Hugging coastal swamps and marshes before plunging into them at the Cathedral of Palms, this popular 5.3 mile hike along the Florida Trail centers on Shepherd Spring, a natural treasure within St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.
One of the more popular segments of the Florida Trail in this region, 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 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.
There is one designated campsite along this segment of trail, the Wakulla Field Campsite. As the name suggests, there is ample room for multiple tents. 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 in advance. You may only use this campsite St. Marks if you are backpacking across the entire refuge, a 46.8 mile traverse that includes a river crossing. There is also a minor daily fee for camping. Please see the sidebar for full details on how to get your permit, or read through the rules on their website.
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.
Bicycles are permitted on the forest road sections of this trail, but not along the footpath segment between the forest roads, which includes the Cathedral of Palms, Shepherd Spring, and Wakulla Field Campsite.
FT symbols indicate trailheads and access points. Click on any symbol for more details and on FT symbols to obtain custom directions to trailheads.
0.0 > Leaving the small trailhead at Wakulla Beach Road, the trail follows a forest road straight ahead as far as the eye can see. The reason for this is immediately obvious, as the road is flanked on both sides by a vast cypress swamp with a dense canopy, making for a haunting start. Look carefully at the logs in the distance in the swamp, and you may see an alligator stretched out on one of them.
1.2 > The straightaway has been like a tunnel under the canopy of towering trees, and although you see dry ground along it now and again, it edges up against the property boundary on the trail east (north) side and the swampy ground on the other side. In spring, redbud trees lend a hint of pink to the emerging new growth on deciduous trees. A swamp flows across the forest road at this point, and depending on how deep it is, you may have to wade. Just past here, a sluggish stream feeds the swamp on the west side of the trail; it may serve as a water source. Filter a little and taste before filtering a lot.
1.8 > Soon after crossing another swamp drainage across the forest road, you pass a forest road on the left and immediately after it, a double blaze and FNST sign leading you off the road and into the woods. This is where the adventure begins. When water levels are high, the hike into and through the Cathedral of Palms can be a mucky wade. Except in times of drought, it will always be muddy in here.
2.1 > Cross a footbridge over a marshy area where the coastal estuary overflows into the forest floor. With so much dampness in this coastal forest of pines, oaks, and palms, fungi flourishes on fallen logs and tree trunks. Look for jelly-leaf fungus swarming across mossy surfaces, and oyster fungi on oak logs. Over the next quarter mile, the forest floor gets even wetter as you approach the next bridge, this one crossing an arm of the estuary dense with sawgrass.
2.4 > There is no mistaking the Cathedral of Palms. As you enter this dense palm hammock, the forest closes in on you, and the footpath gets exceptionally mucky in spots where the estuary spills into the forest. The estuary is visible off to your left through the trees. After a while, the palm trunks feel like columns rising around you. Ancient oaks snake their limbs through the columns to reach sunlight above. The trail gets muddier and wetter as you exit the far side of the palm hammock.
2.8 > Emerging out of the mucky edge of the forest to cross a forest road, the trail leads you to an intersection with a bench carved as a set of directional signs: “Trail” to the right and “Spring” to the left. Take the short blue blazed trail to the left to visit Shepherd Spring. As you approach the spring basin, the trail becomes a boardwalk, ending at an overlook of the spring with a bench. This beauty spot is 25 feet deep in the middle and has a large resident alligator. You’ll see schools of mullet swirl through the clear water. Although this was once a reliable water source, saltwater intrusion has changed the quality of the water. Filter a little and taste it before filtering a lot, and keep in mind that you can cook with this water in either case.
3.0 > Leaving the bench at the trail junction for Shepherd Spring, the trail meanders through a bamboo thicket in the understory of a pine and oak forest, passing by longleaf pines of significant girth and height. Loblolly bay trees also grow throughout the forest, indicating it can get wet here, too.
3.6 > Just beyond a grouping of Southern magnolia, you see the sign for the Wakulla Field Campsite. The campsite is visible to the east, a simple with large clearing under tall pines, with a couple of benches. Be sure to obtain a permit from St. Marks NWR before using this campsite. If the water from Shepherd Spring was too saline to drink, you can try filtering from an ephemeral rain-fed marsh that adjoins the trail just past the Wakulla Field sign along a causeway lined by young pine trees.
4.0 > After walking through a stand of towering longleaf pines, cross a forest road at a diagonal. The pines yield to an oak hammock dominated by one mature oak tree spreading its limbs widely, creating a nice patch of shade before you ascend into a healthy longleaf pine forest with a dense understory of saw palmetto.
4.2 > The trail ceases being a footpath as it joins FR 210 at a T intersection. This is where you can make a 7.4 mile loop hike back to the Wakulla trailhead by following FR 210 east to the next forest road intersection, then east again to continue on the straightaway tunnel through the woods to Wakulla Beach Rd. The Florida Trail northbound, however, turns west, leading you through a nice stand of longleaf pines.
4.7 > Descending onto a causeway, the trail is flanked by a swamp forest, with pools and ponds of water trailside and a culvert beneath the forest road. This water source is rain-fed and so should not be saline. As the forest road rises back into the pine forest, you come to a Y intersection with FR 206. Keep right.
5.1 > In a clearing at an intersection of forest roads, blue blazes lead trail east (compass west). Turn right and follow the blue blazes through the sandhill forest, which sports colorful wildflowers in late spring.
5.3 > Finish your hike by passing a sheltered kiosk with a bench and map – a nice place to get your gear organized – before emerging at the trailhead for the end of this segment along Spring Creek Highway.
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RESUPPLY: Stop N Save, 850-926-6554, 2651 Spring Creek Hwy, Crawfordville, FL 32327. This little store on US 98 is 1.4 miles north of the trailhead on Spring Creek Highway and is always busy, since they prepare hot foot and subs. Typical convenience store basics on the shelves.
LODGING: Wildwood Inn, 800-878-1546, 3869 Coastal Hwy, Crawfordville. Built as an eco-friendly inn by a local a little more than a decade ago, this pet-friendly Magnuson Hotel along US 98 is a nice spot to set up base camp for day hiking the Florida Trail through St. Marks NWR, with spacious rooms and a guest laundry, a pool, and a restaurant next door. Rates start around $89, with breakfast included.
DINING: The Seineyard at Wildwood, 850-926-9191, 3870 Coastal Hwy, Crawfordville, is a spinoff of the original in Woodville, showcasing local seafood. Our top picks are the shrimp (no matter how they’re prepared) and their fried mushrooms. Open for lunch and dinner Wed-Sun, adjoins the Wildwood Inn.
Spring Creek Restaurant, 850-926-3751, 33 Ben Willis Rd, Crawfordville. A lovely slice of Old Florida in the old community of Spring Creek down at the end of Spring Creek Highway, it’s a seafood restaurant, opening at 5 except on weekends. You can’t go wrong with anything you choose here, but the tomato pie with shrimp (think shrimp pizza, but even better) is amazing.
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.