For most backpackers, the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest is a must-do hike. And I’d certainly agree and send you there immediately. It’s a spectacular immersion in the world’s largest sand pine scrub forest on a well-worn footpath first laid down in the 1960s.
This description covers a traditional Florida Trail section hike between Buckman Lock and Clearwater Lake. There is also a Western Connector of the Florida Trail that leads southwest from a junction on Kerr Island to the Cross Florida Greenway. But most backpackers choose the eastern route, as it is easier to follow, offers stops at major springs, and has no roadwalks.
While the majority of backpackers head south to north, I prefer hiking north to south. It gives more of a psychological “downhill” feel, with the highest rolling hills being at the north end of the Forest and the prairies and marshes towards the south end. The trip can be done in 6 to 9 days depending on your pace.
While you’ll meet a lot of hikers on weekends, weekdays provide a quiet escape, except for the muffled “thunder” you sometimes hear when bombs are being dropped on the Pinecastle Bombing Range south of Juniper Springs, a tradition started with training for fighter pilots in World War II.
Since I’m asked a lot of questions about backpacking the Ocala, here’s an overview of logistical considerations you should have when planning your trip. Mileages stated are a combination from information in the Companion Guide and my own 2009-2013 hikes in the Ocala to pick up updated GPS tracks, data points, and details.
On these individual pages, I’ve described each segment from the perspective of a day hiker, noting landmarks, water, and campsites along the way. Segments posted on this website include detailed descriptions and mileage charts. Just link through to pull full details off the site.
|Distance (miles)||Segment||Direction Described|
|5.3||Buckman Lock to Rodman||North to South|
|7.6||Rodman to Lake Delancy||North to South|
|7.4||Lake Delancy to The 88 Store||North to South|
|10.1||Salt Springs to The 88 Store||South to North|
|9||Hopkins Prairie to Salt Springs||South to North|
|11||Hopkins Prairie to Juniper Springs||North to South|
|8.5||Juniper Springs to Farles Lake||North to South|
|8.4||Alexander Springs to Farles Lake||South to North|
|10.2||Clearwater Lake to Alexander Springs||South to North|
MAPS & GUIDES
I absolutely recommend you obtain the Ocala National Forest map from the Florida Trail Association along with the Data Book. They are invaluable resources for trip planning and making you feel comfortable while you’re out there on the trail.
These books provide planning information for prepping before your trip, but the trail segments I’m posting here on Florida Hikes are more recently updated and go into much greater detail than any of these books are able to provide. My trail segments, however, are based on day hiking from trailhead to trailhead, as that’s how I’ve explored the forest over the years. For a backpacking trip, I’ve listed the more logical overnight points under “mileages.” My mileages may not exactly match the current Florida Trail maps.
Because this segment of trail is mostly high and dry, it’s especially popular for backpackers who hike with their dogs.
If it’s not general gun hunting season you can camp anywhere you like along the trail, and there are many pretty places to do so, some of which are obvious. Otherwise, you must stick to the designated campsites noted below in “Segments.”
The Ocala National Forest is a major draw for deer hunters from around the state. General gun season varies each year but is typically between Thanksgiving and Christmas: check the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission website for specific dates. During general gun season, you may only camp in designated campsites and you MUST wear a blaze orange vest or shirt while hiking. There is also a brief turkey season in the spring. More hunters pour into the Forest on weekends than weekdays during general gun season.
The only serious resupply along the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest is at Salt Springs. A 2.5-mile blue blaze heads into the small town, and you must walk a mile farther to the small grocery store, where you’ll find everything you need. There are some beauty spots along the blue blazed connector trail that make for nice camping on your return trip. For simple snacks and a limited supply of camp food, stop in at either Alexander Springs or Juniper Springs Recreation Areas, both of which have concessionaires with camp stores. The 88 Store is primarily a bar but has some limited snack food and plenty of cold drinks.
