A surprisingly pleasant section of the Florida Trail that sees very few hikers, the most remote part of the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail stretches 9.3 miles between Hampton and the New River, southwest of Starke. Maintained by Florida State Parks, blazed by the North Florida Trailblazers, and accessible at several road crossings, it has no formal trailheads.
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Length: 9.3 miles
Lat-Lon: 29.962053,-82.264244 (CR 235) to 29.872833,-82.151352 (US 301)
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate
Dogs are welcome, but you’ll walk past several farms and residences with dogs behind the fences, and they’ll put up a fuss. This section is open to off-road biking, but be mindful you’ll be riding over gravel which could puncture tires.
Hike with a friend to leave a car at both ends (CR 235 and US 301) to enjoy a 9 mile walk, or plan a turnaround point back to your vehicle. You can also access this section from CR 227 or CR 225. All access points have very limited parking and aren’t where you would want to leave a car overnight.
Best access to this section is at its two ends: US 301 southbound (south of Starke, just north of Hampton) and CR 235 (south of SR 100, just east of the New River Bridge). Both locations only have room for a car or two. CR 227 (accessed from US 301) also has room for a car and can be used to shorten this hike. Do not block the gates, and don’t leave vehicles overnight.
It was an early December morning when John dropped LuAnne “Tigger” Anderson and I off near the New River for a hike into the unknown. I’d followed the roadwalk from Hampton to Lake Butler more than a decade before, but never before traversed this remote piece of the Palatka-Lake Butler Trail. Assurance from Janie Hamilton that the section was regularly mowed by the Florida Park Service – and a few choice photos from recent thru-hikers – meant it was time to get out there and see what we could see.
We started at the far end, CR 235, the better to head towards civilization for lunch. With dawn breaking over the treeline, sunglasses became necessary as the sun shot straight at us down the very linear path, formerly the Norfolk Southern rail line.
We found bits and pieces of railroad history along the way: faded markers, a piece of railroad rail driven into the earth, and puddles of railbed gravel underfoot. Most of the time there wasn’t much of it left, but there were some spots that, in trail runners, were just painful. I can’t imagine how tough it would be hiking barefoot over those rocks.
For the first 3.5 miles, the trail is a tunnel beneath the trees, leading you through a colorful array of forests and swamps. They’re especially colorful in winter, when the red maples and sweetgum sport their bright autumn leaves against the blue sky.
As you cross the named dirt roads in this section, you’ll find that they’re simply crossovers for logging trucks to get between private timberlands on both sides of the corridor. Essentially a causeway where it split swamps in two, the trail offers just enough elevation for nice views into the inky waters below.
Reaching SW 102nd Ave, you pop out into the rural community of Hampton. At 4.4 miles, the Sampson River is a highlight of the hike. Depending on its water flow, it can be very showy. When we hiked it, the river ran across rocky rapids where the trestle once stood. The river is an outflow of Lake Sampson, controlled by floodgates, and riffles over tiny rocky rapids before vanishing downstream.
When I returned two months later with John to show him the rapids, the river floodplain was entirely engulfed in floodwaters, blocking access to the trail. There is a little side channel you have to step across near the bridge, and you certainly couldn’t that day. When it’s lower, you can stick a filter in it.
The trail uses the highway bridge to cross the river, scrambling back up to the berm on the far side. Which brings us to the not-so-surprising other feature of this section. When it isn’t in the tunnel of forest, remote from everyone and everything, the trail adjoins farmland. Just east of the river, you walk in front of people’s houses and along their fencelines for a while.
Once east of the railroad tracks at 5 miles, the trail becomes a tunnel again. It’s flanked by working timberlands that are also leased out to hunters, so wearing an orange vest in this section is a sensible idea. This part of the trail also has a few farms along it, and you’ll cross their driveways. There are a handful of spots where you could pitch a tent or two, most notably at a wide spot in the trail in a pine forest at 5.4 miles.
While it traverses many swamps, we found the cypress swamp at 6.7 miles especially captivating, with its mix of open and grassy waters. Once you cross CR 227 – another good access point, which can shorten this hike to 7.5 miles – the remainder of the walk is a quiet stroll between timberlands until you’re right up to where you can hear the traffic of US 301.
If you’d enjoy a quiet, off-the-beaten-path walk on the Florida Trail, do this hike sooner than later. We noticed survey marks along the route. So yes, at some point in the not too distant future, this section of the trail will be paved, diminishing its charm for hikers. Enjoy it now, while you can hear the crunch of leaves underfoot. Your feet will thank you.