Located between Osceola National Forest and the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, John Bethea State Forest protects nearly 40,000 acres.
It exists to establish a continuous wildlife corridor for many threatened and endangered species in this vast swampy landscape along the Florida-Georgia border.
It protects the waterways and aquifers that sustain the Okefenokee Swamp, the Suwannee River and St. Marys River. And it is helping to accelerate the restoration of the great longleaf pine forests of the Southeastern United States.
Maple Set Recreation Area is in the far northeast corner of the forest, adjoining the headwaters of the St. Marys River. It is home to Maple Set Campground, a primitive tent camping area.
The Maple Set Trail is made up of several blazed segments that total 2.5 miles. A quarter mile upper loop provides access from the campground to a short boardwalk, picnic area and swimming hole on the river.
The 0.9-mile lower loop starts from the same spot, leading through the wet river bottom and its cypress knees before following grassy service roads back to the parking area.
Another 1.3 miles of spur trails are accessible from the southern end of the lower loop.
The trail along the river is quite beautiful and well-marked, while the return portion of the southern loop can be a bit tricky to follow through the river bottom.
The spur south along the river is likewise very nice and well-marked, while the east-west spurs between the river and CR 127 are less so.
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Length: 2.5 miles in loops and spur trails
Trailhead: 30.524425, -82.231083
Land manager: Florida Forestry Service
Day use is allowed 1-1/2 hours before sunrise until 1-1/2 hours after sunset. Overnight parking is not allowed without a campsite reservation.
Leashed dogs welcome. Bring bug spray, sunscreen and plenty of water.
Primitive camping (temporarily closed) is available by reservation.
Heading west on Interstate 10 from Jacksonville, take exit 333 and follow signs for Glen St. Mary. You will pass through Glen St Mary in 1 mile. Remain on Glen Ave for 8.8 miles before turning right onto CR 127. After 10 miles, you will reach Florida SR 2. Turn right, then immediately left back onto CR127. After another 0.5 miles turn right at John Burnsed Rd and Maple Set Campground. The parking area is just ahead after 0.3 miles.
From the northeast corner of the parking lot, the upper loop trail passes through the gate to the Maple Set Campground, then passes several numbered tent sites on the right.
Just after you pass the water pump between tent sites #4 and #5, the trail turns right toward the river, which you’ll come to after only a short distance.
Turn right and follow the yellow-blazed trail at the river’s edge. Be careful not to trip over the many saw palmetto trunks lying on and around the trail.
In less than a quarter mile, the trail turns right and comes to a picnic area overlooking a lovely swimming hole.
It is quite deep in the middle and, though the Florida Forest Service says that jumping into the water from river banks or trees is not allowed, local residents have attached two rope swings.
At the end of the picnic area a short boardwalk leads back to the parking area.
The lower loop begins at the southwest corner of the parking area and is marked with a small hiking sign, at which you veer left to again follow the trail along the river’s edge.
The trail here is beautiful, easy to follow, and well-blazed. At about 0.4 miles there is a double-blaze that marks the bottom of the lower loop, which turns right here.
The spur trails, also blazed yellow, continue south along the river.
Turning right at the double blaze, the trail goes through river bottom filled with cypress and their knees.
During dry season, this area is merely soggy and soft, but judging from the water marks this area can turn into a shin-deep swamp during rainy months.
The yellow blazes are faded here and poorly placed so be careful navigating your way.
After just a few hundred feet the trail passes through this low-lying area and comes to a grassy service road.
Turn right and after 0.3 miles, you will come to a “T” with another grassy service road. Turn right and follow this service road a final 0.1 mile back to the parking area.
If you decide to hike some or all of the spur trails, at the double yellow blaze noted above continue south along the river.
After a little more than a tenth of a mile, the trail passes under the SR 2 bridge and reenters the forest on the other side of the clearing.
After 0.2 miles, another double-blaze marks a side spur along a service road that will take you to CR 127. Skip this spur for now and continue south.
In just a couple hundred feet the trail comes to a railroad bridge crossing the river. There is a nice sandy slope here for easy access to the water.
The trail continues along the river’s edge for another 0.3 miles. A final double-blaze marks where the trail turns west following the boundary between the state forest and private property.
After about 0.1 miles the trail comes to a dirt forest road, turn right. In 0.1 miles you will come to a junction with another service road. Stay right and follow this out to CR 127.
At this point in the hike you can return the way you came, or you can turn right on CR 127 and road walk back 0.2 miles to the previously skipped spur.
It is not marked as a trailhead but can be easily identified by a large grassy area with two large piles of gravel nearby.
The grassy service road starts on the other side of this open area and leads straight back to the St. Marys River.
Turn left at the river and retrace your steps under the railroad and highway bridges back to the double blazes that marked the bottom of the lower loop.
A nice alternative to hiking the side spurs to CR 127, and even the west leg of the lower loop through the river bottom, is to hike the section along the bank of the river all the way to the southern end and then back again.
The river walk is the prettiest part of this trail and you will always see something new and amazing when you hike a trail in both directions.
Learn more about John M. Bethea State Forest
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