The southern portion of Powell Hammock Grade is part of the roadwalk between the Aucilla and St. Marks sections. Look for the quarry ponds pulloff on the right just after passing the abandoned mine processing plant, where the pavement ends.
The next access point is off to the left at the sign for Aucilla WMA. Depending on whether the deep holes in that forest road have water in them or not, you may be able to drive back to the Long Suffering Road sign to park at the south (trail north) end of the Aucilla Sinks. The worst rutting in the road is in the first quarter mile closest to Powell Hammock Grade. If you do park there, it’s best not to leave your car overnight, and don’t block any of the roads. If you can’t drive in on this road, backtrack to the quarry ponds and park there, adding 1.6 miles to your hike.
Another 1.5 miles past the Aucilla WMA sign on Powell Hammock Road is Goose Pasture Road, which leads to the only official trailhead in this section. Turn left. Avoid driving into puddles , as they may be deep. The trailhead is 1.1 miles west along this road on the right across from a large kiosk. There is only room for a few cars.
Look for the orange blazes leading into the dense forest adjoining the informational kiosk along the road. The bluff forest above the sinks has mature trees and lots of cabbage palms. Keep alert as the trail twists and winds through this unusual landscape, as each bend shows off yet another angle on a sinkhole. Some look like gashes, others look like crevices, and more commonly, the larger ones simply look like a piece of the river itself. Breakdown Sinks has a footbridge near one end, and after a forest road crossing, Long Sink looks like a stretch of river with a couple of footbridges over tributaries. Some of the sinks have islands in them, and others have upwellings of water like springs.
Continuing past two sinks where old roads end along their edge, the trail reaches Aucilla Sinks Camp, the one designated campsite along this section, at 2.5 miles. Keep alert through the upcoming section as following the blazes can be tricky. After circling a broad, shallow cypress swamp, the trail returns to the edge of the sinks, close enough to their bluffs that you cross a couple of natural bridges between sinks.
Leaving the edge of the sinks by making a sharp turn into the bluff forest, the trail passes between large boulders placed to keep vehicles out and then follows a forest road briefly, making a sharp turn into the forest. You reach the last of the sinks just as the trail re-emerges onto a forest road. Walk beyond it out to the clearing where several forest roads meet, and turn around to see the “Longsuffering Road” sign. At 4.4 miles, the clearing is the parking area for the end of this hike. If you found it necessary to park at the quarry ponds, make a left to sign to head compass east down the forest road out to Powell Hammock Grade. It’s a mostly shaded and pleasant walk.
FLORIDA TRAIL NORTHBOUND: Aucilla to St. Marks Roadwalk
FLORIDA TRAIL SOUTHBOUND: Aucilla River