South of Astor along the St. Johns River, the Bluffton Recreation Area in Lake George State Forest paints a picture of Florida’s prehistoric past. As botanist William Bartram canoed the St. Johns River in 1773, he noted massive mounds of snail shells piled up on its shorelines. These middens, prehistoric garbage heaps, spoke to civilizations long gone who had plied the waters of the St. Johns for sustenance and travel. The Bluffton Mound was well known as a landmark along the river, thanks to its size, but like many middens along the St. Johns was carted away for roadfill in a less enlightened time earlier this century. Today, a visit to the Bluffton Interpretive Trail leads you into the past and through habitats common to the uplands along the St. Johns River.
Length: 1.2 miles
Lat-Long: 29.125353, -81.503343
Fees / Permits: $2 per person
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: portable toilet at the trailhead
The entrance road may be a little tough on your vehicle but does not require four-wheel drive. This hike is part of the Florida State Forest Trailwalker program, so be sure to pick up a postcard and mail it in once you complete the hike. Covered picnic pavilions provide a place to grab a snack and watch the river roll by, and there’s a canoe launch too, so you can make a day out of a visit to the Bluffton Recreation Area.
This state forest is open to hunting, and during hunting season in the winter, access to the recreation area may be limited. If you visit during hunting season, wear a blaze orange vest.
From the junction of US 17 and SR 40 in Barberville, drive west 5.8 miles towards the town of Volusia at the Astor Bridge to the second sign for Lake George State Forest on the left. Turn south on St. Johns River Road. Drive 0.7 of a mile down this bumpy road to reach the state forest entrance. Stop at the kiosk and sign in. The road narrows sharply, although at the time I visited, it appeared they might be widening it so two cars could pass. After 2.7 miles you pass the entrance to a beautiful primitive camping area tucked in beneath ancient oaks, and after 3.4 miles the road ends at the trailhead and river access area.
Starting at the parking area, sign in at the kiosk. Walk along the shoreline for a glimpse of the St. Johns River at the canoe launch before you head south along a side channel of the river that runs along Bluffton Island, you have the opportunity to walk out on a floating wheelchair-accessible fishing pier and survey the scene. Cypresses rise tall on the far shore, where watermarks on their trunks tell the tale of just how high the St. Johns River can get at times. This is an excellent spot for birding, especially in the early morning. Gallinules drift across the shallows, and you might catch a glimpse of a limpkin picking its way beneath the Virginia willows along the shoreline. The bright yellow blooms of primrose willow shine.
Leaving the pier, turn right and walk between the Southern red cedars to the third sign-in spot for the forest, this time for the hiking trail itself. Here, you’ll pay your entry fee. At the kiosk, pick up an interpretive guide, which has numbers corresponding to locations along the hike. An ancient village once occupied at this spot, where a midden of freshwater snail shells – like what is seen at present-day Silver Glen Springs – once rose up to twenty feet high across 35 acres of riverfront. The people who lived here enjoyed the bounty of the St. Johns River, not just in snails but fish, turtle, and manatee. Pottery and tools have been found in archeological digs at this site.
By the early 1900s, this spot was known as Orange Bluff. Atop the midden, an orange grove flourished, and surrounding truck farms in the low-lying wetlands enabled the planters to ship oranges, tomatoes, and other vegetables from the dock at Bluffton Landing. Some remains of the dock sit down along the water’s edge. The trailhead is well-marked and well-signed.
As you start down the footpath, notice the tiny snail shells underfoot everywhere. These were all a part of the midden. At Marker 5, note the orange trees that remain from the Orange Bluff days. Loblolly pines and sweetgum rise overhead. The straight-line nature of the trail feels like a tramway, which probably was used to transport crops and cypress out to the river. A floating bridge sits forlornly at the bottom of a dry basin. A swallow-tailed kite swoops overhead in a flash of white and black against the blue sky.
A wide spot in the trail seems like it might have been the location of the planter’s home, which in its day would have had a nice view of the St. Johns River. A young forest here, surrounded by older growth, belies the location. You encounter your first lime-green blaze along the trail. It’s not the optimal color for blazing, but keep yourself attuned to it at the intersections.
