Following a series of forest roads through the heart of Welaka State Forest, the John’s Landing Trail has several scenic spots along its 4.3-mile loop, from bluffs along the St. Johns River to shimmering lily-covered flatwoods ponds.
Trailhead: 29.4688, -81.6603
Length: 4.3 mile loop
Fees: $2 per person for day use
Open: Sunrise to sunset
There are two campsites along this loop, Orange Point and John’s Landing. Primitive camping is available at both of these scenic sites and costs $10 per site for a maximum of 5 people. Group camping can also be arranged. Contact the forest to reserve in advance of your visit.
Land Manager: Florida Forest Service, PO Box 174, Welaka FL 32193-0174
From Palatka, follow US 17 south to Satsuma. Turn right onto CR 309 and follow the brown signs through Satsuma and Palatka. Look for the Mud Spring trailhead on the right, across from the visitor center and park headquarters. After you pass this trailhead, the John’s Landing trailhead is a little more than a mile down the road on the right, at the fire tower.
From the trailhead clearing beneath the fire tower, head for the large kiosk that says Forest Education Trail. Follow this winding path through the pines, passing interpretive signs, before you emerge onto the forest road that connects up to Mud Spring, Eagle Nest Row. There is a trailhead kiosk for the John’s Landing Trail immediately ahead at this T intersection. Turn left.
You’ll see a double blue blaze off to the right along with an arrow. That’s the new William Bartram St. Johns River Loop, which parallels this older trail but deeper in the woods, off of the main forest roads. To stay on the John’s Landing Trail, pass it by and start following the orange blazes.
At a T intersection with Indian Pond Rd, you can see a forest road gate onto CR 309 to your left. Turn right. The trail quickly swings right at a fork onto Longleaf Lane, passing a sign for Orange Point. After you pass the next Longleaf Lane sign, water seeps across the trail from a swampy bayhead. Continue straight ahead, crossing another road junction. For a brief period at 0.6 mile, the light blue blazes of the William Bartram Loop join in, only to leave Longleaf Lane again at an orange arrow. Meandering through the pines, Longleaf Lane comes to the next junction at 1.3 miles with the Bartram Loop and an Orange Point sign. Continue straight ahead here to visit Orange Point, a promontory on the St. Johns River that also serves as a campsite with a beautiful view. A picnic bench overlooking the river makes this a nice place to stop and relax.
While the Bartram Loop exits Orange Point along the riverfront – and we recommend that route for its scenery – the John’s Landing Trail returns out to Longleaf Lane and turns right onto Deer Run. The trail is a grass-covered dike above the wet flatwoods, paralleled by a ditch. A dense oak hammock sits off to the right, stretching out to the river. Yellow-star grass shows off its six-pointed blooms. Clusters of bluestar glow light blue around their yellow centers. After you pass an unmarked side trail to the right, the dike becomes a shell mound. For more than a century, before their archaeological significance was realized, Timucuan middens were used to pave roads.
When you reach the Johns Landing sign at 2.3 miles, turn right, walking through the pine flatwoods right up to the river’s edge. This campsite isn’t as beautiful as the one at Orange Point, but it has more room for tents, a good place for group camping. From the bench, you get a sweeping view across the St. Johns to the Ocala National Forest on the far side of the river, and up through a cove to the north.
Return back along the trail to the Hammock Hideaway sign, and head straight across the trail intersection. You’re walking through wet slash pine flatwoods sprinkled with bayheads. Ditches on each side of the trail collect the tannic water as it drains towards the low spots. Bog buttons thrive in the wet areas. From a low-lying drainage, a beaten path leads to the edge of a large flatwoods pond around 3.1 miles.
When the path broadens, you pass a grove of sand live oak, and the trail rises up into a dry oak hammock with lots of crunchy leaves in the footpath. Stick with the wide road as other unmarked trails meander off of it. At the Indian Pond Run sign, turn left to pass by the northernmost of this series of ponds, where water lilies float across a placid surface. According to satellite images, the Indian Ponds were an integral part of the Mount Royal archaeological complex. Mount Royal itself sits to the south of the state forest boundary.
Coming to the junction with the Longleaf Lane sign at 4 miles, continue straight ahead, following the orange blazes back up to Eagles Nest Row. Turn right at the kiosk and take the winding path back out to the trailhead clearing under the fire tower to wrap up a 4.3 mile loop.