Suwannee River

We’ve done two 30 mile sections along the Suwannee River; Big Shoals to US 129 and US 129 to US 90 at the Suwannee River State Park.  These two sections cover about 90 percent of the portion of the Florida Trail that parallels the River. 

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As we’ve mentioned before in other Florida Trail Trip Logs, most sane backpackers are on the trail in Florida only from about late October through early April because of the extreme heat, humidity, violent thunderstorms, and clouds of mosquitos during the hottest months.  Unfortunately, during prime hiking weather in the spring, frequent rains resulting from passing cold fronts can cause the Suwannee River to inundate its wide floodplain to levels that make the trail dangerous and impassable in many places. According to the Florida Trail Guide (Sandra Friend, John Keatly, 2015), the Suwannee River is a floodplain river draining the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. It can be perfectly sunny along the Florida trail yet the river can rise rapidly due to rains near its source.  Here are rules of thumb based on water levels at U.S. Geological Survey River gage at White Springs. If the level is over 60 feet, water starts to appear on the trail between White Springs and Sal Marie Branch and at Holton Creek.  Above 65 feet, some bypassing of flooded areas is necessary unless swimming with a backpack is your thing.  Above 68 feet, much of the trail is under water.  Above 73 feet, all of the trail is under water and access roads are flooded. Parallel roads can be used but this isn’t enjoyable or easy and you’d be better off hiking other sections of the Florida Trail. 

Hunting seasons for various game animals also occur during part of the ideal hiking season.    However, our experience in Florida is that hunters, being the early birds they tend to be, have usually packed up and left the woods by the time we roll out of our sleeping bags, have a leisurely breakfast, break camp and hit the trail.

Overview

Of all the sections of the Florida Trail we’ve hiked, our favorite by far is the Suwannee River.  Our reasons for this are many and include the fact that the trail almost always is within spitting distance of the river. It is also mostly encompassed within public lands of three state parks and lands owned and managed by the Suwannee River Water Management District.  Other great attributes include the fascinating karst features, formed in the frequently exposed and eroding limestone, such as caves, springs, sinkholes, sinking and resurging streams and even a narrow canyon carved into the limestone by a rushing creek.  The banks of the river are frequently  composed of highly eroded exposures of limestone that at times bring to mind the giant bleached bones of a colossal prehistoric beast.  There’s considerable topographic relief in places as the trail winds its way up from the river to relatively high bluffs.  To top it all off, there’s Big Shoals, Florida’s only Class III whitewater rapid.   One more thing, the solitude is wonderful; over a period of four days of the Thanksgiving weekend when hiking the eastern-most section, we saw only one backpacker and a few day hikers.

Florida Trail - Suwannee River
Florida Trail - Suwannee River

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Florida Trail - Suwannee River
Florida Trail - Suwannee River

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Left: The Limestone Banks of the Suwannee River. Right: A Post at Stephen Foster State Park Showing the Level of Historic Suwannee River Floods.

Natural History

The Suwannee River

The Suwannee River originates in Georgia’s Okeefenoke Swamp at about 120 feet elevation and

flows 235 miles (206 in Florida) to the Gulf of Mexico. The watershed encompasses approximately 9,950 square miles in Florida and Georgia. It is the second largest river in Florida (the St Johns is the largest) in terms of flow, size of drainage basin, and length. The Alapaha, Withlacoochee, and Santa Fe rivers are its principal tributaries. The Suwannee changes from a shoaled stream confined within limestone banks in its upper reaches to a meandering river with a broad, wooded flood plain and a coastal marsh as it nears the Gulf. The Suwannee River is relatively unpolluted and is not modified by dams and flood control structures. The upper river is tea-colored, low in nutrients, and acidic. The middle basin features the porous limestone geology of the near-surface Floridan aquifer. The lower river and its coastal wetlands make up one of the largest undeveloped river delta-estuarine ecosystems in the U.S. The Suwannee basin is an area of bottomland forests, creeks, lakes, isolated cypress wetlands, freshwater swamps and marsh headwaters, springs and spring runs, and river floodplains.

Geology

In many ways the region is defined by its magnificent karst terrain.  Karst is a term for a landscape underlain by limestone which over millions of years has been eroded by slightly acidic percolating rainfall. This results in an underground flow system where much of the surface drainage is captured by sinkholes and funnelled underground.  The water eventually flows back to the surface through hundreds of springs, which are on or near the banks of the Suwannee River.  Some of the springs are quite large, discharging over 100 million gallons per day of cool, crystal-clear water. The region also has large cave systems, most of which are entered through sinkholes and springs.   The vast majority of these caves are completely submerged and cave divers from all over the world flock to explore them and all-too-frequently, they die in the attempt.  The source of the water that emanates from the springs is the Floridan aquifer, a vast limestone sponge that underlies all of Florida and parts of Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina.  The Floridan aquifer is one of the largest and most productive aquifers in the world. 

