An exploration into the wilderness fringe along the St. Johns River near Cocoa, the Taylor Creek Loop invites you to immerse in the shade of ancient palm trees in the river floodplain.
Built by the Indian River chapter of the Florida Trail Association, this well-established trail – once part of the Florida Trail – is in Tosohatchee WMA and remains high and dry as long as the river is within its banks. Expect a wonderland of botanical beauty along this 4.7 mile loop, truly one of Florida’s best hikes to enjoy the splendor of palm hammocks.
Length: 4.7 miles
Lat-Lon: 28.373904, -80.904310
Fees / Permits: Free
Bug factor: moderate to high
The trailhead serves as a camping spot for folks hiking the Florida Trail, which emerges several miles north of this spot from the long roadwalk through Deseret Ranch, where there is no legal camping allowed. The sign at the trailhead says this is the Tosohatchee Wildlife Management Area, but the trail has been known as the Taylor Creek Loop since it was established by the Indian River Chapter of the Florida Trail Association at least two decades ago, when the Florida Trail used to reach this point via Tosohatchee and continue over Taylor Creek into Deseret Ranch. Elimination of dikes in the southern part of Tosohatchee flooded the original FT route, and it has been a roadwalk from Yates Road south ever since.
The Taylor Creek Loop is located along SR 520 between the Beeline and the St. Johns River on the south side of the highway. Since this stretch has high fencing along the highway, you have to be alert for a gate on the right-hand side with an “FT” symbol on it. If you’re coming from Cocoa, it’s easy to find since there is a turnout, and it’s the only turnout you’ll find after crossing the St. Johns River. You must open the unlocked gate to enter the trailhead, which has ample parking and picnic tables.
The hike starts right into palm hammocks, following white (formerly orange) blazes, edging wetlands. You hear the rush of cars nearby to start but who cares! It’s a nice jungly corridor with lots of palm fronds slapping you in the face as you head downhill. The resurrection fern here are much larger than you’ll see elsewhere, almost the size of small sword ferns. The trick here is to watch for the white blazes, which was you’ll see on young pines and cabbage palms. Since the footpath is not well worn, you’ll find yourself going off in various directions on animal trails, following the shape of the terrain, if you don’t keep watching for the next blaze. Step over an armadillo hole, and within the first 0.1 mile, you leave the corridor of palms and head into the wet pine flatwoods with loblolly and slash pine, hiking clockwise around the loop. Cars zoom past nearby, but at least you get this noisy part of the hike out of the way first.
The trail pops out onto a firebreak paralleling SR 520. Watch for a double blaze past a couple of wetland areas where blue flag iris blooms in the spring. The trail makes a sharp right back into a palm hammock, where hogs carved out the footpath rather deeply. At a quarter-mile, the trail jogs to the left and enters a much denser palm hammock, but it’s easy to find the footpath because of the hog damage, although it makes the going a little tricky due to the uneven soil underfoot. Some of the cabbage palms have pine needles stuck in their bootstraps so they look furry, like porcupines. You pass by a patch of lowbush blueberry bushes about 0.4 miles in, and you continue down the corridor of oaks, spindly pines and cabbage palms.
Turning away from the highway, the trail makes a soft right to head towards a hammock of very large live oaks, covered in Spanish moss, ferns, and red blanket lichen, with bromeliads perched on the arching limbs. If you spend too much time looking up, you will fall down because of the rough treadway underfoot. This is an immersion into a spectacular hammock of oaks and palms. Masses of mushy spagnum moss appear along the trail, meaning this area does flood at times – and indeed, if the St. Johns River is high, well, this entire trail is in the floodplain. By 0.6 mile, the hammock is even more majestic, with larger live oaks festooned with resurrection fern. Large goldfoot ferns drape out of the bootjacks of the cabbage palms, and colorful American beautyberry show off their shiny purple berries throughout the understory.
Entering a virtual maze of cabbage palm trunks, the deeper you get into the hammocks, the smaller you feel. By three-quarters of a mile the trail runs along the edge of a large marsh. You can’t see it due to the dense fringe of wax myrtle around you. Deer tracks are impressed through the mucky ground, rich black earth underfoot. Look off to the right and through the wax myrtles, you can see a dash of fall color from the red maples of the floodplain swamp. Leaving the wetland, you walk through another palm hammock with a grassy forest floor and come to a large spreading live oak. Off to the left is an ephemeral wetland, and the trail passes under thick grapevines that look like snakes hanging down from the large live oak. A few of them form a strange shape like a bed frame.
