- Scale - 2nd magnitude (estimated)
- Scenery - outstanding
- How Pristine? - completely pristine and unspoiled
- Swimming - not recommended
- Protection - excellent
- Wildlife - excellent
- Crowds - none
- Access - strenuous by foot, canoe, or bike
- Facilities - none
- Safety - fair
- Scuba - not recommended
- Cost - free
Land access—from the Florida Trail near Wakulla Beach (off U.S. 98 between Newport and Medart)—walk or bike about 4 miles each way.
Canoe access—from Wakulla Beach, go west from beach and immediately (after about 1/4 mile) north into the West Goose Creek estuary. A large T-junction in the estuary, stay to the left and in the main channel. Continue in main channel all the way to the spring run entrance (about 1.75 miles or so) when cypress trees begin to grow along the channel, which is now only about 25 feet wide. Continue another 3/4-1 mile to the spring. Note: It is best to time enter the estuary/West Goose Creek Estuary in the last hour before high tide so that one can ride the tide in and then out on the way back.
From Tallahassee, take Woodville Highway (State Road 363) south to U.S. Highway 98 and turn right (west). Continue a short distance and cross the bridge over the Wakulla River. Continue 1.3 miles to Wakulla Beach Road, on your left (south). Go down this white dirt road almost exactly one mile to the Florida Tail on both sides of the road. Pull over to the right and park. The trail going west from here is like a grass-covered dirt road, with a gate to block vehicular traffic. Yellow rectangles painted on trees mark the trail.
The trail goes straight through a canopy of hardwoods, pines, and sabal palms. Cross a few wooden bridges and pass a deer stand on the right before coming to another road heading south, that dead-ends into the one you are on. This point is 1.7 miles from Wakulla Beach Road. Straight ahead is a brown sign in the middle of the path that says "No vehicles past this point." Go just past the sign and look left for a smaller trail that forks off at an angle towards the southwest. On each side of the trail, a tree is painted with a red rectangle. A small sign on a post identifies the Florida Trail and says that Wakulla Beach Road is 1.7 miles in the other direction.
This path becomes narrow and winds under a dense canopy of hardwoods, towering pines, and sabal palms, following the red paint marks ("blazes") on the trees. Bamboo-like plants grow in profusion. Here and there, narrow boardwalks are built over wet areas. Eventually, you will cross another grassy dirt road. This road dead-ends into the woods a short distance south. If you take it north, you run into the wide section of the Florida Trail that you were on before you took the narrow path. If it is getting dark, you might want to take this route back, just stay to the right whenever you come to a fork.
Cross the road and follow the trail marked with red paint on the trees on the other side. Almost immediately, you will come upon a fork in the trail and see a tree marked with both blue and red paint. Take the blue (left, south) fork to the spring.
The spring lies in deep woods of pine, palm, and hardwoods. The area is low and subject to flooding in periods of heavy rain. The spring run level is influenced by the tide. The pool, which is completely canopied, is oval and about 60 by 80 feet across. There was a strong boil visible on September 21, 2002, with a 10-foot spread and emanating from a limestone opening (about 2 feet across) that appeared to be about 18 feet deep. This main flow is in the back center of the pool when one enters from the spring run. A second boil--much milder and small, was observed in the other side of the pool.
On previous visits, the bottom was not as clear and had more fallen limbs in it. Water color and clarity varies, and has been clear and bluish, and greenish the times the authors visited. Many fish, including medium-sized gar, and a very large alligator were observed on two of the visits; neither were seen when the site was visited in September 2002. On this date, a natural runoff channel or backwater entered the back of the spring pool. The channel was about 20 feet across and perhaps 6 feet deep where it entered the spring pool. As it retreated from the spring pool, it became more shallow and narrow. Water in this channel was tannin in color and was clearly not spring flow. On a previous visit, this channel was dry. The authors only explored the backwater channel a short distance, due to the aggressive and piercing attention they received from mosquitoes in the channel.
Water exits the spring pool into two runs that flow around a swampy area before joining in the main run. The main run is 20-35 feet wide and was about 1-foot deep on date of visit in September 2002. The bottom is mostly sandy. The run flows through thick, undisturbed semitropical coastal forest/jungle that includes hardwoods and groves of sabal palms. A variety of waterfowl may be seen in the spring run and the estuary.
