Encompassing more than 3,600 acres along the Florida border in Nassau County just south of Folkston, Georgia, Ralph E. Simmons State Forest offers an expansive getaway for hikers.
The sluggish tannic waters of the St. Marys River form both the forest’s edge and the state boundary, snaking around bends marked by sandy beaches.
The dips and slopes where upland and riverine habitats meet incubate some of North Florida’s rarest flora.
Some of the more unusual species include purple baldwina, hartwrightia, and a lovely flower named for the flower hunter himself, Bartram’s ixia.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 10.4 miles in 2 trails
Primary Trailhead: 30.794640, -81.938328
Address: Lake Hampton Road, Hilliard, FL
Fees: $2 per person
Land manager: Florida State Forests
Phone: 904-845-4933 weekdays, 904-845-3597 weekends
Open sunrise to sunset. Leashed dogs welcome.
Trails and campsites are closed during hunting season. Check the forest’s website for hunting dates.
From the west side of the Interstate 295 beltway in Jacksonville, take exit 28B to follow US 1/US 23 north for 12 miles to Callahan. Continue north along US 301/US 1 through Hilliard and Andrews for another 16.5 miles to Boulogne, just shy of the Georgia border. Turn right on SR 121/Lake Hampton Rd.
The first turnoff into the forest is on the left and leads to Scott’s Landing. The next turnoff on the left is the trailhead for the Yellow and Red Trails. After 2.5 miles from US 301, Penny Haddock Rd is on the left. Turn left on it and continue 0.8 mile to the final trailhead in the forest, which provides access to the White Trail.
About the Forest
When we first visited Simmons State Forest for 50 Hikes in North Florida, the trail system was primarily a set of blazed forest roads, with spurs that led to the St. Marys River.
The trail system we originally documented has changed for the better, as has the forest under the state’s care, its sandhills restored.
While the forest road system continues to be a draw for cyclists and equestrians, three multi-use trails are now clearly marked with color-coded diamonds.
Access to the St. Mary’s River is provided for boaters and paddlers, with a small dedicated recreation area at the end of Scotts Landing Rd.
Seasonal hunting occurs, with the forest a popular destination for deer hunters in fall. Recreational users are not permitted on the trails during deer hunting season.
Off-road cyclists are welcome on any of the forest roads and marked trails, which are mainly natural surfaces.
While the Yellow and Red Trails mainly follow sand roads, you’ll find grassy stretches and deep erosional features along the White Trail loop.
Two primitive campsites along the St. Marys River can be accessed from the White Trail or by paddlers along the river.
No permit is required, but campsites cannot be used during designated hunting seasons other than small game season.
A group campsite sits just off Scotts Landing Rd, and a cabin is along the St. Marys River. Both can be used during hunting season by hunters with a valid hunt permit. Call ahead to reserve.
The trail system at Simmons State Forest is open to hikers, cyclists, and equestrians. There are two separate trailheads with independent loops.
From the Lake Hampton Rd trailhead, the Yellow and Red Trails can be taken as a chained pair to make a 3.6 mile loop out to the river, or you can do just the Yellow Trail for a 1.8 mile loop.
The trailhead at Penny Haddock Rd provides access to the 7-mile White Trail.
Overlaid on a network of forest roads, a hike along marked loop is 8.3 miles long when you take the side trips to the riverside campsites.
At Ralph E. Simmons State Forest, the White Trail is a 7 mile loop through the rugged and diverse northernmost extent of the forest, with side trails to campsites along the St. Marys River.
Used by paddlers doing a circumnavigation of the Florida coastline, the St. Marys River can be accessed by paddlers from the boat ramp at the end of Scott’s Landing Rd.
It marks the state line between Florida and Georgia and like the Suwannee River, rises from the Okeefenokee Swamp. It is notable for cypresses of significant size.
Paddling downstream provides access to the riverside campsites within the state forest.
Equestrians are welcome to explore any of the trails and the forest road network within Simmons State Forest. The trailhead at Penny Haddock Rd has a sizable parking area.
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
With nearly 40,000 acres along the Florida-Georgia border, John M. Bethea State Forest provides an important corridor for wildlife migrating between the Okefenokee Swamp and Osceola National Forest.
Protecting more than 20 square miles of forest northwest of Jacksonville, Cary State Forest has over 20 miles of marked trails for hiking, biking, and equestrian use
Protecting the headwaters of Black Creek, one of the northernmost freshwater tributaries of the St. Johns River, Jennings State Forest spans across almost 24,000 acres west of Jacksonville.