This roly-poly section of the Florida Trail is pretty rugged despite its short distance, since it involves a lot of scrambling in and out of ravines and eroded bluffs created when the Suwannee River seasonally overflows its banks. Starting at a pulloff just outside Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park and ending inside the park at the spring house along the river, it’s an extraordinarily scenic hike, especially when you do it in this direction, west to east, since you’re almost always facing the river.
Massive live oaks, deep sinkholes, and the sweet scent of wild azalea in early spring will tempt you to this section of trail, which also has the distinction of passing right in front of the rental cabins at the state park. No matter whether you hike out and back from the park for up to a 7-mile round-trip, or use two cars to shuttle, or hike all the way through the park to the spring house, it’s a great hike, best done with your hiking sticks and rugged footwear.
Location: White Springs
Length: 3.8 miles
Lat-Long: 30.345833, -82.801557 to 30.329554, -82.766908
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: At Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park
While the river rarely rises too high for hiking in winter, its flow is dependent on rainfall in the Okeefenokee Swamp. It never hurts to check in advance with Suwannee River Water Management District before making the trek up to White Springs to hike. If the river level is over 60 feet, the Florida Trail will be flooded in its low spots, which includes some sections of this particular hike.
For more information: Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park
From Interstate 75, follow SR 136 for 3 miles east into downtown White Springs. Turn left at the blinker.
East end: At the curve, turn left and enter Stephen Foster Folk Culture State Park. Pay your fee at the gate, then follow the one way road around the park past the carillon tower and craft village to the gazebo parking area on the right.
West end: Pass the entrance to Stephen Foster Folk Culture State Park. Make the next left onto Camp Street (CR 25A). The road makes a couple of sharp 90-degree turns. Continue along it, passing the back gate to the park. From here it’s another 2 miles to the turnoff on your left. Watch for orange blazes on telephone poles. The turnoff is not well marked but is just past a house on the right that has a wagon wheel out front. Turn left.
When you pull off CR 25A, turn left and park a little ways down on the left. The Florida Trail follows this grassy double-track, with orange blazes on telephone poles, passing residences for 0.4 mile until it turns right to head into the woods. Almost immediately, the trail drops down, down, down, down the edge of a hill to a very pretty creek at the bottom of a ravine. You can hear the water of Sal Marie Branch rushing past below. Cross the bridge, and now it’s time to ascend back up to the top, aided by switchbacks, into a bluff forest with sparkleberry and saw palmetto dominating the understory. It’s particularly gorgeous after a rain, with ferns glistening and the tips of pine needles tipping drops of water towards the ground. The trail opens up into a grassy clearing with native plum trees, then rises higher up into the pines and saw palmetto. Property boundary signs mark the slender boundary the trail has in this zone outside the state park and along Suwannee Water Management District lands.
Peep through gaps in the trees to the right, and you’ll see signs of the Suwannee River not that far away. The Florida Trail sticks to the bluffs above the river most of the time, so the views are great. You pass an immense loblolly pine with a catface – gashed mark for bleeding turpentine from the tree – a good ten feet up off the ground, showing how old this tree must be. Around 0.6 mile, you get your first clear view of the river, where a short stretch of whitewater – let’s call this one Tiny Shoals, in comparison to Big Shoals and Little Shoals upstream – shows up when the river is low. Caves are obvious in the river bluffs. Both highbush blueberries and sparkleberries (also known as huckleberries) grow along this section. You begin to encounter patches of fragrant wild azalea on the bluffs, adding puffs of pink throughout the forest.
Just past a slash pine of enormous size, you reach the Stephen Foster Folk Culture State Park boundary sign and a whole lot of azalea blooming in March. There’s a reason the Wild Azalea Festival is held in White Springs – you’ll see hundreds of them all the way into the developed portion of the park, particularly where the trail swings out close to the edge of the bluff. More catfaced pines are along the sides of the trail, showing off their deep gashes cut by axes. Some have the metal flashing used to funnel turpentine still deep in the tree. One tree is so huge it looks like it’s bursting at the seams. This entire section of trail, hugging close to the river, is a wonderland of green giants.