- Note: Although the spring is only about 40 miles from Tallahassee, its remoteness requires about three hours to reach it from the state capital.
- The spring and the land around it are part of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge--website address www.fws.gov/refuge/st_marks/.
- If approaching the spring by water, it is vital to time your trip with the tide. The water is shallow, and at low tide the route is not navigable. There are also huge oyster beds that could damage a canoe or cause injury. It is best to paddle in during the last hour or two of the incoming tide. Doing so will also allow you to head back out with the tide while the water is still up.
- The spring run has several blockages from fallen trees, and porting the canoe or kayak is required. A motorboat cannot go up the run.
- If approaching via land, do so in the dry season or the water on the trail can be up to four feet deep.
- Whether traveling by land or water, be careful of snakes and alligators.
An Essay on Shepherd Spring
Having visited nearly 300 of Florida's springs and studied all I can about the rest, it is always exciting to hear about a new one for the first time. George Blakely, an FSU art professor and killer canoeist, told me about a spring along the Gulf coast in Wakulla County, and I had never heard or read of it. When he offered to take me there, I jumped at the chance.
Shepherd Spring can be reached by land or canoe, but both methods require good directions and planning around the tides and the weather. When visiting this hidden Big Bend wonder, the largest part of the adventure is the journey itself. The spring is located in the western end of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, west of Wakulla Beach off U.S. 98 between Newport and Medart. Wakulla Beach Road heads south off 98. Park where the dirt road crosses the Florida Trail and head west on the trail, following the yellow blazes on the trees.
After walking or biking 1.7 miles through a forest of pines, hardwoods, and sabal palms, pass the sign that says "No vehicles beyond this point." Turn left or south on a smaller trail marked with red blazes. This path leads in turn to the blue-blazed spur that dead-ends at Shepherd Spring. Altogether, it's at least two hours each way on foot. The trail is in a swampy area, so go during the dry season unless you enjoy wading in waist-deep water.
Doesn't sound appealing? Well, the other route is to put a canoe in at Wakulla Beach. Just west of the beach is the mouth of an estuary that is popular with fishermen, crabbers, and oyster hunters. Head north into the estuary.
It is vital that you time your trip with the tide. The water is shallow, and at low tide the route is not navigable. There are also huge oyster beds that could damage a canoe or slice you to ribbons. It is best to paddle in during the last hour or two of the incoming tide. Doing so will also allow you to head back out with the tide while the water is still up. On the day we went, we had a late start and had to work twice as hard in the shallow water.
The scenery is excellent, and as you thread your way in, trending NW, all signs of civilization disappear and you are in primeval territory. Bald eagles, osprey, and vultures circle overhead, herons of all types abound, and there are alligator trails in the mud. Mullet, crappie, and blue crabs shoot by, and the marsh grass is alive with innumerable waving and scuttling fiddler crabs.
The water clears as you approach the spring run. After about 1.5 miles, you'll reach the run in a back corner of the estuary. The narrow creek winds its way into the woods and is completely canopied. Because we missed the tide, the run was shallow and required us to port the canoes at least 15 times. Wear old shoes and watch for moccasins. After about 2/3 of a mile, the run widens and then opens into the milky blue springhead.
Shepherd Spring is circular, about 80 feet across, and at least 25 feet deep. Gar circled slowly in the water like sentries making their rounds. George said the spring had a large resident gator, but we did not see it—we also didn't go swimming. After eating lunch, we walked around to scout the area. We had been there about 45 minutes when George spied the gator and gave a shout. It was underwater on a ledge about 15 feet down, and it had been there the entire time. Gray sand had settled on it, and it looked like a giant concrete statue. We estimated its size at about 10 feet—it was a full-grown bull and this was his spring.
Paddling out was a chore in the low water, and we often had to drag the canoe. However, it was worth it to see such a wild and remote spot only 30 miles from the state capital. Check your rain gauge and tide tables and try it yourself. A bicycle is the fastest route, but canoeing provides the best adventure.
Only a small percentage of springs remain in a pristine state; Shepherd Spring is one of them. Its remoteness and location within the national wildlife refuge have protected it from the casual despoiler—those who are willing to go to such lengths to see it are unlikely to be despoilers.
Other Nearby Natural Features
- Apalachicola National Forest
- Leon County Sinks Park
- Wakulla Spring State Park
- St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge