It’s hard to believe, as you walk under bowers of live oaks and cabbage palms, that a town once crowded the wharf where the St. Johns River turns away from the St. Francis Dead River, where growers loaded boatloads of citrus, watermelon, and cabbages onto steamships for markets up north. Bustling in the late 1800s, the community’s death knell was a triple whammy of freezing weather, hurricane-related flooding, and the wane of the steamboat era as the railroads pushed south on the river’s opposite shore. By the 1940s, the last resident left, and the federal government bought up the land for the Ocala National Forest. Bounded on the north by the Alexander Springs Wilderness and on the east by the mighty floodplains of the St. Johns, the St. Francis Trail is a very enjoyable hike.
Length: 7.9 miles
Lat-Long: 29.012710, -81.392275
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: moderate
Be cautious hiking here during general gun hunting season, usually Thanksgiving-New Years, as it’s a popular destination for hunters. Be sure to wear a blaze orange vest if you do. Backpacking / primitive camping is not allowed during that period.
From Deland, drive north on SR 15 or US 17 to intersect with SR 44. Head west on SR 44 (New York Avenue) for 4.2 miles from SR 15, crossing the Whitehair Bridge over the St. Johns River. Turn right onto SR 42 at the light after the bridge. Watch for the sign on the right – it comes up fast. Turn right at River Forest and drive past the group camp to the trailhead at the end of this short unpaved road.
Starting from the trailhead kiosk – which is where you’ll learn about St. Francis’ agricultural past – follow the orange blazes (painted over the former blue blazes) into an upland hammock of oaks. The footpath is well-defined and easy to follow as you amble through this second-growth forest, and the trail is well-shaded. Crossing a short bridge, the trail turns left and heads deeper into the woods, where the a hint of floodplain forest starts to take shape on the right. Despite the size of the trees, there are clues this was once a farmer’s field. Although it’s no longer as obvious in the footpath, you can see the wavy shapes of the field’s furrows on either side, the forest growing atop the undulations. There are still mats in some of the dips, placed there long ago by trail maintainers to help stop erosion in the low spots.
After the next small bridge, a long boardwalk begins. This is the first of many boardwalks you’ll traverse on this trail. Being in a floodplain, you’ll appreciate not having to get your feet wet too often. Even more appreciated is the slip control provided on the boardwalks – sheets of hardware cloth tacked down on the boards. With age and use, they’ve pulled loose in a few places, so still pay attention to where you put your feet. Thanks to the floodplain and its constant humidity, ferns and fungi are prolific. On this visit, I found colonies of collybia mushrooms spilling out of rotten stumps, and in the past, have photographed violet cort and coral fungus. This is the trail that encouraged me to buy the Audubon Field Guide to Mushrooms, since there are so many sizes and colors of fungi along this hike.
With palm hammocks and floodplain forest surrounding you, this section of the trail feels downright primordial – and you’ll have to hike it twice, since this is only the access trail to the loops. There are two loops along this hike, and two must-see short spur trails to scenic spots. After crossing a bridge over a tannic waterway that flows down to the St. Francis Dead River – hidden behind the screen of massive trees – you come to the first junction with the Yellow Loop at a sign at 1.2 miles. Skip it for now; you’ll peek down there on the return trip. Crossing another bridge over a stream, you walk beneath a grove of Southern magnolia and loblolly bay magnolia, both of which bloom in summer.Just up ahead is Confusion Corners – three trail junctions in quick succession. The first one, on the right, has a sign “St. Francis, 2 miles.” Turn right at the sign to start the St. Francis Loop.
Walking counterclockwise around the loop gets you closer to the river more quickly, and that’s especially evident in your surroundings – more lush cabbage palm hammocks, where sunlight filters through the fronds to create an illuminating glow. More boardwalks get you over the damp areas. Rising uphill a little, the trail skims along the edge of the vast pine forests that sit just to the west. It continues to do this wobble back and forth, in the pines one moment – passing under an especially large loblolly pine – and back into the palms the next. Crossing a bridge over a murky stream, you’re back into the oak hammock again, a pine plantation sitting atop the hill. This was likely one of the last areas farmed in the forest before the Forest Service took the land over and planted pines.
At 2.4 miles, the trail scrambles up a levee to reach a log bridge over a creek. Use the guy wires to help you keep your footing as you cross this bridge. Bowls of saw palmetto sweep off to the right as the trail clings to the high ground, dipping down once to go around a large fallen tree. You start to see cypresses in the floodplain, an indication that the river is near. If it’s rained recently, expect water to collect in the footpath through this section. Palm fronds dip right across the trail, making this section feel a bit like a jungle exploration. After a short while, the path straightens out and feels like you’re on a tramway above the floodplain. In fact, this swamp is criss-crossed with many tramways – used by loggers to remove the old-growth cypresses and pines – and the trail will follow quite a few of them on the rest of the route.
At a T intersection with a sandy path with tannic water flowing across it, the blazes lead left, but you’ll want to turn right for a short detour. This spur tramway burrows deep beneath the canopy of palms to emerge, after a tenth of a mile, at the St. Francis Dead River. Fossil snail shells spill off the bank – this may have been a midden, or a midden was torn apart and used for fill for the tramway. You’re 3 miles into the hike. It’s a pretty overlook, and broad enough to be used for camping – as evidenced by some of the debris near the trail. Most of the year, backpackers are welcome to camp anywhere along the St. Francis Trail, and this is the first high, dry spot you’ll find. Camping is not permitted during general gun hunting season, typically Thanksgiving-New Years.
Return back along the tramway to the trail junction and keep right. The trail turns right again quickly – don’t miss the turn, or you’ll end up in the pine forest – and continues along the floodplain. It’s here that most backpackers find decent campsites under the large live oaks. There is a permanent water source along this part of the trail, a continually-flowing artesian well that pours out of a pipe into an overflowing barrel. It’s off the trail a little, but you’ll smell the sulfur in the air before you hear the water.
At 3.7 miles, you reach the St. Francis Road at a T intersection. This was once the Main Street for the town, with a post office, general store, and residences along both sides. It was a wagon road connecting St. Francis with Paisley. Take a short ramble down to the right to the end of the road, where if you can get near the shore – there are often people camped here, since they can drive in on this forest road – you can see the pilings from the old wharf along the St. Johns.
Turn around and head up the road. It sits lower than the surrounding landscape so expect to find some large puddles to wade through as you walk straight up the shady avenue, the boundary for the Alexander Springs Wilderness to your right. Within a third of a mile, the trail veers off the road and left into the forest, working its way through cabbage palms and large live oaks. As elevation increases, you emerge into the pine forests. Slash pines and pond pines – obvious from the needles poking out of their trucks – create the sparse canopy, while saw palmetto fills the understory. Despite the dense thickets of saw palmetto, the footpath is smooth and strewn with pine duff. Thanks to the efforts of trail maintainers who dug out those palmetto roots, you can put on some speed through this section. Dipping in and out of shady spots, there are places you can see for some distance across the pine flatwoods.
Crossing several jeep trails along the way, the trail works its way along a bayhead swamp where water may trickle into the footpath. You reach another logging tramway at 5.8 miles. The trail follows this for some distance, but it does – finally! – officially veer off the tramway in several places to avoid areas that collect deep standing water. The habitat is a mix of pine flatwoods and bayhead swamps, hence the constant supply of water. Working its way through the forest and crossing more jeep trails, the trail returns to Confusion Corners, where you enter a clearing under the oaks with a sign for the Yellow Loop off to your right. Turn right to amble back along this short side trail.
A long boardwalk leads over a grassy area thick with ferns. After crossing two short bridges, you drop down a slope to cross a steeply eroded creek. The trail turns left to follow this small creek under a stand of southern magnolia. You cross several more bridges as the trail meanders through oak hammocks to its main point of interest—Rattlesnake Well. This sulfuric spring is a swirling hole of turquoise-blue with yellow streamers, both mesmerizing and smelly. Continue a short distance and you reach the main trail again at a T intersection. You’ve walked 6.7 miles. Turn right to head back down the entrance trail you came in on to the trailhead to wrap up a 7.9 mile hike.