Just three miles west of Palatka, this segment of the Florida Trail is incredibly lush. Bromeliads dangle from overhanging limbs. Wild azalea blooms. Cypress trees grow to incredible sizes. Along the loop, you’ll find the 7th largest cypress in Florida.
Full details on this hike, including a trail map, are in our full-color guidebook Florida Trail Hikes.
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Length: 5.2 miles linear and loop
Trailhead: 29.682369, -81.736847
Along the Oak Hammock Trail, the “Rice Creek Hilton” is a screened shelter popular with backpackers, with a non-potable pitcher pump adjoining it.
From the intersection of SR 100 and SR 19 in Palatka, drive west for 4.2 miles on SR 100. Look for the large sign on the left for Rice Creek Conservation Area. Turn left and follow the track to the parking area. From the parking area, skirt around the gate and walk down the track until you see blue blazes leading to the right. Follow the blue blazes to connect to the main Florida Trail; turn left to head south towards the Rice Creek Swamp loop.
From the parking area off SR 100, round the gate and follow the entrance road in until you see blue blazes off to the right. The blue blazed trail leads to the main section of the Florida Trail.
At the T, turn left to head into the heart of the swamp. You’ll reach the loop trail after 1.5 miles. Built and maintained by the Florida Trail Association’s Putnam Crew, it’s an excellent piece of trail.
It’s the 2.2-mile loop through the heart of Rice Creek Swamp that makes this section of the Florida Trail so special. Reaching the beginning of the loop, you’ll follow the orange blazes forward and start crossing bridges. And more bridges.
The bridges – each carefully numbered – carry you across breaks in the old dikes that once defined the impoundments in which rice was grown. Around you is the floodplain forest, filled with cypress. Maple-leaf winged dragonflies flit from cypress knee to cypress knee.
You pass a junction of creeks on the right, with a spring just off out of site. Rice Creek parallels the trail, its clear flow over a sand bottom stained by tannins. Slash pines rise like columns supporting the canopy.
A quarter mile into the loop, you reach the yellow-blazed cross trail leading off to the left. If you’re looking for the shortest possible hike, use it to cross the swamp and turn left at the end of it to make the loop.
The cypresses get larger. Off on the right, you’ll see a double-trunked cypress. On the left, past bridge #9, the hollowed out charred remains of an ancient cypress that you could take shelter inside in a pinch.
Nearly a mile into the loop, you come to a side boardwalk, adjoined by a sign with a green tree painted on a white background. Turn right and follow it to the end.
If the swamp is as it should be – wet – you’ll look out across a floodplain of knees to see the base and the rising column of the eighth largest cypress in Florida. As of March 2007, it stood at 107 feet tall, 24 feet 9 inches in circumference, and a crown spread of 48 feet by 42 feet. This cypress is BIG.
Continuing around the loop, you’ll pass the stumps of more big cypresses as the habitat transitions with a small amount of elevation. The orange blazes break off and lead away from the loop, carrying the Florida Trail southward.
To continue your day hike loop, the trail makes a sharp left at a large, old live oak to cross a bridge with a sign “Oak Hammock Trail.” A blue blazed side trail on the right leads to the primitive campsite, a pleasant shady spot with picnic table and pitcher pump.
A second side trail on the right leads to what used to be the parking area for this loop. Continue straight, and you’ll end up at the beginning of the loop. Turn right to backtrack your route, reaching the trailhead after 5.2 miles.