Get wild on this driving tour of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail.
This tour highlights just a few of the hotspots along the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail (SRWT), 386-397-1919, for the outdoor enthusiast. The tannic-colored water and rock-encrusted banks of the Suwannee River, memorialized in Florida's state song, "Old Folks at Home," by Stephen Foster, offers a collection of springs, fishing villages and Class III rapids, yet the river corridor remains largely unspoiled. The trail runs 207 miles from northern Florida to the Gulf of Mexico and encompasses activities such as canoeing, kayaking, camping, boating, hiking, biking, birding and horseback riding.
The journey begins in White Springs at the Nature and Heritage Tourism Center, 386-397-1919, located off S.R. 136 four miles north of where I-75 and I-10 intersect. Take S.R. 136 east for about three miles. The center will be located on your left. Spend some time learning about the area's history, collect brochures and stroll around the porch deck to catch a glimpse of the outdoor adventure that lies ahead.
For your first introduction to the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, take a four-mile drive to American Canoe Adventures, 386-397-1309, and check out their three-mile canoe/kayak trip which takes about an hour to complete. The admission to Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park (386-397-2733), the take-out point of the canoe trip is just a short walk from the outfitter, is included. Other popular recreational activities in the park include hiking, camping, biking and fishing.
The next stop will be Big Shoals State Park. Head south on U.S. 41 about a half-mile and turn left onto Third St., following the road for more than a mile to the Little Shoals entrance of the Big Shoals State Park. The area is named after a one-mile section of the river containing Class III rapids, which are formed by water coursing over a limestone bed with rocky outcroppings. The state park and surrounding conservation lands provide more than 30 miles of trails for horseback riding, biking and hiking. The bike/hike-specific loop leads to and winds along the high banks of the Suwannee River, offering spectacular views. While outdoor adventurers will enjoy a rustic wilderness experience, the parking area does have an information kiosk and restrooms.
Start this day off with a visit to the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park, 386-364-1683, located near Live Oak, between I-75 and I-10. From trail rides on horseback along the top of the picturesque banks of the Suwannee River to country jamborees and rock-n-blues festivals, the Spirit of the Suwannee has something for everyone.
For the next adventure, take U.S. 129 south for 26 miles to Branford and pick up U.S. 27 east for six miles to beautiful Ichetucknee Springs State Park, 386-497-4690, where you can spend the rest of the afternoon tubing down Florida's most pristine spring. There are multiple outfitters located outside the park that rent canoes, kayaks, tubes and snorkeling equipment, so be sure to check them out before entering the park and exploring the Suwannee River canoe trail. A series of springs discharging 233-million gallons of water daily gives rise to the clear sparkling Ichetucknee River. A sandhill community upland of the river supports an abundance of wildlife. Ichetucknee's head spring was declared a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1972. Tubing the Ichetucknee is a popular summer activity, so be sure to arrive extra early as tubing numbers are limited per day for resource protection.
Manatee Springs State Park, 352-493-6072, will be the next stop along the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail. Take S.R. 349 for 17 miles and turn left (south) onto U.S. 19/98. Take U.S. 19/98 south for eight miles and turn right onto S.R. 320, before you get to Chiefland, following it to the end (six miles). This 2,444-acre park is filled with wilderness recreation opportunities. Pick up a map at the ranger station to fully enjoy the park's 8.5 miles of biking and hiking trails. This series of short trails will take you through diverse plant communities hosting a variety of wildlife. Look for hogs, turkeys, white-tailed deer, other wildlife and, of course, manatees. Manatees venture into the springs during cold months to take advantage of the spring's consistent temperature.
Now it's time to load up the bike and head into Chiefland to access one of five trailheads along the 36-mile Nature Coast State Trail. Take S.R. 320 to U.S 19/98 and turn right going two blocks past downtown to the historic Chiefland Railroad Depot which is the Chiefland Trailhead. Pick up a trail map and hop on your bike and head north to Fanning Springs State Park, 352-463-3420, located in the town of Fanning Springs. The water is an amazing turquoise color and perfect for cooling off after a long bike ride. From here, continue north just over a mile to Wilcox Junction, take the left fork then go another mile and a half to see the Suwannee River Trestle Bridge. This is a must-see for trail users and is worth the ride. Continue following the trail back to the Chiefland Trailhead, load up your bike and drive to nearby Manatee Springs State Park to camp for the night.
If you can extend the tour by another day, a side trip to Cedar Key to enjoy the sunset is well worth your time. From Manatee Springs, take a right at the green sign pointing to Camp Azalea. This is a nice paved ride with a short section of maintained hard pack road that meets C.R. 347. Turn right and continue on to S.R. 24. Be sure to note the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge entrances along this route as a reference for tomorrow.
In Cedar Key, rent a kayak and head to the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is a 762-acre spread over 13 offshore islands and is one of the largest bird nesting areas in Florida. As such, the rookery island of Seahorse Key is closed during nesting from March 1 to June 30, just in time for its annual lighthouse open house. Access to interior areas of the islands is prohibited except on Atsena Otie Key, the only key with hiking trails. All of the islands have beach access available for picnicking, sunbathing, photography and swimming.
Those not interested in paddling might use the morning to walk the historic district or visit the Cedar Key Museum State Park, 352-543-5350. Follow the directional brown and white signs to the park. The museum highlights this former port city's history with exhibits depicting the area before, during and after the Civil War. Just down the street, the Cedar Key Historical Society Museum, 352-543-5549, features an extensive collection of photographs, period clothing, tools and equipment. Walking-tour booklets can be purchased here.
Say goodbye to Cedar Key, as a trip to the 53,000-acre Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, 352-493-0238, will take most of the afternoon. Backtrack on S.R. 24 and turn left on C.R. 347 to access the Refuge. For specific information, go the extra distance to the main entrance; it is marked with a brown and white "Refuge Headquarters" sign. Enjoy the interpretive kiosk, pick up a refuge map and hike the short River Trail. The map will help you navigate two nature drives more than 40 miles of maintained hard pack roads open to vehicle traffic and an additional 50 miles of unimproved roads open to hiking and bicycling only. The refuge also offers paddling trails with a variety of routes. For birders, the refuge offers a bird list brochure designed as a checklist with a guide that shows which birds to look for.