As you leave Orange Bluff, the trail starts down a boardwalk past Marker E and into a lush hardwood hammock, where oranges also grow in the understory. Bamboo grows in profuse clusters. Passing an ironwood tree, you get into a dense stand of pignut hickory, so much so that the footpath is covered in hickory nuts, making it a bit tough to walk, since it feels like you’re walking on marbles. Oyster fungi coats the rough surfaces of fallen logs. As the forest canopy thickens, thanks to ancient live oaks and massive Southern magnolia trees, you reach the beginning of the loop at 0.3 mile. Turn right.
The trail leads through river bluff forest, the landscape undulating underfoot – perhaps due to river erosion, or the removal of the midden materials, or furrows from truck farming. Sparkleberry rises overhead, notable for its peeling reddish bark and its berries. It’s also known as huckleberry, and is the tallest member of the blueberry family. As the landscape opens up a little, the habitat transitions into scrubby flatwoods. An unmarked spur trail at half a mile leads down to a patch of open scrub. Take a quick wander down there for a look. Low-bush blueberries spot blooms along the edges of the trail, which is fringed with Chapman oak and sand live oak. Returning to the main trail, turn right.
You’re back in the scrubby flatwoods, with young longleaf pines planted to gain a foothold to establish a new sandhill forest in the scrub. The line of cabbage palms in the distance indicates a flow of water through the landscape, along with tall cypress. It’s an interesting mixture of habitats in one spot.
Crossing another boardwalk, the trail continues past tall wax myrtles. Sphagnum moss and marsh ferns indicate the location of a bog, along with colorful wild bachelor’s-button growing in the mushy spots. Poke around a little, and you might find hooded pitcher plants, according to the forest’s list of native plants found here. Cypress trees rise in a line to the left along the rim of this wet flatwoods area. A big puff of deer moss indicates another change in habitat as the landscape rises up a little to accommodate gallberry, blueberry, and bracken fern, an island of sandhill surrounded by small boggy spots.
The trail continues into open, shadeless scrubby flatwoods, with gatorbacks in the trail – the root systems of saw palmettos. Tiny bogs are in every low spot, havens for crickets and frogs, bladderworts and sundew. A cypress dome sits off to the left, with cinnamon ferns near the mushy spots in the trail. A tiny bit of elevation brings back the plants of the scrub. The uneven ground underfoot makes for a rough workout for the knees. Roserush and deer’s tongue grow trailside. At Marker 11, the trail makes a sharp left past a stand of young sand pines. A sharp right leads you into the sand pine scrub.
Signs of a bear’s recent visit – trunks torn apart by long claws – are all along this section of the loop. A wide trail works just as well for a bear as a hiker, so watch where you put your feet, or you might step into a steaming pile of bear scat!
This is a lush patch of sand pine scrub, with an understory of curvaceous branches of lyonia and sand live oak hosting colorful hanging gardens of lichens. The trail reaches a noticeable high spot, which might be part of the original midden. A Southern magnolia is swaddled in resurrection fern. Go ahead, try and find those lime-green blazes in the middle of all these lichens! Transitioning to the edge of a palm hammock, the trail now passes under some loblolly pines. “X” marks the spot in this part of the forest–look for the crossed palms, reminiscent of the clue for buried treasure in one of my favorite movies, “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
The loop ends soon after, at 0.9 miles. On the walk back through the hammock, enjoy the tall magnolias, live oaks, and cabbage palms as they cast long shadows across the trail. You start to hear the roar of motorboats along the river. Watch the fallen logs for interesting blobs of fungi. Continue along the trail, taking care not to slip on the pignut hickories, as it heads back out to the river. With the dense forest on your right, it’s easier to pay attention to the details high up in the trees–bromeliads, orchids, and ferns. The trail turns right as it draws within sight of the river. Continue down the narrow boardwalk back out to the homestead site, and you’ll soon emerge at the edge of the recreation area. Take a wander back down to the river to see if any new wading birds are poking around before you head back to your car, ending your 1.2 mile hike.