Ecology/Wildlife 

The Upper and Middle Suwannee River includes over 150 miles of un-dammed river channel, and in excess of 150,000 acres of native floodplain forests and other native habitats, and numerous freshwater springs. It provides a diverse array of large, unfragmented habitats for fish and wildlife. More than 40 species of animals and plants are classified as rare or imperiled. Several species are federally-listed including the wood stork, eastern indigo snake, and Gulf Sturgeon, which are listed as threatened, along with the West Indian manatee and oval pigtoe mussel, which are listed as endangered. The Suwannee River main stem, beginning from its confluence with Long Branch Creek downstream to the mouth of the Suwannee River, has been federally-designated as critical habitat for the Gulf sturgeon.

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Cave Diver Exploring a Submerged North Florida Cave

Gulf Sturgeon

Human History

 

Eastern Section - Big Shoals to U.S. Highway 129

The banks of the Suwannee River around White Springs have been a place of refuge and restoration for its visitors and residents for centuries. Evidence in the form of shards of pottery, hunting and cooking tools and weapons continue to be found in places where the early visitors to the region spent their time.

Timucuan Indians were living on the banks of the Suwannee River at White Springs when the Spanish explorers came to what is now North Florida in the 1530s. The Suwannee River formed the boundary between the Timucuans on the east and the Apalachees on the west, and even then it was considered special, and historic.

The limestone that makes up the Floridan aquifer contains varying quantities of gypsum and anhydrite, minerals that contain significant quantities of sulfur.  Under certain conditions, microbes in the aquifer consume the sulfur and produce hydrogen sulfide gas, which smells like rotten eggs and wafts from the water as a smelly mist when it pours forth from the aquifer in springs. Such springs are somewhat common around the world and one would think that humans would avoid bodily contact with the evil smelling water at all costs and would certainly never dream of drinking it.  Instead, every culture that has them in their back yard has used the word “mineral” to describe these springs and being  the superstitious, unscientific creatures we tend to be, have invariably jumped to the erroneous conclusion that stinky, crystal-clear water bubbling mysteriously up out of the ground simply must have magical healing properties.

The Indians in north Florida considered the springs to be a sacred healing ground. Any tribe member could bathe and drink the mineral waters without fear of being attacked. A white settlement near the spring was incorporated in 1831 as Jackson Springs. Bryant & Elizabeth Sheffield bought tracts for a cotton plantation in 1835, and took over the operation of a ferry at the site the following year. Mr. Sheffield drank the mineral waters and in the fine tradition of American marketing, touted their ability to cure nervousness, kidney troubles, rheumatism and just about everything else from the common cold to flatulence, with no evidence whatsoever to back up the claim. Soon people were flocking to the spring first by stagecoach then railroad to take advantage of the “healing waters.”  It’s probable that these communal baths were much more effective at making people sick than curing them.  Imagine multitudes of people without proper sanitation hoping to be healed from the communicable diseases of their time, including such particularly nasty maladies as tuberculosis, jammed cheek to jowl for hours in the confined waters of the spring pool.  Every viral and bacterial scourge known to man could only dream of such ideal conditions to propagate themselves through an unsuspecting human population.    

White Springs Spring House Constructed in 1903.

Soaking in White Springs

The Sheffield’s constructed a hotel and spring house from logs, called it Upper Mineral Springs, and began Florida’s venerable tradition of artfully separating tourists from the north from their money. Would that they could see the spawn of their labors today; the Mickey Mouse empire and  Harry Potter Land at Universal Studios just to name a couple of the most famous.   

During the civil war, Confederate soldiers found refuge in the town from Union troops. The family of future governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward (wonder if his parents had high hopes for him?), whose Jacksonville farm was burned by Union forces, moved to a nearby farm which they named Rebel’s Refuge. At some point, the springs were renamed White Sulphur Springs. Following the civil war, the tourist business slowly returned. In 1882, Georgia merchants purchased the property and platted city lots. They sold parcels to other retailers to open businesses catering to plantations and resorts around the spring.  White Springs was incorporated in 1885. Hotels and boarding houses popped up; a cotton gin attracted buyers and sellers; and fashionable clothing and hats were offered for sale. Many of the original Victorian buildings survive, particularly within the White Springs Historic District.