As a long-time resident of the area, I can tell you that the Ocala National Forest has always had a reputation for being a bit rough. My take on it: rarely a problem, except where hunters and alcohol mix (a good reason to skip hiking here on weekends during hunting season). Vandalism is, however, an issue at some trailheads when cars are left overnight, especially at Clearwater Lake. It’s best to leave your car behind a recreation area or campground gate. There will be a fee, but you can do so at Clearwater Lake, Alexander Springs, Juniper Springs, and Rodman Campground. Even better, arrange a shuttle to and from the trail. I’ve never encountered a problem leaving a car all day at a trailhead while day hiking. During the winter months, the “Rainbow People” migrate into the forest and set up primitive camps, often along the Florida Trail. These folks live a nomadic lifestyle much like followers of the Grateful Dead used to do. Use your smarts when you meet non-hikers; if the situation is uncomfortable, keep moving. Cell phone service is very limited throughout the Forest.
The shuttle services that have operated in the past in the Ocala National Forest are now defunct. Some hikers have had luck with Ocklawaha Canoe Outpost (352-236-4606) when they aren’t busy shuttling paddlers.
Much of the northern Ocala National Forest is high, dry rolling hills of longleaf pine and wiregrass, so water is at a premium. In a normal to wet season, water can be filtered from the prairie ponds you’ll find sporadically from Hopkins Prairie south. Permanent water sources are noted below in “Water Sources.”
Both the Florida black bear and the Florida scrub-jay call the Ocala National Forest home, and you’ll find a higher concentration of both here than anywhere else in Florida. Hikers frequently report sightings of bear tracks and bear scat, and sometimes bears as well. This species of bear is rarely aggressive but should be treated with respect. Raccoons, however, are a problem. They’ll steal off with your stuff if you leave food, pots, or other shiny or smelly objects where they can get to them. Consider bear bagging or otherwise be prudent in protecting the contents of your backpack.
Campsites (north to south)
During General Gun season (deer season each late fall/early winter), backpackers may only camp in DESIGNATED or PRIVATE areas.
|0.0||Buckman Lock||primitive campground with privy, fee, at trailhead|
|5.0||Rodman Campground||DESIGNATED full-service campground with restrooms, security, fee; 0.2 mile blue blaze|
|8.0||Penner Ponds||primitive, access to pond for water; 0.2 mile blue blaze|
|13.5||Lake Delancy||DESIGNATED campground with privy, water, fee; 0.2 mile blue blaze, ATV trailhead|
|17.6||Grassy Pond||primitive, access to pond for water; 0.2 mile blue blaze|
|19.9||The 88 Store||PRIVATE, camp behind store, water / shower / laundry, fee; 0.4 mile blue blaze|
|33.7||Hopkins Prairie||DESIGNATED primitive car camping, access to pond for water; 0.2 mile blue blaze|
|39.3||Hidden Pond||DESIGNATED primitive, access to spring for water; 0.2 mile blue blaze|
|44.1||Juniper Springs||DESIGNATED full-service campground with restrooms, showers; fee; 0.5 mile walk on entrance road|
|53.9||Farles Lake||NO LONGER AVAILABLE, access to lake for water; 0.2 mile blue blaze, ATV trailhead|
|61.4||Alexander Springs||DESIGNATED full-service campground with restrooms, showers; fee; 0.5 mile blue blaze|
|71.1||Clearwater Lake||DESIGNATED full-service campground with restrooms, showers; fee; 0.5 mile walk on entrance road|
When it’s not hunting season, you can camp anywhere along the trail, and there are plenty of beauty spots to choose from!
PERMANENT WATER SOURCES (north to south) … please check these against your maps for planning purposes
|Distance (miles)||Water Source||Type|
|1.0||Cross Florida Barge Canal (under SR 19 bridge)||filter|
|5.2-6.5||Rodman Reservoir (except atop spillway)||filter|
|5.3||Kirkpatrick Dam restrooms||potable|
|19.9||The 88 Store||potable|
|29.5-33.7||Various spots along Hopkins Prairie (if not a dry year)||filter|
|34.5||Sinkhole south of Hopkins Prairie||filter|
|71.1||Clearwater Lake Campground||potable|