Have you ever wanted to see a waterfall in Florida? Here's your chance. The waterfall on this hike is not high at all, but it's interesting in other aspects, not to mention that it's pretty powerful. Besides the waterfall, you'll get to experience the beauty of the Suwanee River Valley. Additionally, the hike continues to an anomalous natural sight: one of only two Class III whitewater rapids in Florida. This hike occurred on Sunday, July 19th, 2015. My plan was to hike the Florida Trail from the trailhead at Bell Springs to at least Robinson Branch Falls. Depending on conditions, I wanted to visit the Big Shoals on the Suwannee River, but a deep-looking ford of Robinson Branch happened to be my turnaround point, as I didn't have the proper gear for fording at the time. On Saturday, November 4th, 2017, I returned to the Bell Springs section of the Florida Trail at a time of lower water conditions. This time, with proper gear for fording the creek, I hiked all the way to Big Shoals, and the trail report has been updated for the trail between Robinson Branch Falls and Big Shoals.
R/T Length of Trail: 2.9 Miles
Duration of Hike: 1:00
Type of Hike: Out and Back
Difficulty Rating: 2 out of 10
Pros: Well-defined, easy trail; great river views not far from the trailhead
Cons: Possibly deep ford on the way to Big Shoals
Points of Interest: Robinson Branch Falls; Big Shoals
Trail Blaze Color(s): Florida Trail - Blue
Best Season(s) to Hike: Year-round
Beginning Point: Bell Springs Trailhead
Directions: From White Springs, FL: Follow US Route 41 South for 3 miles. Then, turn left onto Lassie Black Street. Follow Lassie Black Street for 1.8 miles, and then, turn left onto Morrell Drive. Follow Morrell Drive for 1 mile to a cul-de-sac. The following is not very obvious: continue straight onto a dirt road that looks like a driveway to a house. There should be a sign for "Bell Springs Tract". Pass a house on the right and continue down the dirt road to a grassy parking area. This is the start of the hike.
Click the link below to download a .GPX file with a track of this hike.
This short hike turned out to be one of my favorites in Florida. This was my last hike there during the Summer 2015 trip, and I was debating whether to tack it on or not, and in the end I decided to. I'm glad I did. This hike is a must-do!
The trail starts out behind a gate going down an old forest road. There is a kiosk with useful photos and maps at the trailhead. At 0.1 miles, reach a junction that has a sign commemorating the people who helped to make this land protected. There's a trail that goes left here, marked by an orange blaze. To my understanding, this is the main route of the Florida Trail that continues west/northwest along the Suwannee River. To the right, a short spur trail leads to a fence surrounding a stream. This spur trail is worth taking, as at the fence, you'll see the outflow stream of Bell Springs. Unfortunately, you can't see the spring itself - it's located on private property just upstream from the opening. Back at the junction, the trail you need to take for this hike is straight ahead. This is the Florida Trail too, but at the moment, it is not part of the main route, and thus, it is known as a spur trail. Gradually descend following the blue blazes. At 0.15 miles, cross the stream from Bell Springs on a relatively new footbridge. Then, follow the stream downstream. Reach the Suwannee River at 0.25 miles at the bottom of a hill. There are great views of the river here. Throughout the hike, there'll be many views of the Suwannee River, progressively getting better. If the water levels are high enough, you'll be seeing bizarre foam in the river already that is brought by Big Shoals (and a little is contributed by Robinson Branch and its waterfall).
The trail bears right and parallels the river closely, passing through a series of scenic palmetto passages. At 0.6 miles, the trail rounds a low-lying marshy area and reaches Robinson Branch. The trail follows Robinson Branch upstream, but before you take it, turn left and walk down to the bank of Robinson Branch. Then, take a slim path downstream along Robinson Branch to its confluence with the Suwannee River. This is an absolutely gorgeous spot. Once you've seen the view, return to the main trail and continue upstream. After a short uphill, at 0.65 miles, reach an outcrop with a view of Robinson Branch Falls. Even though the waterfall is really more of a cascade, it is interesting and impressive by Florida standards. Robinson Branch drops about 10 to 12 feet off a limestone shelf and into an extended pool. When there's a lot of water, the cascade attains a unique color of rust. From Robinson Branch Falls, the trail briefly ascends and stays above the creek before joining an old road at 0.85 miles. Keep left, and descend moderately to a ford of Robinson Branch at 0.95 mile. On my first hike in July 2015, this was my turnaround point. I had planned to continue to Big Shoals, but without proper footwear and hiking poles, I did not attempt the deep-looking ford. Because of the black water, you can't easily see how deep it is. Over two years later in November 2017, I returned to get all the way to Big Shoals and found the ford to be much shallower and easier - being only ankle-deep. Keep in mind that if you wish to see Big Shoals and keep your feet dry, then there's a different way to get to it via the Big Shoals Trail from Big Shoals State Park - just the view from that side of the river isn't as good.
On the north side of Robinson Branch, a brown sign marks the trail's entry into Big Shoals Public Lands. The most confusing spot on the hike occurs at 1.0 miles, where the broad forest road continues straight while the blue-blazed trail dives into the forest via a slim pathway that splits left. I did not notice the double blazes and had actually continued ahead on the forest road before realizing my mistake about 5 minutes later. The narrower trail parallels Robinson Branch as it heads back toward the Suwannee River. At 1.15 miles, a 100-foot side path leads left to a different view of Robinson Branch Falls from the north side of the creek - I suggest taking it on the way back. Then, at 1.2 miles, the trail climbs a small hill and abruptly reaches the Suwannee River again. The river and its tall sandy banks are exceptionally beautiful in this area.
The trail passes through a neat passage between the roots of a tree and closely follows the river as the roar of Big Shoals draws closer. At 1.4 miles, the trail makes a tricky crossing of a tiny tributary of the river - the trickiness comes from the steep sandy banks carved out by the tributary that you have to scramble down and back up. After this, the trail curves around a small depression guarded by tall cypress trees and then comes to a small opening in the forest above the main part of Big Shoals. I did not see any blazes past this point, so I believe this is where the trail ends - regardless of whether this is the official trail end or not, take the obvious path down to the left beneath a fallen tree and to the long flat area just above the Suwannee River at 1.45 miles that is the best spot to view the Big Shoals.
Big Shoals is a really scenic location. The broad Suwannee River goes over several sets of limestone rock outcrops - some of which are above the water level (depending on the river flow) - and greatly increases its speed here, forming the Class III Rapids. The only other Class III Rapids in the state are on the much smaller Aucilla River west of Perry. I really liked the small wave effect that was produced by the underwater rocks throughout the river at the shoals. After viewing Big Shoals, begin heading back to the trailhead. Rather than returning to the main trail immediately, I suggest following the unofficial but broad pathway closer to the river, which provides a few more close-up views of the rapids. The path rejoins the main trail at the small tricky tributary crossing. From here, it's a simple matter of retracing your earlier steps to the Bell Springs Trailhead. You'll return to your car and conclude the hike at 2.9 miles.
I have decided to rate this hike a "Best Hike" due to the great beauty of the Suwannee River combined with the unique (for Florida) sights of Robinson Creek Falls and Big Shoals. Despite its short length, it's hard to find a hike this diverse and scenic in Florida!
Hike out and back just to Robinson Creek Falls - 1.3 Miles
Big Shoals Trail at Big Shoals State Park is an easy hike that will give you a different aspect of Big Shoals and the Suwannee River. Visit the park's website or contact the park for more information on the park's various trails. It is easy to make a full hiking day by combining this hike with the trails in Big Shoals State Park.
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Mark Oleg Ozboyd
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