 In 1903, the spring was enclosed by concrete and coquina walls that included multiple water gates and galleries to prevent water intrusion when the Suwannee River flooded.  A four-story wooden bathhouse was constructed around the spring. The structure included doctors' offices for patient examination and treatment, dressing rooms, space for concessions, and an elevator. At the time, water flow was calculated at 32,400 gallons per minute, or nearly 47 million gallons  per day.  The walls of the springhouse are all that remains of the original structure. 

During the 1930s, mineral springs fell out of favor and the town began to fade.   In 1950, the Stephen Foster State Park was opened just west of town and included a museum that commemorated songwriter Stephen Foster, composer of the world-renowned song of the Suwannee River, “Old Folks at Home” better known as “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River.” The museum is surrounded by formal gardens which extend to the banks of the River. A carillon containing the world’s largest set of tubular bells opened in 1957 and plays Foster's songs throughout the day. The town and state park are the site of the annual Florida Folk Festival, a four-day celebration of traditional Florida food, arts, and music. The event, first held in 1953, is one of the oldest continuous folk festivals in the United States. 

Just as things seemed to be looking up for the town, the spring that put the town on the map was not faring so well. As a result of excessive groundwater pumping for agricultural irrigation and public supply in northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia, flow at the spring declined through the 1980s to the point where it ceased flowing in 1990. This tragedy is an all too frequent occurrence in Florida where a number of springs have experienced significant flow reductions or ceased flowing altogether as a result of the over use of groundwater. 

Interior of the White Springs Spring House (Early 1900s)

Remains of the Spring House Today

Approaching the Carillon Near the Entrance to Stephen Foster State Park.

On a more positive note, the town is becoming something of a draw for outdoor adventures in north Florida. Over the past decade or so the popularity of single and multi-day kayak and canoe trips on the Suwannee River has greatly increased.  The town has an outfitter for river trips and we use them to run shuttles for our backpacking adventures.  In addition, the Florida Trail has recently be rerouted to run directly through the town. 

The Suwannee Springs Pool around 1905

Suwannee Springs Ad from the 1880's

Western Section - Suwannee Springs near U.S. Highway 129 to Suwannee River State Park

The most notable pieces of human history occur at the very beginning of this section at Suwannee Springs and just about at the very end at Ellaville.  Suwannee Springs is another example of just how popular the springs were as a tourist destination in the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s.  At least six springs comprise Suwannee Springs. All are clustered in a sandy 100 ft stretch at the base of a 35 ft. high bank along the south side of the Suwannee River. The main spring is within the rock walls of a spring house that was constructed in the mid 1800s. The depth near the vent on the south side of the pool is 7.8 ft. Limestone is exposed in the vents and sand covers a large part of the spring pool. Clear water is pooled behind the wall and spills out through an opening at the base over limestone boulders into the dark tannic waters of the Suwannee River.

Tourists who arrived via a railroad, could stay in a hotel at the site.  In keeping with the theme of magical healing powers of White Springs, the water from Suwannee Springs was bottled and was available for sale by druggists.  While soaking in the springs may have been good for the health of the 19th century tourists, staying at the hotels was most decidedly not.  Three hotels were constructed at the site and each was destroyed by fire, the last burning down in 1925. 

Just west of Suwannee Springs on the south side of the Suwannee River, is the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park.  The park is located on 700 acres with a campground, cabins, restaurant, and canoe rentals. Its biggest claim to fame is that it hosts several large music festivals each year where thousands of people gather to watch several different bands perform on outdoor stages scattered throughout the park. 

The Florida Trail passes right through what little remains of the town of Ellaville.  It was founded around 1861 when a business man named George Drew built a mansion on the west bank of the Suwannee River. He named the town Ellaville as a tribute to Ella, his long-time African-American servant. After the Civil War, Drew and a partner opened a steam-operated sawmill. The mill was soon the largest in Florida, employing over 500 people. A railroad was built through the town with direct service to the mill.  

By the early 1870s, Ellaville was booming, boasting a population of about 1,000 people. In addition to the mill and train station, it had a steamboat dock, a Masonic lodge, two churches, two schools, and a commissary. George Drew became one of the richest businessmen in Florida and was elected governor of the state in 1876.

Sprit of the Suwannee Music Park

When his term as governor was completed, Drew sold his company shares and left Ellaville to pursue other ventures.  The mill burned down in 1898 and though it was rebuilt, there was no longer an abundance of pine available. During the 1900s, major flooding and the Great Depression took their toll and the town finally vanished after the post office closed in 1942. The Drew Mansion, after having been abandoned because of flood damage, was vandalized for years before it burned to the ground in the 1970s. Very little remains of Ellaville other than the foundation of the Drew Mansion, which is obscured by vegetation. A flywheel from the sawmill is on display at the state park. 

The Drew Mansion in Ellaville around 1880

Sawmill in Ellaville around 1884