Yes, you read that headline correctly. You can find class III whitewater rapids in Florida. Most rivers in the Sunshine State are calm enough to float casually down them in an inner tube (beverage of choice in hand). But when the water levels of the Suwannee River reach around 60 feet (20 m), you’ll see the deep brown river churn into racing white rapids at Big Shoals State Park.

Obviously, we love destinations that are easy on the wallet, and this is one of them. The small entrance fee is charged per vehicle or pedestrian. If you pick up a Florida State Parks Annual Pass like we did recently, it’s free to get into the park. We’ve really been trying to apply the staycation mindset a little more lately, and with Big Shoals just over an hour from home, it definitely ticked that box too.

When we drove our van up to Big Shoals, north-central Florida was in kind of a dry spell with no recent rainfall, so we weren’t sure what we’d find. Luckily, the river was still rushing over the rocks, crashing into the banks, and definitely discouraging any floating or swimming (not that we would anyway, since there are alligators in the Suwannee and signs posted to keep out of the water).

Regardless of the state of the rapids, there’s plenty to do at Big Shoals — from hiking and mountain biking, to kayaking and horseback riding, to birding and bat watching — and you’ll probably be able to do most of it in complete solitude. The park doesn’t get a ton of visitors. During our trek through the park, we only saw two other groups over the course of several hours on a Saturday afternoon.

Getting to Big Shoals State Park in White Springs, Florida

There are two entrances to the park: Big Shoals and Little Shoals. From I-75, you’ll probably come through the small town of White Springs on your way to the park, in which case you’ll see signs for the Little Shoals entrance before the signs for Big Shoals. We decided to skip Little Shoals and went straight for the main entrance. They’re about 4 miles (6 km) apart, but be prepared to drive on dirt roads to get to the parking areas at either entrance.

Photo of trail in Big Shoals State Park
You can drive on a few of the roads inside the park, but none are paved, and this one was pretty muddy in a few places.

Both entrances have unmanned fee boxes and signs to tell you the park’s hours for the day, which are usually 8 am to sundown. When we visited, the signs said the park would close at 5:45 pm , but we tried our luck and weren’t actually kicked out until closer to 7:45.

At the Big Shoals entrance, you’ll find the canoe launch and the start a bunch of trails. It’s also home to my favorite thing in the park: the bat exhibit, where you can watch over a hundred bats take flight around sunset.

Big Shoals’ Whitewater Rapids on the Suwannee River

Let’s talk about what makes this park unique — the rapids. They’re not directly visible from either entrance, so you’ll have to hike a little to see them (that’s why you came here, right?). You’ll see the river several times before getting to the rapids, which are about a mile in from the Big Shoals entrance along the Big Shoals Trail. 

Keep in mind that these rapids are pretty intense. In fact, the ranger told us that they’re really only ridden by experienced kayakers, and that more casual riders actually get out before the rapids and get back in later down on the Suwannee.

Photo of Big Shoals rapids
Here at Big Shoals State Park, the Suwannee River turns into whitewater rapids, which might be better described as angry sweet tea.

There are two viewing platforms for the rapids along the Big Shoals Trail (marked yellow, for hiking only), which traces the river. There are also a few areas, the platforms included, that will take you all the way to the river bank. Just be careful because the sloping trails down to the river’s edge are mostly loose dirt that you could easily slide down.

Our Favorite Hiking in Big Shoals

From the Big Shoals entrance, we took the Big Shoals Trail until it met up with Road 18 (marked blue) to Road 2 (mixed markings of orange then blue) to Road 1, which took us right back to the main entrance. Some of these trails weren’t well-maintained (a downed tree, some wooden planks of a boardwalk rotted out), but I’ll take unmaintained trails in exchange for complete peace and quiet any day.

I’d definitely recommend starting along the river where the trail is more shaded because the “road” trails are fully open overhead with no protection from Florida’s notoriously hot sunshine.

Photo of Big Shoals Pond
The hike we did traced the Suwannee River and cut through the forest, basically encircling Big Shoals Pond (a swamp filled with lots of noisy frogs).

We were impressed that all the trails were so clearly marked and labeled along the way. Another plus was having cell service the whole time we were hiking. I actually had the Florida State Parks map for Big Shoals pulled up on my phone to check our route periodically.

In total, there are more than 28 miles (45 km) of trails in Big Shoals that you can hike, and some of them are also open for biking, ATVs, and horseback riding. The entrances are also connected by the 3.4-mile (5.5 km) paved Woodpecker Trail, which is good for walking and biking.

End the Day at the Bat Exhibit

We got back from hiking right in time to catch the bats chittering as they prepared to drop out of their box, so we waited a little longer to see them exit their bat house and begin their evening hunt. If bats freak you out, just remember that the Mexican free-tailed bats at Big Shoals are your friends — they primarily hunt insects like moths, flies, and wasps.

While we were waiting to watch the bats, a ranger came by to tell us she was closing up and that we’d need to leave (we were the only people left in the park). I was pretty bummed to hear we might not be able to see the bats emerge, but I decided to chat with her a little. We found some common ground (she’s also from Gainesville) and talked about the bat houses at the University of Florida. Since we were nice, she actually ended up sitting with us to watch the bats rather than kicking us out early. 

Photo of sunset and bat house at Big Shoals
At dusk, hundreds of bats come out at once to hunt at Big Shoals.

It was so special being that close to the bats, and I totally squealed as they flew over us. One flew so close to us that I could hear its wings flapping as it passed by!

All in all, Big Shoals State Park was a great getaway for the day (no camping allowed at this park). Add it to your North Florida bucket list if you live nearby.

— Lauren

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