Walk softly as you approach a broad, duckweed-covered canal, and you may see alligators. The trail turns right, heading south. You pass a cabbage palm with a 90° bend in its trunk, tacking your way away from the highway and the canal and deeper into the palm hammocks. Fall color tinges poison ivy and goldfoot fern. Off to the right is a marsh with duck potato peering out from between the grasses. The trail turns to circle around this wetland area while keeping in the deep shade of the oaks and palms. A little more sun filters into the canopy as you reach 1 mile, popping out into brightness under a corridor of cabbage palms. The trail continues to twist through more palm hammocks. By 1.2 miles, the corridor is open around you, a wonderful montage of oaks, resurrection ferns, and cabbage palms with trunks crispy and singed by wildfire. Walking atop the nice soft surface of pine duff by 1.4 miles, under a stand of tall skinny young slash pines, it’s a reminder that not all of this forest is old growth. In the 1930s and 1940s the region between Jim Creek and Taylor Creek was heavily logged for cypress and pine.
In the transition to the next tall stand of palms, notice the shorter, stubbier palms in the understory. I’ve always wondered whether these were some kind of subspecies of cabbage palm, as I’ve only seen them along the St. Johns River floodplain in places like Seminole Ranch, Tosohatchee, and Little-Big Econ. The taller palms are coated in a star-shaped spaghnum moss, which feels like a carpet if you run your hand along their trunks. After this hammock of fuzzy palms, the trail moves on to a hammock with a very high canopy of live oaks, and you can see daylight off to the right, likely a wetland area. A line of spaghnum moss along the footpath belies seasonal flooding throughout this understory. Passing a young longleaf pine you head down a corridor to another dense hammock overshadowed by large live oaks covered in resurrection fern and bromeliads.
By 1.7 miles, the trail zigzags between a maze of palm trunks. There are alternate trails leading away from the main footpath so keep an eye on the white blazes, as the understory is open except for palm fronds blocking your view. As you walk through the next palm hammock, off to the left you at 1.9 miles you can see a break and what looks like riverine habitat in the sun. Turning away from it to the right, the trail burrows deeper into the palm and oak hammocks. Lumpy sphagnum moss creeps up close to both sides of the trail. Cardinal wild pine grows at eye level. This is a spot where fungi and ferns and bromeliads and lichens thrive. Look for giant air plants overhead. The trail goes down a broad corridor between cabbage palms and saw palmetto under the oaks, broader and straighter than any of the footpath so far, and then makes a sharp left back into the palm maze. A barred owl swoops low out of the canopy and vanishes out to the floodplain. The palm hammock gets denser, the dwarf palms enrobed in fuzzy green carpets of moss. You’ve reached a quiet place, the solitude of Taylor Creek, with only the rustle of the cabbage palm fronds in the breeze and the occasional airplane overhead breaking the silence. Between the taller palms, clouds drift across patches of blue sky.
Cypress knees appear off to the left at 2.5 miles, signaling you’re drawing near to Taylor Creek. You emerge at a picnic table marking the primitive campsite and trail junction with the return trail – the white blazes head down it to the right. Go straight ahead down the spur trail to visit Taylor Creek, which is the water source for this campsite. As you walk down this path with soft pine needles underfoot, the trail narrows and narrows and narrows. You can see the colors of the floodplain forest off to the left, and sweetgum trees begin to intrude amid the pines. Mosquito activity becomes more intense. Passing beneath a very large slash pine, notice there is a steady downhill slope to the trail. Coming to a T intersection at 2.8 miles, turn left at the double blaze to head down a tight corridor fringed by saw palmetto under the oak canopy. The deeper you go, the more important it is to watch for the blazes, the footpath not so evident due to leaf litter. One tree has several sets of blazes, which is a little confusing!
The closer you get to the creek, the rougher and muckier the terrain becomes, with cypress knees jutting out of the footpath. Blazes lead you right down into the cypress swamp to a sign “Taylor Creek Trail End,” which might be underwater when you reach it, at 2.9 miles. Return back along the spur trail on this mucky path, turning right at the first trail intersection. As you walk back through the pines, notice the many ‘fallen soliders,’ bromeliads that plunged from the canopy, buffeted by high winds, to land across the forest floor. After 3.3 miles, you return to the trail junction with the campsite and picnic table. Turn left.
The trail now follows a forest road, through terrain very unlike the portion of the loop you’ve hiked thus far. It’s a broad walkway through wet pine flatwoods, the understory filled with gallberry and saw palmetto. A floodplain forest sits off to the right. A stand of silver-tinged saw palmetto sits to the side as you approach a sign at 3.6 miles, marking where the trail turns to the right along with this forest road. Through this next stretch, notice the gentle elevation gain and the colorful wildflowers, like wild bachelor’s-button, amid the wet pine flatwoods. Songbirds trill from the pines. Be cautious of the fire ant nests in the forest road.
Surrounded by scrubby flatwoods with tall grasses, the trail passes an ephemeral wetland at 4.1 miles. Curving left and then curving right, you start to hear traffic from the highway. As you round the second curve, keep to the far right where the footpath hugs up against the saw palmetto. Head back out into the forest road to use the hard-packed shellrock to cross a drainage from another ephemeral wetland on the right. As the pine flatwoods yield to a mix of cabbage palms and pines, the broad forest road rounds one more wetland area – this one with a core of willow and red maple – before emerging at the cable gate and the trailhead after 4.7 miles.