This 6 mile hike takes you along the Florida Trail through a breathtaking half-mile stretch of palm hammock known as "The Cathedral of the Palms" to a third magnitude spring deep in the jungly St. Mark's Refuge.
Something funny happens when you fall in love with visiting springs. Eventually, when you've visited all the major springs that you usually have to share with crowds, you start looking for the rest of Florida's "thousand springs." The ones deep in the forest and unspoiled by crowds.
In Florida's Panhandle, south of Tallahassee and only about 10 minutes away from world-famous Wakulla Springs State Park, is a third-magnitude hidden gem that takes a little work to get to. But it's so worth it.
Warning, it's quite a hike. About six miles of walking round trip, through some sandy logging road portions, then some boggy portions, and a little root-bumpy portions and rickety/mossy boardwalks. It can be brutal in the summer, so take all the Florida-hiking precautions - take plenty of water, be prepared for sun and heat, and protect yourself from mosquitos and ticks.
Don't let me scare you off, though. It's a well-marked hike with great rewards.
How to Get There
There are two primary trailheads, both off of Hwy 98. I'm going to direct you to my favorite one, it's on Spring Creek Highway and is the closest to the spring. On Google Maps, you're looking for "Florida Trail Spring Creek/Cathedral of Palms Trailhead" at 3102 Spring Creek Hwy, Crawfordville, FL 32327.
Finding Shepherd Spring
From the trailhead, it's a well-marked walk to where the trail splits to make a "loop". To go directly to the spring, take the path to the right, to take you along the "bottom" part of the loop. You will come to a well-known bench that marks the spur trail to Shepherd Spring.
While the Cathedral of the Palms trail is a loop, to get to the spring you'll be leaving that loop to take a short there-and-back spur, where a boardwalk will take you over the final boggy stretch the spring's edge.
The spring itself is a third magnitude spring, clear and blue and full of gar. Many people report that it is home to a large resident alligator, and I did indeed see a large one resting not far from the boardwalk, so I was not tempted to swim!
Left photo of Shepherd spring by Sunshine State Seekers, center photo by David Moynahan, right photo a boardwalk on the Shepherd Spring/Cathedral of the Palms hike
But wait, the hike isn't over, there's more!
Cathedral of the Palms
The spring alone makes the hike worthwhile, but once you leave the spring and get back to the trail loop, you'll soon come to a half-mile stretch known as "The Cathedral of the Palms." I've yet to see a photograph that really captures what it's like to stand under this ceiling of dense palms, with only the occasional moss-draped oak in view. It really is like standing in a beautiful cathedral, staring up to see light playing through the ceiling of palm leaves, pillars of palm trunks as far as you can see.
Seeing some of Florida's lesser-known springs, the ones still deep in the forest, far away from admission gates and inner-tube rentals, is a special experience. It helps to put things into perspective, it emphasizes how many springs are out there, deep in Florida forests, windows peeking up from our aquifer.
Florida Hikes has more on visiting this trail HERE
David Moynahan, whose photos you see here, has more photos and a full account of reaching the spring by kayak HERE