Hidden in the depths of a floodplain forest in the heart of Goethe State Forest, the Big Cypress Trail is a short hike that leads to one of Florida’s most amazing botanical wonders. At the end of this ramble past large and larger trees, you follow a boardwalk to the base of a towering cypress tree more than 900 years old, with others of similar stature nearby.
Length: 0.6 mile
Lat-Long: 29.223550, -82.622667
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: moderate
The trailhead is off SR 121 in Levy County, between Inglis and Williston, northwest of Dunnellon and southwest of Bronson. From Dunnellon, follow CR 40 west to CR 336. Turn right and drive 10.5 miles to the junction with US 19 and SR 121. Turn right on SR 121. Continue 1.2 mile to the unmarked Cow Creek Road on the right. Cow Creek Road is a dirt forest road passable by passenger vehicles but also used by logging trucks. Following it north, stay right at the first fork in the road. Drive 3.2 miles to the well-marked parking area on the left.
Starting at the Big Cypress Trail sign, this interpretive trail heads downhill towards Cow Creek Swamp. Loblolly pines tower above. Watch out for roots underfoot as you drop down into the transitional zone between pine flatwoods and floodplain swamp. The interpretive markers along the trail call your attention to the variety of trees that grow in this zone between habitats, and many of them are quite large, especially the pines. Once belonging to a local logging company, Goethe State Forest was purchased by the State of Florida after the owner died. Mr. Goethe left many patches of old-growth forest inside his holdings, and this is one of them.
The trail turns right where an old path goes left into the floodplain, reaching a corridor outlined with saw palmetto as you come up to the interpretive marker for an American hornbeam. One large tree toppled nearby, leaving a gaping hole in the canopy and a massive rootball to your right. A Southern magnolia overhead, unusually large and magnificent, hosts scores of bromeliads in its branches. Beyond the magnolia, the footpath gets very rooty and rough; the forest closes in as if you’re entering a jungle. You pass a tall loblolly pine with a lightning strike down its side. The saw palmettoes adjoining it grow straight up like cabbage palms. The trail turns to start the boardwalk.
Created with lumber salvaged by trees killed by pine bark beetles, the boardwalk dates back to 2002. You pass an enormous live oak as you start the walk into the swamp, big trees of many species all around you, amazing in their size and girth. Straight ahead is the Goethe Giant, dominating the forest. It’s a heck of a tree. From this perspective, before you reach its base, you can see how tall it is. Fallen trees throughout the forest, covered in fungi, are enormous as well.
At the end of the boardwalk, you stand beneath Florida’s seventh-largest cypress tree. By its thick girth and squat crown, you can tell the top was sheared off by a hurricane decades or centuries ago. How did it survive the wholesale logging of cypress forests on this coast? Look up. It has several flaws that spared it from the sawmill, including a deep hole in the trunk a good fifty feet up, where bees buzz. In 2005, the tree, an estimated 907 years old, measured 28.5 feet in circumference and 87.5 feet tall.
At the base of the cypress are stairs leading into the muck of the swamp. If you’re prepared for swamp walking – and have the wayfinding skills to find your way back to this point – there are more large trees to be seen in Cow Creek Swamp. Several large cypresses are visible from this point. However, the swamp is very muddy and sticky and may have deep mud holes, so only the experienced should venture into it.
Turn around and wander back along the same route. Notice how furry the limbs of the live oaks are, heavily laden with resurrection fern and bromeliads. A tall rusty lyonia adjoins the massive magnolia tree. Even the grapevines are big. As you walk back up the trail, the wall of swamp is off to the right; in winter, you can see through the canopy to more large cypresses back there. You return to the trailhead after 0.6 mile.