In the 1780s, British loyalists Thomas Forbes and William Panton fled from the American Revolution in Georgia to Florida, then a British colony. Applying for a land grant, they received acreage west of modern-day Palatka. Using servants to ditch dikes and build drainage canals, they established fields of rice and indigo (a native plant from which dyes are extracted) and tapped pine trees for naval stores such as turpentine. Eventually, the area was abandoned and returned to forest. Preserved in 2002 by St. Johns Water Management District, for many years it was known of and set aside as “Rice Creek Sanctuary” amid the timber holdings of Georgia Pacific.
Just 3 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. I was along for the hike when one of the largest, just off the trail, was officially measured by retired forester and “big tree” expert Robert Simon. By his measurements, it’s the 7th largest cypress in Florida, and you can see it from the trail.
Length: 5.2 miles
Lat-Long: 29.682369, -81.736847
Type: linear and loop
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
The “Rice Creek Hilton” is a screened shelter popular with backpackers, with a non-potable pitcher pump adjoining it. Trailheads for this segment of the Florida Trail are at SR 20 (fitting about 3 cars) and off SR 100 (for about 10 cars).
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.
When I first hiked this area to write about it in Along the Florida Trail, you could drive right up to the trailhead for the loop where the big trees are. As of 2007, you have to hike in. But that’s a good thing. It used to be that folks loitered around the old concrete picnic tables; no more. 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. 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. But I recommend you stick to the orange blazes—a real delight is in store.
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 the 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. If the swamp is dry, it’s possible to climb down and walk over to it—but mind the poison ivy.
Continuing around the loop, you’ll pass the stumps of more big cypresses as the habitat transitions with a small amount of elevation. Wild citrus thrives in the cool understory beneath sweetgum, Florida maple, and ironwood. The orange blazes break off and lead away from the loop, carrying the Florida Trail southward.
While I don’t count this in the mileage, I went south on the FT to check out Hoffman’s Crossing, a narrow two-board boardwalk with railing that keeps your feet dry as you plunge through another arm of the Rice Creek Swamp. If you’re hiking the Florida Trail between SR 100 and SR 20, you’ll encounter this marvel about a mile south of the loop in the Rice Creek Swamp. For nearly half a mile, it tacks back and forth to skirt giant cypresses and avoid old deadfall, while showcasing the beauty of the cypress swamp just inches above the water. Benches provide resting spots along the traverse, which leads you past clumps of needle palm and deep water holes created by root balls torn out by fallen trees – watch for otters! At the end of the boardwalk, a sulfurous artesian well gushes a continual stream back into the floodplain forest. Backtrack along the boardwalk back to the main loop.
To continue your day hike loop, keep heading straight. 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.