After encountering a “River Overlook” sign at a wide spot that looks like it’s been used as a campsite, the trail drops into a deep ravine which is tricky to get down into and back out of. Follow the switchbacks, but take your time! As you pass beneath another big pine, enjoy the deeply cushioned blanket of pine needles underfoot. When you get back to the hard-packed bluff, be alert for rocks and rocky crevices underfoot. The pine forest and its understory of saw palmetto attempts to swarm up and over the bluffs.
A hiking stick comes in handy again as the bluff narrows sharply, and you have to watch your balance carefully as you walk atop overhanging rocks. Creating natural sculptures, cypress roots clinging tightly to the limestone walls of the river basin. Across the river, you can now see the occasional residence hidden behind the trees, most obvious when a staircase drops to the river – or a very long skid to drop a boat over the far bluff.
At 1.3 miles, the trail reaches the river’s edge at a “tree with a heart” (look closely) and stays low to the river for a stretch, with a sweep of forest up to the left. This basin fills with water easily when the river splashes over its banks. Rising up again, the trail follows the curve of the bluff, passing by a gigantic oak tree leaning out over the river. A log provides a spot for a break and a scenic view beneath the big oaks. Azaleas fill the forest with a heavenly aroma.
You reach “Catfish Hole,” the major trail junction within the state park, at 1.6 miles. Here, the trail divides in two. For the scenic route, stay to the right and follow the orange blazes. For the avoiding-deep-water route, take the forest road into the woods straight ahead. If you’re hiking from the park and want to do a loop, the forest road is your return route.
Staying on the Florida Trail, you descend down along the river bluffs from the high point of Catfish Hole. An oak toad peeps out from beneath the leaf of a swamp chestnut oak. The trail clings close to the top rim of the river bluff, rounding a large floodplain area to the left. After another bend in the river, a tiny forest of cypress knees spreads out before you, some forming natural arches along the riverbank. Another tricky traverse lies ahead, a steep slope curving upward towards the top of the river bank to keep you out of a deep drop off to the left. A large cluster of azaleas tops the bluffs at 2.2 miles.
More homes appear on the far side of the river, all up high and well out of the floodplain, or so they hope. When the Suwannee spills over, the effect can be far-reaching. A blaze way up high overhead reinforces the floodplain’s depth. At 2.4 miles, there’s another dip that the trail dives through, where fungi grows as big as dinner plates. Passing an immense loblolly pine – perhaps six feet around the base – the trail continues beneath large oaks to a scenic spot along the river, where during low water, islands appear.
Crossing the designated primitive campsite at 2.9 miles, at the cable crossing – where we stumbled across a troop of Boy Scouts – the trail is shaded by more large oak trees and a canopy of azaleas and sparkleberry. Through the forest, you can see the state park cabins coming up, atop the bluff. These cabins are just a few years old and large inside, easily accommodating an entire family for a weekend getaway. Now close enough to the heart of the park that we can hear the carillon bells, the trail crosses the canoe launch right in front of the cabins, working its way back down to the riverbank for the next stretch.
There is a deep ravine that needs to be climbed down into, and it’s a bit tricky – a helping hand or a nice long hiking stick would be of assistance here. The trail then turns away from the bluff and heads up the slope. The gazebo – a large structure used not just for sitting, but for pickin’ and grinnin’ during the Florida Folk Festival – gleams brightly through the forest, which in winter and spring is pretty open throughout the understory. Wisteria climbs up into the trees, and planted azaleas are up on the hill, as the trail approaches the “civilized” part of the state park.
Take a moment to rest under the shade of the gazebo and enjoy the view. From here, you can follow the designated walkway, or continue along the orange blazes to summit up the small rise to the parking area. This is the first of several places you can call it a day hike, completing 3.3 miles.
To continue on to the park boundary, follow the orange blazes uphill through a cut, and you emerge along the edge of the park’s loop road, still atop the river bluffs with some views through the trees. The blazes lead you along this treed edge of the bluff to a picnic area, which is mainly used as an outdoor kitchen during the Florida Folk Festival, past the ranger station, and back over to the edge of the bluff to the springhouse.
Once the heart of White Springs, the springhouse was the gathering place for “taking the waters” at White Sulphur Springs in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today, you’re as likely to see the river vanishing into the spring as you are the spring pumping water into the river. Such has Florida’s hydrology changed in a century.
There is a small parking area here.