Suwannee River State Park in northern Florida sits on the limestone bluffs of at the confluence of the Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers. The park is 13 miles west of Live Oak, about halfway between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. It’s a perfect base camp for canoeing or an overnight stop for through paddling on the Suwannee River. Beautiful hiking trails following the woods along the river and historical sites about with ghost towns, ghost stories, Civil War battlements, and memories of the steamboats that once traveled these waters. We originally wrote about Suwannee River Park as one large piece combining the practical guide to Suwannee River State Park alongside of Ghosts Stories of the Suwannee River until each section grew large enough to warrant its own article. This section details more practical aspects to visiting Suwannee River State Park. If you want some good ghost stories to tell around the camp fire while you are there, check out True Scary Stories of the Suwannee.
Way Down Upon the Suwannee River
You probably know the song…but not necessarily by title Old Folks at Home by Stephen Foster (“Way down upon de Swanee Ribber, Far, far away….). It is the State Song of Florida, but there is a fascinating story contained in the evolution of those lyrics that encapsulates the history of Florida. This is a very old song (1851) from the very deep south. We left the original spelling of the lyrics in a starting point for this story.
The first Spanish records for the river used the native Timucua name of Guacara. Soon, those natives were forgotten and the river became known as the San Juanee from the 17th century mission – San Juan de Guacara which was located on the river near present day Charles Springs. The Spanish influence remained but was Anglicized (and Southernized) into Suwannee.
Stephen Foster wrote his work while living in South Carolina having never visited Florida. Foster had written the music but needed a river name that fit the melody. The first suggestions were the Pee Dee River in South Carolina and the Yazoo in Mississippi. After consulting an atlas, his brother suggested the Suwannee. Ruben intentionally changed the name to Swannee to better fit the lyrics. The catchy melody made it the most popular piece of sheet music of the times.
In 1935, Florida adopted the song as their state anthem and played it at the Governor’s inauguration. A lot of the history and perspective of the antebellum south was wrapped up in those lyrics. The song itself is a first-person perspective of an African slave written by a white man when slavery was legal. Slowly, Florida is becoming enlightened and begun distancing itself from these historical ties. For the 1978 election, the replaced the controversial word “darkies” with “brothers”. The pace of progress in Florida can be slow, but it can be metered in a linguistic progression if one pays close attention to the transitions.
Headwaters of the Suwannee River
40 million years ago, the Suwannee River formed the Suwannee Straits, which separated islands in peninsular Florida from the panhandle. The uplifting of the Appalachian Mountains created enough sediment to block the straits and allow vegetation and fill to connect the islands and form lower Florida. The headwaters in George formed the massive Okefenokee Swamp which drained 246 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.
The upper and middle Suwannee river is notable for its karst topography. In many places, like Suwannee River State Park, limestone cliffs rise out of the riverbed to form bluffs. Other karst features include sinkholes, solution valleys and spring vents. Perhaps the most notable karst features of the Suwannee River are the 196 springs that flow into the Suwannee.
Paddling at Suwannee River State Park
The Suwannee River has more fabulous kayak runs than you can shake a paddle at. We detail five possible paddling options you can take: day trips above and below the park on the Suwannee, a day trip on the Withlacoochee, and overnight trips above and below the park on the Suwannee. Make sure you check out the attached map for details and directions. You could even save it to your phone for reference while you are on the river, but my legal team advises me to say it is not intended for navigation 🙂
The Suwannee River is a blackwater river which Wikipedia defines as “a type of river with a slow-moving channel flowing through forested swamps or wetlands. As vegetation decays, tannins leach into the water, making a transparent, acidic water that is darkly stained, resembling tea or black coffee.” Blackwater rivers and swamps are some of the most misunderstood and ecologically significant ecosystems in the world.
The leaves do more than discolor the water, they provide nourishment to diverse and exotic host of plants and animals that include the idiomatic cypress and oak trees draped in a blanket of Spanish moss, sturgeons leaping out of the water, turtles sunning themselves on rocks, deer galloping in the meadows, or alligators lounging on the bank. The more we learn about the biomass, oxygenation, and water purification that occurs in these wetlands, the more we realize that they are essential to human life on Earth. The slow flowing Suwannee River gives you a veritable super trail to explore and discover this amazing world.
For most of this journey, the river banks are lined with forests, with few, if any houses visible. Occasional sandy beaches provide opportunities to stretch your legs and karst features like crystal clear springs provide exceptional highlights along the way.
If map below is not visible, be sure to hit refresh on your brower 😉
If you love maps be sure to zoom the map out because it covers the entire length of the Suwannee River!
Day Trip Above Suwannee River State Park
Put in: Gibson Park (mile 135.4)
Take out: Suwannee River Park Ramp (mile 127.7)
Distance: 8 miles
Highlight: Alapaha Rise – most of the Alapaha River flows out of this massive resurgence just above Gibson County Park.
Day Trip Below Suwannee River State Park
Put in: Suwannee River Park Ramp (mile 127.7)
Take out: Advent Christian Village (mile 113.5)
Distance: 14 miles
Highlights: Anderson Spring – a magnitude spring that boils up right into the Suwannee River.
Day Trip on the Withlacoochee
Put in: Madison Blue Springs State Park
Take out: Suwannee River Park Ramp (mile 127.7)
Distance: 12 miles
Highlights: Nick’s Shoal – a sporting rapid two miles before the confluence with the Suwannee River. When in doubt – scout and portage if you’re uncomfortable with the line. You might need to portage anyway in low water. The best line is usually just right of center.
