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The beauty of Big Shoals
The Big Shoals rapids warrant a Class III Whitewater classification when the river is between 59 and 61 feet above mean sea level. -SVT Photo by Jeffry Boatright
By Jeffry Boatright
There is an abundance of reasons why life in the Suwannee Valley Region is so special and Big Shoals State Park offers many of those elements that we love about our area. Located off of County Road 135 near White Springs, Big Shoals State Park provides a haven for paddling, hiking, birding, bicycling, picnicking and much more. In the peaceful surroundings of the park, visitors can find tranquility and joy in North Florida’s uninhabited beauty. Mostly undisturbed and free from development, the park provides over 28 miles of wooded trails to explore.
Perhaps the focal point of the entire park is its namesake, the big shoals. Park visitors and paddling enthusiasts can find Florida’s largest whitewater rapids at the park. Nestled between the high banks of the Suwannee River, the rapids warrant a Class III Whitewater classification when the river is between 59 and 61 feet above mean sea level, according to the park’s website. Paddling enthusiasts from near and far journey to the area in an effort to tame the shoals during optimum river level.
John Hannum insists the whitewater rapids aren’t for everyone, however. “You don’t have to go over the shoals,” he stated. Hannum, who owns American Canoe Adventures, is no stranger to canoeing and kayaking. He explained that the shoals can be avoided when paddling that portion of the Suwannee.
“You can go around them,” he said. In doing so, the risk of harm to paddlers, especially those with limited experience, and their vessels is greatly reduced, he articulated. American Canoe Adventures provides a full rental and shuttle service for paddlers from the Okefenokee Swamp to the Gulf of Mexico, but Hannum maintains the upper part of the Suwannee River is the most beautiful. “Many people prefer to paddle the upper Suwannee because it is so primitive and beautiful,” he added.
Whether or not park visitors indulge in that adventurous portion of the Suwannee River, there is ample joy to be found by foot, bicycle, or horseback. The park offers marked trails for horseback riding, but proof of a negative Coggins test is required. Horses are Coggins tested to prevent the resurgence of Equine Infectious Anemia.
Another highlight for bicyclists and hikers is the 3.4 miles of paved trail connecting the park entrances of Big Shoals and Little Shoals. The scenic Woodpecker Trail snakes through the picturesque woods of the park, paralleling the historic Suwannee River to the south and Woodpecker Route, or Hwy 135, to the north. Hikers will also find satisfaction in their journey along the river’s bank from the Big Shoals picnicking area to the shoals.
The trek by foot is most rewarding because the area’s history, along with the river’s beauty and the likelihood of observing wildlife are all present. The hike from the park entrance to the shoals and back is close to three miles, but well worth every step. Early on, visitors can see the remnants of Old Godwin Bridge. Once linking Hamilton and Columbia counties, the late 19th century bridge was eventually doomed by the flooding waters of the Suwannee. The bridge did, however, serve as a means of transport for timber and other agricultural products like turpentine and cotton.
For generations, the area that is now known as Big Shoals State Park has brought priceless adventure, wonderful stories, and warm memories. No one has more precious memories of Big Shoals and the surrounding woodlands than Ruth Stormant Self.
“I grew up only a few miles from Big Shoals,” Self recalled. “My fondest memories include fishing in that area with my parents and my brother and sister.” According to Self, there was only a wagon road into the shoals from the Hamilton County side and her family traveled the road by mule and wagon. Just like today, the distant sound of the river maneuvering through the shoals was distinctive.
“There were no Yeti coolers in those days either,” she added with laughter. “Our day’s catch was transported in galvanized tubs.”
Recalling her childhood days of fishing around Big Shoals, Self stated that when the river flooded, water would fill the cypress bays and low lying areas, trapping various fishes. “We called those holes the shoals lakes and would catch the fish when the waters receded,” she said.
Big Shoals State Park has indeed provided generations of enjoyment for those living in its vicinity, as well as its visitors from afar. Those who maintain the soothing park work diligently to preserve that same pleasure and tranquility for generations to come.
Park admission is only two dollars per person or four dollars per vehicle for up to eight persons per vehicle. The park opens daily at 8 a.m. and closes at sunset. It is a dog-friendly park, but pet owners are asked to keep their dogs on a six-foot leash.
For more information about Big Shoals State Park, visit them on the web at https://www.floridastateparks.org/park/Big-Shoals.
The Woodpecker Trail connects the entrances of Big Shoals and Little Shoals.
-SVT Photo by Jeffry Boatright
The trail leading to the shoals is an enjoyable trek, but it is advisable to have insect repellant and bottled water available. -SVT Photo by Jeffry Boatright