Four days, 43 miles: that’s just part of the challenge of the Citrus Hiking Trail, the second-longest backpacking loop on a single piece of land in the state of Florida. Add aggressively rolling sandhills, steep descents into sinkholes, and rock-strewn footpaths, and you’ve got yourself one of Florida’s most rugged hikes. Traversing extreme contrasts in habitats, from deeply shaded hardwood forests to longleaf pine savannas, rosemary scrub, and open prairies, this trail numerous opportunities for wildlife encounters.
Designed and developed by top-notch FTA trail maintainer Fred Mulholland in the late 1970s, it is a well-groomed trail, easily followed, with a clearly defined footpath and signposts at trail junctions. If you’re directionally challenged, make sure you carry a map and compass or GPS, since one wrong turn at a trail junction can send you a day out of your way! But you don’t have to be a backpacker to enjoy this lengthy trail. Using forest roads, you can break this trail up into a series of very comfortable day hikes.
Length: Outer loop of 43.3 miles made up 4 loops, the shortest of which is 7.5 miles
Lat-Long: 28.799305, -82.384676
Type: stacked loops
Fees / Permits: campground fee at Mutual Mine
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
Restroom: At Holder Mine and Mutual Mine
Important: Blazes on the loop have been painted yellow where they are not part of the Florida Trail thru-trail. Add orange (from north of Stage Pond to the Inverness cutoff north of Holder Mine) + yellow to do the full loop.
From the junction of SR 44 and CR 581 west of Inverness, turn south on CR 581 and drive 2.5 miles, passing the fire tower, to the sign for Holder Mine Recreation Area. Turn right and continue another mile into Holder Mine Recreation Area. Pass the hunt check station and campground. The trailhead is on the left, with an “FT” sign and kiosk.
Backpacking the Citrus Trail takes some logistical planning. There are no surface streams, so you must consider this a dry trail. Consider caching water jugs at forest road crossings before you start hiking. Designated backpacker campsites are few and far between, so your days may be long, but camping is also permitted anywhere you see white bands painted around trees. This is an extraordinarily popular hunting ground, so be mindful of scheduled hunts and wear blaze orange during all hunting seasons. If you are camping at the campgrounds, you MUST now reserve in advance.
To hike the perimeter, start at the Holder Mine Campground, following a blue-blazed connector 0.9 miles through the scrub to the main orange-blazed loop. Turn right, and begin your counter-clockwise hike around the outer loop along Loop A. Stay with the outer loop by following the orange blazes away from each clearly signposted loop trail junction and paying attention to the signs. There is an effort underway to move the Florida Trail’s Western Corridor route to this trail system, and that involves a spur trail which leads to Whispering Pines Park. You’ll pass that spur during the your first hour out on the trail—don’t follow it by accident, it’s orange blazed too. Note that as you cross forest roads (designated TR) you’ll see signs with the road number which will help you figure out where you are.
Around 2 miles, the trail passes through a forest of sand live oaks with wizened, windswept branches. A long uphill starts at 3.9 miles, leading into a longleaf pine forest. Passing Five Mile Pond, the trail reaches the A-B Loop junction at 5.3 miles. Keep right. Continuing through rolling sandhills, the trail reaches TR-13 at 7 miles, with a cistern for watering horses just beyond. This is a reliable, if unappetizing, water source. Filter with care. You won’t see more water for the next 8 to 13 miles. The trail continues into prime scrub-jay habitat for the next several miles, in a portion of the forest that’s relatively remote for access but within earshot of traffic along SR 44. As the trail swings south, it makes a long, slow descent under the sand live oaks to where you’ll encounter a sign for the campsite spur trail at 12 miles. Pull up a log at this dry campsite and savor being in a far corner away from it all in Florida’s second-largest state forest.
You’re in for a long and rugged hike, with 13.8 miles to cover across terrain that includes steep hills, deep sinkholes, and caverns. Longleaf pine and wiregrass comprise the majority of the habitat for the first few miles, and you reach the B-C Loop junction at 2.6 miles. The landscape descends steeply into Mansfield Pond, a flatwoods pond that is a reasonably reliable water source (known, however, to go dry). A giant split oak stands along the trail within sight of the pond. Past TR-14 is a spur trail to a backpacking campsite at 4.4 miles. When rocks appear underfoot, you’ve hit the famed karst belt in Withlacoochee State Forest. This erosional landscape serves up some geologic oddities today, including trailside sinkholes filled with ferns, before you reach the C-D Loop junction at 7 miles.
