If there is one place that is the heart of the Florida Trail, it is the Ocala section, where the trail first began. In October 1966, Florida Trail Association founder Jim Kern and a handful of hikers with a dream painted the trail’s first blaze at the beginning of this segment at Clearwater Lake. With more than 73 miles of unbroken wilderness hiking through sandhills, prairies, pine flatwoods, and the beautiful Big Scrub, this is the prime destination for backpackers who want to spend a week on the Florida Trail.
The footpath is well maintained and well worn, and signage at road crossings helps you figure out exactly where you area. Although there are a number of designated campsites, you may camp anywhere you wish—as long as it’s not hunting season. The Ocala National Forest draws a lot of deer and turkey hunters, so be aware of the dates for general gun hunting season – normally between Thanksgiving and New Years – when you must stay at designated campsites.
10.2 miles. A beautiful segment of trail with dramatic landscapes, it traverses hilly stretches of longleaf pine forest, meanders around wet prairies and hydric hammocks, and finishes up near one of the forest’s most spectacular springs.
8.4 miles. Leaving the longleaf pine sandhills to dive into the heart of the Big Scrub, the world’s largest sand pine scrub forest, this rolling section of the Florida Trail alternates between tunnels of green and views of ponds and prairie.
8.5 miles. Winding along and around a mosaic of both dry and wet prairies that make up the Farles Prairie complex, this 8.5 mile segment of the Florida Trail provides a deep immersion into the Big Scrub.
11 miles. The Juniper Prairie Wilderness is a mosaic of ancient scrub forests, pine islands, and broad, open prairies where wildlife thrives. Wildfire does, too, which is why this popular destination, with Hidden Pond a highlight, still looks roughed-up by fires.
9 miles. One of the largest natural features in the Ocala National Forest, Hopkins Prairie is a rambling open prairie with wetlands. This section of trail follows its rim for nearly six miles before rising up into the scrub again.
10.1 miles. Along the highest and driest segment of the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest, you’ll find no surface water. The trail tunnels through desert-like scrub and leads you across large landscapes of longleaf pine.
7.4 miles. Immersion in both scrub and sandhills awaits as you walk north from Kerr Island towards Lake Delancy and Riverside Island, spanning a long stretch of scrub forest between them, with Grassy Pond a must-stop for water.
7.6 miles. One of the most scenic segments of the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest, this portion of the trail focuses mainly on the towering longleaf pines of Riverside Island, with shorter stretches in the scrub.
5.3 miles. Quickly leaving the Ocala National Forest to follow a levee above a portion of the never-completed Cross Florida Barge Canal, this segment of trail is a quick and easy walk with good opportunities for wildlife watching.
CLEARWATER LAKE TRAILHEAD [28.976658,-81.550142]: Small paved parking area for access to the Ocala State Forest. Kiosk, no facilities. Facilities available 0.4 miles north inside Clearwater Lake Recreation Area (camping, restrooms, potable water), fee.
ALEXANDER SPRINGS [29.07845,-81.579657 ]: Recreation area with camping, concession/camp store, canoe rentals, swimming, restrooms. Access via 0.5 mile blue-blaze, fee.
SR 19 TRAILHEAD [29.074031,-81.629770]: Small paved parking area with kiosk, no facilities.
FARLES PRAIRIE TRAILHEAD [29.103448,-81.674244]: Unpaved parking area at Farles Lake Campground. No facilities. Fee.
JUNIPER SPRINGS [29.181455,-81.712848 ]: Recreation area with camping, concession/camp store, canoe rentals, swimming, restrooms. 0.3N, access via park road or old forest road, fee.
PAT’S ISLAND TRAILHEAD [29.257371,-81.681144]: Small unpaved parking area 0.1E, no facilities.
HOPKINS PRAIRIE TRAILHEAD [29.276556,-81.688529]: Small unpaved parking area along the entrance road to Hopkins Prairie Campground. Water and vault toilets at campground.
SALT SPRINGS TRAILHEAD [29.347537,-81.7342]: Small unpaved parking area on road to Salt Springs Marina, no facilities, 2.9N.
THE 88 STORE [29.359511,-81.82046]: Paved parking at The 88 Store. Ask permission before leaving your car here. Restrooms.
NORTH HUNT CHECK STATION [29.366093,-81.820734]: Paved parking 0.1E of trail crossing on CR 316. No facilities.
LAKE DELANCY WEST [29.429761,-81.786862]: Unpaved parking area 0.3W along the entrance road to Lake Delancy West Campground. Water and vault toilets at campground. Fee.
RODMAN RECREATION AREA [29.507997,-81.804047]: Paved parking area adjoining Rodman Dam. Potable water and restrooms. Day use only.
RODMAN CAMPGROUND [29.520274,-81.799199]: Paved parking 0.4W at campground, best option for multi-day overnight parking, fee.
ST. JOHNS SOUTH CAMPGROUND [29.54399,-81.729111]: Parking at primitive campground adjoining Buckman Lock, portable toilet, fee.
PAISLEY has convenience store resupply along SR 42. Both ALEXANDER SPRINGS and JUNIPER SPRINGS have camping on site and small camp stores for limited resupply. ASTOR, with grocery store and post office, is 9 miles east along SR 40. SALT SPRINGS is the primary resupply stop, reached by a 2.9 mile (each way) blue blaze: grocery, laundry, post office, restaurants, and camping. THE 88 STORE has snacks, libations, and sometimes BBQ; they welcome hikers and you can camp behind their store/bar with permission.