For the spectacle of seeing Florida’s only Class III whitewater, it’s well worth a hike up to Big Shoals. This round-trip trek showcases not just the shoals but also the spring run for Bell Springs, a waterfall at Robinson Branch, and interesting erosional features along the river’s edge.
Location: White Springs
Length: 4.6-mile round-trip
Trailhead: 30.329298, -82.689613
Fees / Permits: none
Land Manager: Suwannee River Water Management District
IMPORTANT: Camping is NOT permitted at the trailhead
Ticks can be a serious problem on any hike along the Suwannee River. Protect yourself by using bug spray and wearing light clothing. This is a rugged section of trail involving a tricky water crossing. There is a lot of poison ivy along the trail. A hiking stick is recommended.
Turn left onto Morrell Drive. Follow this road until it ends at a cul-de-sac turnaround in front of a house. Continue through the gate in the middle of the cul-de-sac to the parking area for Bell Springs.
Starting at the Bell Springs trailhead at the end of Morrell Drive, follow the unmarked forest road into the forest to meet the Florida Trail at a clearing with a historic marker commemorating the preservation of this land for the public.
Continue north along the orange blazes, crossing a bridge over a clear stream that is the outflow from Bell Springs. The trail parallels the spring run before turning away from it to start following the river upstream. Cross a handful of bog bridges under towering trees.
The footpath becomes rocky and rooty as you approach Robinson Branch Falls. The trail turns to lead you upstream along this tributary to a spot where it crosses it, then loops back along it to the river for another look at the falls.
A mile in, the footpath drops down to river level, passing under the roots of a pine tree. The rough water in the river is the lower end of Big Shoals.
Over the next half mile, the trail scrambles back up to the bluffs, affording good views of the whitewater. One spot offers a sweeping view over a curve in the river.
On a level part of the bluff, the campsite is at 1.8 miles. Beyond it, the trail opens up to the width of a forest road and is used for paddlers to portage around the shoals.
A second campsite is just before the paddler take-out above the shoals. Scramble down to the river here for a sweeping view downstream to be impressed at the view of tannic water tumbling over boulders.
Since the Suwannee is a floodplain river draining the Okefenokee Swamp, there are times when the boulders may be under water, and other times when they may be entirely exposed and the rapids drop to Class II or Class I.
This is your turn-around point. Return along the same route along the orange blazes for a 4.6-mile hike. On your return trip, be sure to take a side trip down to the Suwannee River where Bell Springs Run flows out into the river. It’s a beauty spot.
FLORIDA TRAIL NORTHBOUND: Deep Creek to Big Shoals Roadwalk
FLORIDA TRAIL SOUTHBOUND: Bell Springs to Little Shoals