Protecting more than four miles of deeply forested waterfront on the St. Johns River across Little Lake George from the Ocala National Forest, Welaka State Forest offers both natural beauty and a deep subtext of cultural history. It was along these river banks that John Bartram, royal botanist to King George III, paddled with his son William in 1765. They disembarked to visit Beecher Spring, which lies just outside the bounds of this state forest, and Mount Royal, a massive burial and ceremonial complex, of which a portion lies within the forest.
Trailhead: 29.4688, -81.6590
Length: More than 27 miles of trails and forest roads
Fees: $2 per person for day use
Open: Sunrise to sunset unless permitted to camp
Land Manager: Florida Forest Service, PO Box 174, Welaka FL 32193-0174
From Palatka, follow US 17 south to Satsuma. Turn right onto CR 309 and follow the brown signs through Satsuma and Palatka. The forest headquarters and visitor center are at the coordinates provided. Mud Spring trailhead is across the street, and the John’s Landing Trailhead is another 1.2 miles south along CR 309 on the right.
Stop in at the Visitor Center for a map or download one from their website in advance. Restrooms are available at the visitor center and there is a very old, worn flush toilet facility near the fire tower, along with a nice picnic pavilion.
The forest is broken into two segments bisected by CR 309, with the 6-mile Sandhill Equestrian Trail loop trail located on the east side of the forest, separate from the hiking trail system. It is accessed from a trailhead off a forest road behind the state forest headquarters.
There are currently four hiking loops in Welaka State Forest, with another one under construction. The newest trail, the William Bartram St. Johns River Loop, showcases the very best that this 2,287 acre forest has to offer by connecting two landing sites on the Bartram Trail together with a walk along a remote, picturesque piece of the St. Johns River for a loop of 5 miles.
The John’s Landing Trail is a 4.3-mile loop that follows forest roads through the heart of the forest, with spur trails out to both Orange Point and John’s Landing. Primitive camping is available at both of these riverfront sites and costs $10 per site for a maximum of 5 people. Group camping can also be arranged. Contact the forest at 386-467-2388 or, if paddling in to either site, use the envelopes at the iron ranger to pay your fee.
The 1.7 mile Mud Spring Trail loops out to its namesake spring, which is also accessible to paddlers. The half-mile Forest Education Trail starts at the John’s Landing trailhead and makes a half-mile loop through the forest behind the fire tower, with interpretive signage along the well-worn footpath.
Each of the loop trails within the forest can be interconnected as one long hike by using the marked forest roads. For instance, Eagle Nest Row connects the Mud Spring Trail with the John’s Landing Trail. The Forest Education Trail bisects Eagle Nest Row at the John’s Landing trailhead. The new William Bartram Loop also meets the Johns Landing Trail at several intersections and shares some of its route, particularly out to the St. Johns River.
All trails are open to cyclists, although the ones that are most comfortable (and driest) to ride are the ones on forest roads. Anticipate spongy soggy roads and trails after a rain, since the habitats here are primarily wet flatwoods with ponds and bogs, and a maze of bayhead swamps.
- John’s Landing Trail- Following a series of forest roads through the heart of Welaka State Forest, the John's Landing Trail has several scenic spots along its 4.3-mile loop, from bluffs along the St. Johns River to shimmering lily-covered flatwoods ponds.
- Mud Spring Trail- At Mud Spring, mud isn't what you'll see in the gently rounded basin that cradles an underwater garden. This glassy natural pool is the payoff halfway around a 1.7-mile hike that is one of the highlights of Welaka State Forest.
- William Bartram St. Johns River Loop- Discover the beauty of Welaka State Forest on a 5 mile footpath that winds along ecotones and hugs the bluffs of the St. Johns River to showcase the natural wonders that botanist William Bartram documented in 1774.