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National Wildlife Refuges are so underrated. It seems like our National Parks are always stealing the limelight. But with over 560 refuges across the US, acting as a network of habitats that benefit wildlife and provide recreational opportunities to visitors, they are certainly well worth a visit. More than 380 endangered or threatened species find refuge within them and migrating birds use them as essential stepping stones during their travels.

Still, every time we visit one, we hardly see another human being around. Which is probably our favorite thing about them.

Visiting Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge

We had never heard of this refuge before. Even after our first visit to Cedar Key, we still knew nothing about the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge. It was only when we asked the lady at the Cedar Key Chamber of Commerce for ideas about where to see wildlife that she told us, “you should try the Nature Drive in the Lower Suwannee.” She handed us a map (you can download the refuge map here) and off we went.

Just ten miles up the road from Cedar Key, the Lower Suwannee NWR encompasses 52,935 acres of land. And it is absolutely incredible. From pine forests to marshlands, from river estuary to cypress swamps, all these different habitats  support an incredibly wide variety of animals. Black bears, raccoons, bats, armadillosowls, anoles, alligators, osprey, bald eagles, woodpeckers, deer, bottlenose dolphin, otter, West Indian Manatee, wood ducks, turkeys, and more!

Not convinced yet? Consider this. During the four hours that we spent leisurely cruising the side roads of the Nature Drive, we only saw one other car. We were alone in this pristine wilderness all day. How’s that for awesome?

Oh yeah, you’ll see pretty native wildflowers too!

White flower at lower suwannee

Drive slowly so you can search for the Florida Spider Lilly in the Lower Suwannee

Driving the Lower Suwannee Nature Drive

This Nature Drive is only 9 miles long, but you will stop so many times to admire EVERYTHING, and there are so many little side roads you can check out, that it might take you a few hours to finish. So give yourself plenty of time, take water, snacks, and if you visit in the summer, don’t forget your natural insect repellent! Just a heads up…there are no bathroom facilities. But if you exit at the north end and head a little further north to Fowlers Bluff you’ll find signs for a very interesting little restaurant and general store right on the river.

When you start the Nature Drive you’ll be greeted by incredible trees with spanish moss all over them. Time for your first stop to photograph these beauties!

Spanish moss makes for a photogenic photo

Trees covered in Spanish Moss welcome you to Lower Suwannee

To see the salt marshes at Lower Suwannee you’ll need to turn onto McCormick Creek Road. If you have kayaks you can put in here. There is not much shade around here, so make sure you pack a hat and sunscreen!

Grassland is one of the habitats at Lower Suwannee

A tree island stands in the middle of the salt marshes

A creek by the grasslands

You can put your kayak in at McCormick Creek

Now you may be asking yourself, where are the alligators in the Lower Suwannee?

Alligators are abound at the National Refuge

Don’t worry, there are plenty of alligators in the refuge

There are lots of alligators around. But you need to find fresh water to spot them. In the Lower Suwannee that means in one of the ponds or in the cypress swamp. Always take precautions when getting out of your car as they may be basking along the sides of the roads. They are much faster than you’d expect. Once you’ve checked for alligators, you can walk around and admire the deep dark swamp.

Road through swamps

Don’t forget to check for alligators at the sides of the road.

There they are! Finally, you’ve found your alligators. This couple was sunning together and didn’t mind us taking photographs from the other other side of their pond.
alligators

The refuge has a few ponds where you can stop to look for wildlife. Some are by the side of the road, while others, like the one below, are viewed from an observation deck at the end of a boardwalk. Always remember, there’s an alligator in there somewhere! Grab your binoculars.

One of the ponds at Lower Suwannee

Look for swimming alligators at the refuge ponds

Alligator swimming at a pond

This alligator blended perfectly from a distance.

Once you’ve had your fill of alligators, keep your eyes peeled for some of the refuge’s smaller creatures. Some will cross the road right in front of you, and others will be hiding. Don’t forget to check the ponds for turtles. This is the first Florida Softshell Turtle I have ever seen! Look at its neck, super long and flexible.

Florida Softshell Turtle swimming. Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

A Florida Softshell Turtle surfaces in a pond in the Lower Suwannee NWR

 

crabs, insects and arachnids of Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Interesting invertebrates we spotted in Lower Suwannee NWR. Fiddler crabs, Palmedes Swallowtail Butterflies, Golden Silk Orb Weaver Spider, and Dragonflies.

 

habitats of the Lower Suwanee River National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

From pine forest to salt marsh to cypress swamp, the Lower Suwanee River NWR encompasses a wide array of habitats and wildlife.

Pine forests make me happy. I just love their smell. Another reason why I loved Lower Suwannee is because of their beautiful pine forests. Though much of the existing pine forest is the remainder of old pine plantations, rangers are working hard to restore them to a more natural mix of trees. We didn’t see any black bears, deer, river otters, or armadillos, but I am just happy to know they are out there, taking a nap under a bush somewhere.

But we did see a raccoon and a water snake crossing the road.

Raccoon crossing road. Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Raccoon walking down the road in the Lower Suwannee NWR

A water snake sunning himself on the road in the Lower Suwanee River NWR.

A water snake sunning himself on the road in the Lower Suwanee River NWR.

Walking the River Trail

This 0.6 mile trail is really the grand finale when visiting the Lower Suwannee. I bet fairies and gnomes live here. I could have stayed for hours.

After you’ve completed the Nature Drive, head north from the exit and you’ll soon arrive at the road for the Park Headquarters and the River Trail. The first part is a regular trail but soon you’ll arrive at a beautiful boardwalk suspended above the swamp. The boardwalk will end at a viewing platform overlooking the Suwannee River.

Resting on one of the paths at Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge

Admiring the magical forest at Lower Suwannee

Walking above a swamp

Walking above the swamp with the Suwannee River in the background

 

If you have a big lens for your camera, bring it. It is very useful for photographing flowers that are hiding deep in the swamp, and also great for bird photography.

Yellow flower in the swamp

You might need your long lens if you want to photograph birds or flowers that are deep in the swamp

photographing an owl

Hal photographing a Barred Owl

Don’t spend your whole time looking down into the swamp though. Remember to look up, and you just might find an owl staring back at you.

A Barred Owl perching in Cypress Swamp next to the Suwannee River, Florida

A Barred Owl on the river trail in the Lower Suwannee NWR

At the end of the River Trail there is a viewing platform where you can watch what floats by in the Suwannee River.

The viewing platform at the Suwannee River

“Looking for stuff” at the viewing platform, Suwannee River

A cypress with Spanish moss

A cypress tree with Spanish moss

Where to Stay?

If you visit the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge and want to stay overnight, then your best bet is to stay at Cedar Key. This charming and quiet town is only about 10 miles from the south entrance of the nature drive.

We love the Faraway Inn, and have stayed there twice, where you can rent your very own cottage with sea views. They are pet friendly, have free use of kayaks and bikes for guests, and have a small beach in front of the Inn where horseshoe crabs nest in the spring.

I would personally stay at least two nights, so you can visit the refuge one day and spend the other day kayaking to the Cedar Keys NWR. Every time we’ve kayaked around Cedar Keys we’ve seen plenty of dolphins!

 

The next time you plan a trip to Florida, keep Cedar Key and the Lower Suwannee in mind. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped into another world.

 

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