The Big Oak Trail is one of the most scenic hikes in North Florida and is part of the statewide Florida Trail. Much of the hiking parallels the Suwannee and Withlacoochee Rivers, which meet here at a confluence where the Withlacoochee (not to be confused with the one in Central Florida) flows south from Georgia to enter the Suwannee River. Along the loop portion of the hike, there are many deep sinkholes and tall trees, including the namesake Big Oak, which has a base big enough it takes eight people holding hands to circle around it.
Length: 4.1 to 12.5 miles
Lat-Long: 30.385633, -83.168600
Type: round-trip and loop
Fees / Permits: if you start your hike at the park entrance, state park fee
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: Yes, at the state park
Suwannee River State Park website
Twin Rivers State Forest website
From I-10 westbound, take exit 275, Live Oak/Lee. Follow US 90 for 5.1 miles west to the park entrance, on the right. From I-10 eastbound from Tallahassee, use exit 262, Lee. Head north on CR 255 for 2.9 miles to US 90. Turn right. Follow US 90 east for 8.9 miles, to the park entrance on the left just after the bridge over the Suwannee River.
This hike can be done in a variety of ways with a variety of starting points. It is now officially part of the Florida Trail (whereas it used to be a loop off the thru-trail) and has a nice large camping area with picnic benches and fire ring at the confluence. You can start from the ranger station at Suwannee River State Park for a 12.5-mile hike, or drive west a little along US 90 to the Drew Mansion Ruins trailhead on the opposite side of the Suwannee River to cut the mileage down to 9.5, or drive around to CR 141 and park down near a gate east of the Withlacoochee River (do not block the gate) to the gas transmission line for an easy 4.1 mile hike. Although this 12.5-mile hike can be done as a very long day hike, this is rugged terrain for Florida, so if you want to do the full mileage, consider tackling this as an overnight trip, enjoying the primitive campsite with its panoramic views. One warning, though—some nights, echoes of train whistles down the river will wake you up!
CONNECTOR TO DREW MANSION RUINS
The connector portion of the trail, from the ranger station to the gas transmission line at the top of the loop portion of the trail, is a round-trip hike of 8.2 miles (or 5.2 miles from the Drew Mansion Ruins trailhead). Follow the orange blazes away from the ranger station and down the park entrance road until they lead you into the woods on the right to cut over to US 90. You’ll cross a busy set of railroad tracks en route to the agricultural inspection station and walk right down the old highway (no cars allowed) across a historic bridge over the Suwannee River. The old US 90 bridgeThe paralleling railroad bridge was of special concern to the Confederacy, as it was the primary transportation link between Jacksonville and Tallahassee during the War Between the States, key for feeding the troops amassed at Camp Milton near Baldwin. A detachment was sent to what was then the town of Columbus to build protective earthworks at the confluence and set up a small garrison to protect the rail line and the old ferryboat crossing for wagons, below. You can still see these earthworks from another trail within Suwannee River State Park.
Crossing the bridge, you walk along the old highway past a long boarded-up tavern. Turn right to walk down to the Drew Mansion Ruins trailhead. Governor George Drew took office in the aftermath of the Civil War, and escaped from his duties in Tallahassee to relax here on his riverside plantation. The historic home, built in the late 1800s, remained here until just a few decades ago, when an arsonist torched it. A short blue-blazed loop leads through the ruins of the mansion. A picnic area provides a place to relax, and the trailhead is your secondary (and free) access to the Florida Trail and the Big Oak Trail. Signage points you in the right direction.
FLORIDA TRAIL, ELLAVILLE
Where the blue blazes meet the orange blazes of the Florida Trail, be sure to turn right (north) to continue on the Big Oak Trail. Climbing up an embankment, you come to the railroad tracks and must cross them again. The trail drops down a steep embankment on the other side and enters the ghost town of Ellaville, with the only hints of this timber boomtown bits of broken clay pots and brick foundations. The trail winds out to the edge of the river bluff along the Withlacoochee River and turns to follow it north.
At 2.6 miles, you reach a campsite with a picnic table, fire pit, and river access. It lies very close to a forest road in Twin Rivers State Forest. Continuing to parallel the river, you can see some of the rocky shoals when the water is low. The Withlacoochee is known for rough and rugged kayaking thanks to its shoals, and don’t be surprised to see kayakers at the backpacking campsites. The trail emerges from the deep shade of the river forest to scramble up an embankment to CR 141 to use the highway bridge to cross the river. On the other side of the river, follow this country road briefly until you find the dirt road to the right that leads back down and around to the gate for the gas transmission line. When you reach the gate, continue straight down the easement for the gas pipeline to reach the top of the loop.
When you reach the loop, you’ll see double orange blazes in two directions on a tree to your right. Turn right and walk down the broad forest road. The trail swings left off the forest road and then heads right towards the river and along the lip of a set of very deep sinkholes. You hear the sound of rushing water rising from a series of small rapids in a broad bend in the river before the trail turns into the forest again, winding its way to an old road. Turn right. This narrow track once allowed stagecoaches and riders on horseback to head towards Georgia from the town of Columbus after they’d crossed the river ferry to this shore.
As the trail turns away from the road and back to the river, it passes massive bluff oaks and tall yellow pines, and keeps to the bluffs of the river, with many panoramic views. Dropping in and out of dry side channels, it heads around a series of sinkholes on the left before rejoining the old road briefly. You walk right into the campsite at the confluence, 6.2 miles into the hike (or 2 miles from the top of the loop). A fire ring and two picnic tables provide your kitchen and dining room, and you can work your way down a steep trail to the river’s edge to gather water. Hear the sound of splashing water? A short side trail leads upriver along the Withlacoochee to a view of Suwanacoochee Spring, which pours out of a containment area – an old brick wall for a spring house – on the far side of the river, another remnant of the town of Ellaville. Another side trail leads to the very end of the peninsula, where you look across to the observation platform by the Confederate earthworks. As the crow flies, you’re less than a quarter mile away from the trailhead at the ranger’s station.
The Big Oak Trail exits the campsite and continues its loop by following the Suwannee River upstream. Swamp chestnut oaks, bluff oaks, and large American holly shade this portion of the trail, and you can see the boat ramp on the far side of the river. Hiking through the river bluff forestAfter skirting an extensive floodplain, the trail drops down into it and makes a beeline to the river. As you walk along the river, look carefully at the water’s surface to notice the upwelling from numerous small spring vents. Scan the far shore and listen for the sound of flowing water, and you’ll eventually notice Lime Spring, gushing water down rocks into the river.
At 6.8 miles, you cross the gas pipeline corridor. Once you enter the forest again, keep alert for the Big Oak, the namesake of this trail. There are many large oaks along this stretch of the trail, but the Big Oak towers over them all, and is particularly conspicuous thanks to the width of its gnarled base. It indeed takes eight people to reach around the bottom of this tree—we tried it!
As the trail turns away from the Suwannee for the last time, it enters the deeply shaded hardwood hammock. Shallow karst depressions and deeper sinkholes pockmark the leaf-strewn forest floor, including one very deep sinkhole at 7.3 miles. Barren limestone reflects in the water at the bottom. The trail drops down into an area that was once clearcut of its yellow pines, but has grown back with a crowded understory of oaks, sweetgum, and young pines in the disturbed clay-rich soil. Turning a corner, the trail re-enters the denser forest and comes to a large sign marking where the Florida Trail continues east along the river. Turn left, away from the orange blazes, and follow the blue blazes through the shady forest past several sinkholes to emerge at the gas pipeline corridor. Turn right to complete the loop, and retrace your hike back to your original starting point.
BIG OAK TRAIL
start @ ranger station
pass sign “11.5 mile hiking trail” at entrance arch 0.5
turn right on US 90, follow to ag station 0.6
turn right on old road 1.2
old Suwannee Bridge 1.3
turn right @ historical marker 1.5
T with FT (8.5 mi Big Oak Trail) 1.8
FT campsite 2.6
join old woods road 2.9
trail turns right off woods rd 3.3
FT sign, right to cross river bridge on road 3.5
guardrail ends, turn right to follow FT 3.8
gate, continue straight 3.9
top of loop, Big Oak Trail blue blazed to right 4.2
turn left at T 4.3
trail turns to right towards river 4.3
join old woods road 4.9
turn right off old woods road 5.0
huge sinkhole with caverns, water
join old woods road 5.9
Lime Spring on other side of river
cross gas pipeline 6.8
BIG OAK 7.0
deep sinkhole on FTA map 7.3
jct FT, turn left 8.0
gas pipeline, right 8.2
end Big Oak LOOP 8.3
return to CR 149 8.7
return to turnoff to blue blazes 10.7
return to ranger station @ park 12.5