Put in: Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park (mile 148.5)
Take out: Suwannee River Park Ramp (mile 127.7)
Distance: 20.8 miles
Highlight: Florida Trail at Holton Springs – this section of the Florida Trail lets hikers access karst features around Holton Springs.
Overnight Camp: Holton River Camp (mile 140.9)
Two Day Trip Below Suwannee River State Park
Put in: Suwannee River Park Ramp (mile 127.7)
Take out: Lafayette Blue Springs State Park (mile 103)
Distance: 24.7 miles
Highlight: paddle through history with stops at Charles Spring (mile 106.5) and Allen Mill Pond (105.4). Charles Spring is a historic river crossing for the Bellamy Road. Allen Mill once housed Confederate leader John Breckenridge when he escaped Union captivity. The paddle ends at a Lafayette Blue Springs, a beautiful first magnitude spring flowing directly into the Suwannee River.
Overnight Camp: Downing River Camp (mile 113.5) (with access to Advent Christian Village)
Hiking at Suwannee River State Park
There are over 18 miles of hiking in Suwannee River State Park with additional exploration options available at the nearby ghost town of Ellasville and the Florida Trail. The trails in this area meander through the shady forests of the river lowlands. You will find beautiful views of the Suwannee River through moss draped branches. Along the way, you will cross over karst features like sinks, runs, and springs perfect representations of north Florida geology. These trails are a great way to explore the areas diverse ecology, geology, and hydrology.
The primary hiking trails within the Suwannee River State Park are:
Suwannee River Trail (.7 miles) – This trail provides access to the boat ramp and Little Gem Springs before it reaches Balanced Rock Trail.
Balanced Rock Trail (3 miles) – The 20’ tall balanced Rock fell into the Suwannee in 2015 during a flood. It’s only visible periods of low water. Besides balancing rock. This trail is a delightful journey through the river lowlands.
Lime Sink Run (.75 miles) – Branching off from the junction of Suwannee River Trail and Balanced Rock Trail, this short trail follows Lime Sink Run. During floods, the run fills with water. During normal water, you can see the karst window of Lime Sink leading down into the aquifer below.
Sandhill Trail (.8 miles) – This short trail takes you around the town cemetery for Columbus. The cemetery is all that remains of this once thriving town where the riverboats met the railways in the 1800s.
Earthworks Trail (.25 miles) – This trail takes you to a lookout post over the earthen work fort erected by Confederate soldiers to defend the supply lines at Columbus. The campaign to capture this crossing culminated in the Battle of Olustee, the bloodiest Civil War battle in Florida.
Big Oak Trail (12.5 miles) – This trail takes you to one of the largest oak trees in Florida. The tree is described as large enough to take six adults to reach around the trunk. This would make it about 30’ in diameter.
Camping at Suwannee River State Park
In order to really know an area, you have to stay there overnight. Our favorite feature of Suwannee River State Park is the swings on the bluffs at Hickory Bend that overlooked the Suwannee River. There, we watched the amber sunset paint fire on the placid waters of the Suwannee. We returned to our campfire to tell ghost stories, reminisce about the adventures of the day, and draw plans for explorations yet to come. When the heat of the coals could no longer fight back the chill of the night, we retired to our tent. We fell asleep to a chorus of frogs and the pitter patter of rain on the fly. (this is a wetland after all).
I love a good campout and there are multiple camping options at Suwannee River State Park from fully equipped cabins to group tent camping to the standard pull in campsites. (Reservations can be made here) The camping options are:
Cabins (5 cabins – $100/night) – Two-bedroom cabins with heating, cooling, electric fireplace, screened porch, and fully equipped kitchenette. Two-day minimum stay on weekend and holidays. Pets are not permitted.
Tent/ RV camping (30 spots – $22/night) – Shady sites in mature oak grove with electricity, water, sewer, picnic table and fire ring. Showers and toilets in the campground.
Lime Sink Group Camp (30 people $5/night) – Located along the banks of Lime Sink. Limited tables and fire rings. Toilets nearby. Shower at the main campground. For more information and reservations, please contact the Ranger Station at (386) 362-2746.
Hickory Bend Group Camp (45 people $5/night) – Located on the banks of the Suwannee River. Limited tables and fire rings. Toilets nearby. Shower at the main campground. For more information and reservations, please contact the Ranger Station at (386) 362-2746.
Our Visit to Suwannee River State Park
We visited Suwannee State Park to participate in the sixth annual Suwannee River Paddling Festival. Paddle Florida did a great job of hosting the event with over 100 paddlers present. The event was catered by Doobie Brothers Catering (850-597-5341) with plenty of homestyle cooking at every meal.
We camped at the Hickory Bend Group Camping site and paddled both with Withlacoochee and Suwannee Rivers over the course of the weekend. The Gibson-Suwannee run was very straightforward. The Madison Blue Springs – Suwannee run was a little challenging but it everything worked out great.
The water on the Withlacoochee rose 5’ overnight which gave us enough clearance to not have any portages over the shoals (a sandbank or sandbar that makes the water shallow). There were a lot of strainers (fallen trees) in the river that were easy enough to avoid. We ran Nick’s shoal cleanly but it took precise maneuvering. An experienced paddler immediately in front of us got hung up on a rock. He got free without going for a swim but it speaks to the need to scout the rapid and control your boat.
During the weekend, we were able to witness Marylyn and Ed Feaver receiving the Paddle Florida 2018 Environmental Leadership Award. With tear filled eyes Marylyn stated what she wants done to help preserve Florida’s wetlands. She wants everybody’s help to inspire people (especially families/children) to come out and enjoy paddling and the Florida State Parks. We hope we did Marylyn and Ed proud this article, and that you are now, at least, considering taking a trip down to the scenic and historic Suwannee River.
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