5.3 miles. Hugging coastal swamps and marshes before plunging into them through the majestic Cathedral of Palms, this popular section of the Florida Trail centers on Shepherd Spring, a natural treasure within St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
One of the most popular hikes on the Florida Trail south of Tallahassee, this section ties together an easy stroll on forest roads with a far more challenging traverse of the muddy coastal palm hammock lauded as the Cathedral of Palms. The prize in the middle is Shepherd Spring, a third-magnitude spring surrounded by a dense floodplain forest.
The Cathedral of Palms is a unique destination along the Florida Trail, notable for the size and density of the cabbage palms within the hammock. As you hike the trail through it, you can see the coastal estuary along its edge. When tides are high, you’re walking in the waters of the coastal estuary under the waving palms. No matter the time of year or the time of day, you can pretty much guarantee wet feet along this hike.
Hunting is permitted in St. Marks NWR at certain times of year, so be sure to check hunt dates before hiking here, and wear bright orange clothes during hunting season.
Bicycles are allowed on the forest road sections of this trail, but not along the footpath between the forest roads, which is where the highlights of the hike are: the Cathedral of Palms and Shepherd Spring.
Planning to backpack? As St. Marks NWR is the only National Wildlife Refuge that permits backcountry camping, there are rules to follow. First and foremost: get a permit and pay your camping fees in advance. Camping is only allowed in designated campsites. You may only camp if you are backpacking across the entire refuge, a 47.4 mile traverse that includes a river crossing. See permit details. Call the refuge at 850-925-6121 if you have any questions about the process.
Backpackers: fresh water sources are limited throughout St. Marks NWR because it is along the coast. Tides affect water sources, as does a growing issue with saltwater intrusion, particularly in this area. Shepherd Spring used to be a trustworthy water source, but no longer. Tidal saltwater intrusion now affects it. Assume that it is a freshwater source only at low tide, and filter and taste a little before filtering a lot.
Both trailheads are just south of US 98. For the starting point of this hike, head east from the intersection of US 319 and US 98 in Medart for 8.7 miles to Wakulla Beach Rd, which comes up quickly on the right at a curve after you pass Obediah Triplett Rd. Follow Wakulla Beach Rd south for 1 mile to the small trailhead on the right, next to a large kiosk. Do not block the gate.
For the terminus of this hike, go east on US 98 from the US 319 / US 98 intersection in Medart for 4.9 miles to the blinker at the convenience store at Spring Creek Highway. Turn right and continue south 1.4 miles to the trailhead on the left. A short blue blaze leads from the trailhead up a forest road to the Florida Trail.
For more than a mile and a half, the Florida Trail leads you straight down a forest road under a dense canopy of trees. The reason for this is obvious, as the road is flanked on both sides by a vast cypress swamp, which drains across the footpath in several places.
Keep alert for where a forest road goes off to the left. Just beyond it is the turnoff into the Cathedral of Palms, which is quite the adventure to hike. It can be a mucky wade, and the bridges are often slippery. As the forest grows denser, there are ancient oaks among the palms. After 2.8 miles the trail comes to a sign at a bench. Turn left to walk down to Shepherd Spring. It is clear and deep, and has a resident alligator. A bench adjoins this beauty spot.
Winding through bamboo beneath pines and oaks and Southern magnolia, the trail passes Wakulla Field Campsite, the one designated campsite in this section. The trail eventually joins the forest road again to cross another swamp forest. When you reach the blue blaze junction, follow the blue blazes for a quarter mile to the trailhead at Spring Creek Highway.
FLORIDA TRAIL NORTHBOUND: Porter Tract
FLORIDA TRAIL SOUTHBOUND: Wakulla River