Hiking the Withlacoochee Bay Trail on the Nature Coast
“Let’s take a hike,” my sister said. We sipped a morning cup of coffee at Cattle Dog Coffee Roasters, a cozy wooden coffee house in historic downtown Crystal River on Florida’s Nature Coast.
She and her husband were visiting from Florida’s west coast. They never miss the opportunity to explore local hiking trails and byways.
“I’ve always wanted to see what was at the end of the barge canal,” I confessed. The barge canal was only a few miles north on US-19.
The Cross Florida Barge Canal
The Cross Florida Barge Canal, proposed in the 1930’s and eventually funded in the 1960’s, was a public works project that would have cut a shipping channel across Florida from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic. Richard Nixon stopped the project in 1971 due to public backlash led by local Florida environmentalist Marjorie Harris Carr.
Kids (and Fish) on the Cross Florida Barge Canal
For me, the area of the Florida Barge Canal in Crystal River held many memories. My daughter practiced riding her pink princess bicycle along the smooth paved trail while my husband and son fished from a covered pavilion along the canal.
I kept up with her at a fast walk, almost run, until we were swarmed by a cloud of pesky yellow flies. We raced back to the truck cab, away from the biting bugs. I’d vowed we would return one day and bike the 5-mile trail – when it was cooler and less buggy.
We often fished on the banks of the canal and would bring my mother-in-law out for the afternoons, setting up camp chairs and breaking out a picnic lunch. We’d watch the crabs climb through the shallows to devour discarded bait shrimp, fighting with other crabs for their take of the bounty.
It was the place to picnic, practice casting with the kids and relax under the Florida sun. But with all those memories, I had somehow never made it to the end of that paved trail.
The Withlacoochee Bay Trail
The Withlacoochee Bay Trail begins at Felburn Park Trailhead, under the south side of the barge canal bridge on US-19 in Crystal River.
The multi-use paved trail stretches 5-miles. The first half of the trail parallels the barge canal, and the second part runs through the woods and alongside the salt marshes around Richardson’s Creek and all the way on a peninsula shaped piece of land to the Gulf of Mexico.
Part of the Florida State Park system, the trail welcomes cyclists, hikers, and even in-line skaters. Two adjacent equestrian trails in Dixon Hammock offer horseback riders the opportunity to explore wild Florida.
We drove from Felburn Park down the gravel access road. The road took us past 4 parking lots along the way to the final West End Parking Area, 3.98 miles down the road from the trailhead.
Paddling from the Withlacoochee Bay Trail
Three kayakers were unloading their gear from a truck when we arrived. They pulled their brightly colored vessels down to the rough kayak launch among the oysters onto Richardson’s Creek to the left. In the distance, small islands rose from the tidal waters and steam flowed from the decommissioned power plant on the skyline.
Above the launch area, a wooden observation platform cast a dark shadow over the oysters protruding from the mud below. At low tide, paddlers must take care not to get stranded in the thick mud and sharp oyster beds. And those small islands? They are actually all part of a single island, Everett Island, owned by the park and cut by shallow waters.
Hiking the Last Leg of the Withlacoochee Bay Trail
A pair of cyclists pedaled past as we headed down the paved path of the last leg of the Withlacoochee Bay Trail. From the West End Parking Area, it would be a 1.1-mile round-trip hike.
The wide, paved path cut through the maritime hammock. This area of the trail snuggled closer to the Richardson Creek side of the peninsula. The foliage between the cypress trees thinned out, giving us a view of the blue glistening waters.
The Trail’s End
We walked and talked over the half mile until we reached an observation platform at the trail’s end. The covered deck overlooked the point where the Cross Florida Barge Canal, John’s Creek, and Trout Creek converged with Richardson’s Creek to flow into the Gulf of Mexico. It is a scenic meeting of waterways.
Boaters anchored at the headwaters of Trout Creek with their lines cast, hoping to catch ‘the big one’. Farther away, small islands shimmered under the blue skies and bright sun.
My sister and I took the worn trail alongside the observation deck, past the stands of sawgrass and limestone rocks to the mud by the water’s edge. Low tide in the Gulf of Mexico.
We watched as a blue heron swooped across the canal to land on the rocks on the opposite side, fishing for its own ‘catch of the day.’ Part of the Great Florida Birding Trail, visitors can expect to see wading birds like herons, egrets & ibis here. Some even spot eagles, osprey and hawks hunting for fish, along with pelicans, cormorants and anhinga birds.
A group of cyclists rode up, dismounting their bikes to explore the trail’s end, and signaling a silent changing of the guard. My sister and I deviated from the paved path on our return, choosing to take the grassy service road that ran alongside the barge canal instead. With water views, secret fishing spots and a lone cactus, it made for a scenic change.
Along the Marjorie Harris Carr Greenway Cross Florida Greenway
Our grass trail rejoined the main path at the West End Parking Lot. There, an angler tried his luck at the fishing pavilion on the barge canal while a group of tourists from up north drank in the magical views of Florida’s Nature Coast from the Richardson Creek observation deck.
The Withlacoochee Bay Trail is part of the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, a 110-mile linear green space which stretches from Central Florida to the Gulf of Mexico to the St. John’s River.
Things to Know Before You Go to Hike the Withlacoochee Bay Trail:
- The Withlacoochee Bay Trail is open from 8 AM to sunset 365 days a year.
- Located at 1020 N. Suncoast Boulevard (US-19), Crystal River, FL 34428.
- Contact number: 352.758.1000
- There is no entry fee.
- Pets are allowed but must be on a leash.
- There is a compost toilet at parking lot #3, a mere 2.38 miles away from the trailhead.
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