Several depressions cradle water after a rain, but karst is a sponge—it soaks up all the rainfall it can get to return it to the Floridan aquifer below. After crossing TR-20 at 8.9 miles, the trail starts intersecting various equestrian trails blazed in a variety of colors. Past TR-22, the trail drops steeply down through bluff forest into the rocky lip of Lizzie Hart Sink, a large sinkhole depression with numerous caves. The footpath is rocky and fragile; step carefully and watch out for holes in the karst. The trail twists and turns around obstacles, including a colossal swamp chestnut oak and the dark mouth of a cave. At 11.7 miles, a swampy water-filled sink hides behind the bushes off to the right, another potential water source. Cross CR 480 at 12.3 miles, encountering an unusual streambed – it flows only after a big rain – that drains into a big sinkhole. In a forest of oaks and hickory, the side trail to the campsite is at 13.7 miles. Follow it down to an dry open space in the forest and select your spot.
At 7.8 miles, today’s hike is shorter to take advantage of a developed but rustic campground. You can also skip this stop and head back to the beginning of the loop by hiking a 13.9 mile day. As you leave the denser forest, the landscape opens up around Stage Pond, a permanent and reliable water source at 0.9 mile. It’s so named for stagecoaches that once stopped here. The trail crosses CR 480 again at 1.6 miles on its way north. The open sandhills are excellent for birding. After 4.8 miles, you meet the sign for the C-D Loop cross trail. Turn right, following the orange blazes. At TR-18A, there is a historic railroad bed from the phosphate mining era, complete with ballast but no tracks.
The trail meets the sign for Mutual Mine at 6.1 miles. It’s a 1.7-mile blue blaze (each way) into this comfortable campground, which sits on the lip of an old phosphate pit under the shade of tall pines. Potable water, picnic tables, and restrooms – plus pitching a tent on pine needles – makes this an appealing overnight. You MUST reserve a site here in advance, walk-ins are no longer permitted. But this is also an important place to load up on water for tomorrow’s hike.
Exit the Mutual Mine campground and head back along the long blue blaze to the main trail. Headed north, you have a 9.5 mile hike for today. The trail traverses open grasslands created by logging almost a century ago. After crossing TR-7, the trail drops down a steep, sandy hill that you almost have to slide down, and then it’s a trick to get up the other side. At 4.3 miles, a square concrete block water cistern shimmers along the side of the trail, right past TR-14A. Use it if you need to; it’ll be the last water you see today, and it is often covered in algae.
You reach the junction with the B-C Loop cross trail at 6.2 miles. Continue straight along the orange blazes. As the vegetation gets greener, you reach the karst belt again. Here, at the bottom of a hill just past some clever chainsaw-carved benches, is the biggest cave you’ve seen yet, off to the left. Drop your pack and take a moment to explore, as sunlight streams into the cave through a crevice far above. Rising out of the fern-rich karst bowl, the trail crosses TR-13 one last time at 7 miles, and reaches scrub habitat by 8 miles. Watch for the sign that says “Loop A,” which signals the end of your circumambulation of this forest. Turn right and follow the blue blaze back to Holder Mine to complete the hike.
|0.0||Holder Mine trailhead kiosk|
|1.0||Loop A sign. Turn right. Blazes become orange.|
|1.7||cross TR-8. Blazes turn yellow after trail junction.|
|3.0||cross paved road|
|4.2||cross jeep trail in ditch|
|5.0||Five Mile Pond|
|5.3||A-B junction. Turn right.|
|7.0||cross TR-13. Horse cistern (WATER)|
|8.8||catface w/metal hooks attached|
|9.4||white banded trees / camping|
|10.9||white marker w/10|
|12.0||jct campsite trail|
|0.2||return to trail|
|1.5||cross T17 and powerline|
|2.6||jct B-C cross trail. Go straight|
|2.7||sharp left under cedar|
|3.1||bent railroad rail|
|4.4||jct campsite trail|
|4.9||cross jeep trail in ditch|
|5.3 cross TR16|
|7.0||jct C-D cross trail. Turn right.|
|8.0||drop into karst area|
|8.7||cross jeep trail w/sign|
|9.4||cross T15 in ditch|
|10.8||cave along trail|
|11.0||Lizzie Hart Sink|
|11.7||marshy duckweed-coated pond in sink|
|12.3||cross CR 480|
|12.9||Cross stream; water in ravine|
|13.1||sinkhole on right|
|13.4||cross T13 / parking|
|13.7||jct campsite trail. Turn right|
|0.1||return to loop|
|0.7||wetlands on left|
|1.4||Access to Stage Pond (WATER)|
|1.6||Cross CR 480. Blazes become orange.|
|4.8||jct C-D cross trail. Turn right|
|5.5||cross old RR|
|6.1||jct blue blz to Mutual Mine. Turn right.|
|7.8||Mutual Mine campground (WATER)|
|0.0||Mutual Mine Campground|
|1.7||Return to loop|
|2.4||cross T5 in deep cut|
|4.3||horse cistern (WATER)|
|6.2||jct B-C cross trail. Go straight|
|6.5||walk-in cave on left|
|7.7||jct A-B cross trail. Go straight|
|8.5||A Loop sign. Go straight on blue blaze|
|9.5||return Holder Mine|