Where has summer vacation gone? It seems like only yesterday the last school bell was ringing and we were looking forward to a few months of the easy life: lounging by the pool, trips to see family, and vacations at interesting places. In many locations, school is already back in session, and it won’t be long before the rest follow suit. But don’t despair if you’re still hearing the call of the wild for one more trip. Florida will still be warm and sunny for a few more months, and we’d like to suggest a fun-filled trip down the beautiful Suwannee River.
While the Suwannee’s fame began because of Stephen Foster’s famous song, “Old Folks at Home,” it is holding onto its fame because of its relative “wildness.” “Along its entire 235-mile length,” the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail Paddling Guide reports, “only a handful of small communities overlook her waters; the largest having populations barely exceeding 1,000. Away from towns, homes are relatively scarce. In some places you can travel for miles without seeing any sign of civilization. There are also few campgrounds. It was this shortage of designated camping areas and facilities that inspired the formation of the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail.”
Starting at White Springs, Florida, and following the river for 171 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail (SRWT) travels private and public lands. It’s a wild and wonderful trail over land and river with eight “hubs” along the way. These hubs are mostly state parks and towns that offer respite to those enjoying the SRWT. “While the trail is primarily geared toward paddlers,” notes the Paddling Guide, “the hubs offer trail users the opportunity to expand their exploration of the area by bicycle, horseback, or on foot.”
Overnight accommodations can be found in hub towns — White Springs, Dowling Park, Branford, Fanning Springs and Suwannee — at hub parks — Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, Suwannee River State Park, Lafayette Blue Springs State Park and Fanning Springs State Park — and at the Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. Between hubs, “river camps,” which can only be accessed from the river, have been built to serve those paddling the SRWT: screened sleeping platforms with electricity and ceiling fans, restrooms with hot showers, potable water, picnic areas and fire rings.
The Suwannee River has three distinct sections — the upper, middle and lower. The upper Suwannee — the area between the Okefenokee Swamp where the river begins, and the Withlacoochee River confluence, which is not part of the SRWT — is a meandering course through a remote, sparsely populated area.
In the middle, between White Springs and Suwannee Springs, the river descends a low ridge, or “escarpment,” called the Cody Scarp. The Suwannee’s passage over the Cody Scarp is marked by massive outcroppings and sheer rock faces of limestone. The Paddling Guide notes that “in periods of low water, the rocky riverbed develops many fun shoals and quick-water chutes for the thrill seeking paddler. However, in very low water, these shoals become a series of exhausting pullovers. Be sure to check with a local outfitter if you’re unsure of conditions.” Also of interest in the middle Suwannee are the many freshwater springs. “Spring hopping” is a favorite pastime of locals.
The lower Suwannee begins near Fanning Springs. According to the Paddling Guide, “some aspects of the lower river make it less suited to paddling than other sections. Wide-open water (which means more chance of winds), along with changing tides, can make very difficult paddling conditions that should only be attempted by strong, experienced paddlers. Boat ramps and access roads are rare, so getting help in an emergency could be difficult. But, with careful planning and all due caution, you’ll find that the lower Suwannee offers some of the finest paddling. Exploring some of the many side streams, you’ll find a fantastic swampy world of bald cypress [and other trees]. This rich environment hosts a wonderful variety of birds and other animals.”
Planning is key when tackling any part of the Suwannee River. Contact the SRWT headquarters, located at 4298 NW County Road 292, Mayo, Florida (1-800-868-9914, 386-294-1120), before starting out. The headquarters includes brochures and displays about the trail, and the staff offers a wealth of knowledge.
If you’re paddling near Dowling Park, be sure to stop by Advent Christian Village. There is boat ramp along the river that leads to the Village Square, which includes a café, grocery store, post office, bank, gift and thrift shops, and the Village Lodge. Guests are always welcome.