The trail is about 19 miles long and ends just west of Cross City, where the pavement abruptly ends (the unpaved segment appears to offer a nice tree-canopied experience for the future of this trail). It is ample in width—about 12 feet wide (see photo)—which enables pleasant side-by-side bicycling with companions. Such trail riding greatly enhances the enjoyment of the trail, and reduces trail conflicts with people coming the other way. It also easily enables in-line skating, which demands more trail width than any other form of travel on trails. Currently, the trail is quite good for in-line skating. Not only is it wide enough, but it is very smooth.
Only a mile or so into our ride from Fanning Springs, we cross the very impressive Suwannee River bridge (see photo at right). We stop there for a break, and we observe very large tarpon fish leaping out of the water in the river.
Heading west from the bridge, we pass a number of attractive horsefarms on the north side of the trail. After a few more miles, the trail becomes less tree-lined, and therefore more exposed to sun and less attractive. It also followings, for several miles, the busy SR 26. Round-trip, the ride is about 2.5 hours.
After the ride, we head across the street from the trail head to cool off at Fanning Springs State Park. Here, there is a lot of shallow, white sand bottom. The water is 72 degrees year round, which makes for a bracing cool down in the Florida summer heat. The swim area is surrounded by a concrete dock. There is a 10-foot high platform that is used for diving into the 20-foot deep boil, which is monitored by a lifeguard. There is a short spring run to the Suwannee River. Motorboats come in from the river to dock at the springs. When we are there, it was filled with users. We vow that if we return, it will need to be on a weekday.
After the springs, we make a beeline across the street to the Lighthouse Restaurant for lunch. It is excellent. Great service great food, great salad bar.
The next morning, first thing, a group of three of us load up our kayaks for a paddle at Cedar Key. I have not paddled there before, but am to find that as advertised, it is a kayaker playground. My idea was to launch from the National Wildlife Refuge north of Cedar Key, and paddle amongst the small islands and marshes. However, one of my buddies wants to paddle further to the south, where there was more open seas. I lose the coin flip, so we head south.
We put in at the municipal beach park at Cedar Key. The plan is to paddle clockwise to see the three islands that form a crescent shape around the town of Cedar Key. We first explore Snake Key. At the white sand beach (see photo at left), we spot a number of large horseshoe crab swimming along the bottom in the shallows near the beach. We also are treated to a lot of flying mullet during our paddle.
The ocean waters off Cedar Key are part of a low-energy system, which enhances kayaking, as the water is mostly flat. We do experience some small, choppy waves in the open water, however.
We then set out for the middle key—Seahorse Key. There, we stop to look at the lighthouse, which is only 25 feet high. Finally, we depart to Long Key (photo below right).
Paddling back to our put-in point, we dread the thought of heading into the wind and waves, but the first three-quarters are surprisingly not a problem. But as we approach the town, we turn a corner and are hit by a strong headwind and strong wave action. If we stop paddling, we are pushed back and lose ground. And after 5 hours of paddling, it becomes difficult to continuously paddle without resting.
Boat activity in the open water is fairly modest, but it does include a few noisy air-boats. At the municipal beach park, we enjoy using the outdoor showers to rinse off before having dinner in the town.
Overall, it is a 6-hour paddle, including lunch, swimming, a bit of birding, and picture-taking.
Each of the three islands are very picturesque and wholly designated as national wildlife refuge.
Pine Island and Deer Island, February 2001
I launch kayaks with two friends at Shell Mound just north of Cedar Key. We have heard that paddling north from Shell Mound involves shallow water, so we carefully make sure that our paddle out and back on this day included as much high tide as possible. Nevertheless, we find that even during high tide, the water north of Shell Mound along the coastline is very shallow. More than once, each of us “run aground” in shallow muck and need to portage to deeper water.
At one point on the way back, I need to get out to pull my kayak out of shallow water. I push my kayak in front of me, but suddenly find that the muck immobilizes me. The scene becomes ugly. My kayak, however, keeps floating and one of my paddle companions has to circle back to deliver my boat back to me.
Our destination plan for the float on this day is Clarke Island, based on a glowing review from our local newspaper about camping and hiking the island. After paddling for about an hour, we reach a beach on what we think, naively, was Clarke Island. But when I ask some nearby air boat operators whether this is Clarke Island, I am told that we are on Pine Island and that Clarke Island is just north of us. Pine Island is attractive, but difficult to hike due to a lack of trails and a very narrow beach.
We set out for Clarke Island, but discover that most of the trees along the southern shoreline contain “No Trespassing” signs (apparently, the newspaper article neglected to mention that hiking Clarke Island is only possible if you get a permit or pay a fee to camp on the island).
Not to be denied of adventure, we paddle southwesterly to Deer Island. This island turns out to be a very surprising treat. The island contains what appears to be an old caretaker’s shack, which is odd, since the island at its south point contains a national wildlife refuge sign. There are no other buildings on the island that we see.
As you can see in the photo (above right), the sugar-white sand beach on the west side of Deer Island is superb and picturesque. My “Marauding Death March” Paddle Group decide that we need to return to Deer Island to spend more time there.
More About Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge
The Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge is comprised of 12 islands (keys) surrounding Cedar Key. Four of them—Snake, Bird, North and Seahorse—are designated as wilderness areas. The Refuge was established in 1929 by President Herbert Hoover.
Native American Indians inhabited the islands for at least 1,000 years, ranging from 450 to 1,800 years ago. Explorers searching for cedar lands near the Suwannee River in 1835 explains the origin of the island names. Seahorse Key was so named because its contours resemble that of a seahorse. The lighthouse on Seahorse Key was built in 1851.
The Cedar Keys have historically been extremely valuable as a nesting area for colonial birds. At its recorded peak, over 200,000 nesting birds were found there in the 60s and 70s. Today, there are about 50,000 birds, and remains one of the largest nesting areas in Florida.
Access to the Keys is by boat only.