Weekend Backpacker: Jacksonville
Twisting and turning, with cypress reflected in dark tannic waters, the St. Marys River defines the border between Florida and Georgia and is one of Florida's most picturesque and historic rivers. Native tribes prized its natural botanical resources, like toothache grass. William Bartram collected and identified unusual plants along its shores, including delicate orchids, pitcher plants, purple baldwina, and Bartram's Ixia. During the Civil War, Union gunboats steamed up the winding channel, raiding farms and transporting runaway slaves to freedom.
All is quiet now. Otters play in the river and its tributaries; deer and bobcats slink through the pine forest. Fisherman and canoeists find this an excellent stretch of waterwayenough so that there are four primitive campsites along the river, accessible by water only. It's an interesting mix of river bottomland and sandhills, a varied and lively landscape accentuated by the slow-moving river.
Off the four-mile-long loop road, rough hiking trails meander through the state forest, primarily out-and-back runs with smaller loops attached to allow closer inspection of the forest communities. Several forest roads, closed to vehicles, can be used to tie various trails together. To capture the full flavor of this forest, bring a canoeand mix your on- and off-water experiences along the St. Marys River.
From I-295, take US 1 north through Hillard to Boulogne; turn right on SR 121 (Lake Hampton Road). Turn left on Penny Haddock Road; the central parking area is on the left. If you pass this opportunity to park, another parking area a mile ahead on the left provides access to the northernmost extent of the state forest. Driving time: one and a half hours.
No permit is required for the riverside campsites, but backpackers must contact Division of Forestry at (904) 845-3597 for a State Forest Use Permit to camp at the primitive campsite along Pigeon Creek Road.
Seasonal hunting and controlled burns may close segments of the hiking trails; contact the Division of Forestry for details. While the hiking trails were established by local scout troops, they've not been maintained in a number of years. Expect some bushwhacking and carry a compass.
GUIDEBOOK AND MAPS
A decent map of the forest and its trails is available in the St. Johns River Water Management District Recreation Guide to District Lands; given that some of the trails are fading back into the forest, a USGS map would help immensely with any orienteering required.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication