Most folks who hear about the Green Swamp imagine a giant watery wilderness like the Okeefenokee or the Everglades, but this swamp is very different. It is the headwaters of four Florida rivers—the north-flowing Withlacoochee and Ocklawaha, and the south-flowing Peace and Hillsborough. But rather than from a vast open swamp, these rivers are born in a mosaic of uplands and lowlands ranging from high, dry sandhills and upland pine forests to dark cypress floodplains and wet flatwoods. There are oak hammocks and prairies, sinkholes and caves. It’s a microcosm of Central Florida habitats and a crucial recharge area for Florida’s water supply.
There are two different trails in this park, suited for different audiences. The Withlacoochee River Trail (a.k.a. the Florida Trail, but not part of the 1,400-mile National Scenic Trail found on the other side of the river) parallels the river floodplain and leaves the park to loop 5.4 miles through cypress swamps and oak hammocks within the lushness of the Green Swamp, with two primitive campsites. The Nature Trail stays within the park and provides a 2.5 mile natural footpath connecting the picnic areas, observation tower, wetlands boardwalks, and cultural features—and offers a family-friendly primitive campsite not too far from the restrooms. Both start at the first parking lot on the left when you enter the park.
Location: Dade City
Length: 5.4 or 2.5 miles
Lat-Long: 28.344642, -82.119806
Type: Loop and round-trip
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
There are restrooms, picnic tables and potable water at the trailhead. Slather on the mosquito protection for this hike!
To visit Withlacoochee River Park, heading south into Dade City on US 98/301, keep left at the fork for the truck route and immediately turn left onto River Road. Follow its winding route for 4.5 miles to Auton Rd at the Withlacoochee River Bridge. Turn right; the park entrance is immediately on the left. Stop at the kiosk at the entrance for a trail map and an interpretive guide. The hikes start next to the canoe dock in the first parking area on the left, but can also be accessed from the last parking area on the left.
Look for the “Florida Trail” sign at the canoe landing. The first stretch of the trail offers the best views of the river, including an ancient cypress stump with new life sprouting from it. Most of the cypresses in this swamp were logged out between 50 and 150 years ago for products ranging from citrus crates to shingles. A second-growth forest has emerged. The trail is deeply shaded by live oaks festooned with resurrection fern and several types of orchids. Each time I’ve hiked here, it’s been raining, and the forest was a riot of green.
Emerging from the forest, you’ll walk along the edge of a prairie before the trail makes a hard left jog away from the park and into a bower of showy live oaks (if you turn right at this point, you’ll reach the far parking lot and connect with the Nature Trail). Beneath the oaks, you skirt the edge of the prairie and enter the Green Swamp. Always keep alert for orange blazes.
At 1.6 miles, you reach the loop in the trail, which leads you through a variety of habitats. Turn right to walk through a pine forest along the edge of a large prairie, where you’ll see herons and egrets. After walking beneath the live oaks, at 1.8 miles, you pass the first blue blaze to a primitive campsite, and at 2.9 miles, another. The trail turns to parallel the Withlacoochee River floodplain upstream, and you walk alongside the vastness of cypress swamp. At 3.9 miles, you can look across the dark water to a scout cabin on the far shore. At the 4 mile mark, you’ve finished the loop. Continue back along the trail to either the far parking lot (to explore more of the park along the Nature Trail) or back along the orange blazes to the canoe landing.
The yellow-blazed 2.5-mile interpretive nature trail is perfect for a hike with the kids. Signage helps you point out the trees and habitats along the walk, and there is a playground near the trail near the large pavilion. It weaves along and across the paved bike trail to emerge at the far parking lot and restrooms. Pass the water fountain to walk up to the 40-foot observation tower, where you can look out over the canopy. Trails take off in several directions and run back into each other. Each showcases a little slice of habitat: to the left, sandhills; straight ahead, boardwalks over a broad wetland area where you might see alligators. After you visit the wetland, follow the trail straight downhill into an oak hammock, where you’ll find the replica pioneer homestead and Creek Indian village—both interesting to explore, especially the dark, tall lodge. The yellow blazes head east from the two villages, past playgrounds and picnic areas towards its starting point at the parking lot near the canoe launch. There are restrooms near the trailhead.