72.2 miles. 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. It quickly grew to the state’s first 26-mile section for backpacking. Now, with more than 72 miles of unbroken wilderness hiking through sandhills, prairies, pine flatwoods, and the beautiful Big Scrub, this is a 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 are. Although there are a number of designated campsites, you may camp anywhere you wish, as long as it’s not deer hunting season.
Deer hunting season this year runs from November 12, 2016 through January 8, 2017. See the sidebar for information on designated campsites you must use. Be sure to wear an orange shirt or vest when hiking during any hunting season.
FT symbols indicate trailheads and access points. Click on symbols for details and directions.
For most backpackers, the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest is a must-do hike. The trip can be done in 5 to 8 days, depending on your pace. There are plenty of trailheads and access points to make this a great day hiking destination as well, especially if you like your day hikes to be on the longer side. Wildlife is abundant. The Florida black bear population has rebounded, so you will likely see prints, scat, or a bear while hiking. Bear-bagging is required in the forest. This is also the stronghold of the Florida scrub-jay, a colorful bird that’s a threatened species only found in Florida scrub habitats, and a fine place to see red-cockaded woodpecker colonies.
Starting north from the birthplace of the Florida Trail at Clearwater Lake, the trail rises into rolling sandhills topped with longleaf pine and punctuated by sinkholes. As it traverses the forest, habitat changes with elevation, so you’ll dip into broad prairies – some with ponds – and down into lush palm hammocks near Alexander Run, where boardwalks guide you over the swampy forest floor. A blue-blazed side trail leads to the campground at Alexander Springs, which is a nice place to go for a swim as well. It’s the first of the large springs along the trail in the Ocala National Forest, and the only one with a semi-natural spring basin around it.
The landscape alternates between tall hills topped with longleaf pine, islands that rise above the massive scrub forest that is the Big Scrub. Sand pines are the predominant feature in the scrub, although the understory is dense with rusty lyonia – also known as crookedwood due to its crooked branches – as well as silk bay, scrub holly, blueberries, and other shrubs that require little water. Crossing SR 19, you pass a short blue blaze to the trailhead just before the trail becomes a long tunnel through the scrub forest. When the taller longleaf pines dominate again, it’s for a short distance around picturesque Dora Pond and the much larger Buck Lake. North of Buck Lake, the trail immerses in a rosemary scrub, with rounded Florida rosemary dominating the understory under tall sand pines. Watch for bear pawprints in the sand and claw marks on trees.
Emerging from the scrub at Farles Lake, you get the first glimpse of this beautiful lake and prairie ecosystem that the trail follows the edge of for the next several miles, affording excellent views and many nice places to camp along the prairie rim. This is the first of several open prairies that the trail traverses. When it leaves the north shore of the prairie, it climbs into the sand pine scrub again before rounding a small prairie just before the SR 40 crossing. Once north of SR 40, you have entered the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, a designated wilderness area. But it’s not until you cross the entrance road to Juniper Springs and climb up and over the ridges that the prairie truly starts. As seen in the photo at the top of this page, the prairie has numerous large ponds rimmed with extensive grassland. Portions of the trail dip into the scrub, and then back to prairie again. Hidden Pond, a few miles south of Pat’s Island, is a must-stop for its beauty, with a spring-fed pond and ridge between pond and prairie naturally air-conditioned with cross breezes.
The next outcrop of longleaf pine amid the scrub desert is Pat’s Island, home of the Yearling Trail. To its north, you’ll pass Big Sink, a water source and swimming hole, before arriving at the largest of the prairies, Hopkins Prairie. The trail follows the prairie rim for nearly six miles, offering spectacular views. North of here, there is very little surface water, just a couple of ponds before you reach the Salt Springs Spur. Crossing Kerr Island, a longleaf pine island that is home to red-cockaded woodpeckers, you reach The 88 Store. Ask for the trail register behind the bar. The trail transitions through sandhills into scrub again on its approach to Grassy Pond, an important water source on the way to Lake Delancy. One more pine island awaits: Riverside Island, the rolling hills north of Lake Delancy extending north towards Penner Ponds. This portion of the trail immerses you in an ancient longleaf pine forest with an understory that you can see through for miles.
Once you reach Rodman Reservoir, the trail leaves the woods to cross Rodman Dam on the road over the dam. There are restrooms at the recreation area on the far side of the dam, just before the trail enters the forest again. One last stretch of pine forest, and the Ocala National Forest yields to the Cross Florida Greenway as you cross the paved road near Rodman Campground. The Ocala section isn’t over yet, however. It continues for several more miles atop a forested levee adjoining one of the few pieces of the Cross Florida Barge Canal that was actually built, and yet never used. This section’s end is at Buckman Lock, the crossing into the Northeast Florida section.
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.
Buck Lake Loop
2.1 miles. The blue-blazed loop around Buck Lake shows off this large prairie lake from every angle as it provides campers at the Buck Lake Group Camp a connector to the Florida Trail, and provides backpackers access to amenities at the campground, including vault toilets and water.
5.2 miles. The Yearling Trail showcases Pat’s Island, a settlement that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings visited and was inspired by to write her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Yearling. Remnants of the Long family settlement still exist, including a cistern and the family cemetery. The Yearling Trail has two connections with the Florida Trail so you can take a side trip on it, and a third access point from a trailhead on SR 19.
Salt Springs Spur
2.5 miles. The blue-blazed Salt Springs Spur is a linear trail connecting the Florida Trail north of Hopkins Prairie to a parking area near the Salt Springs Marina. While it’s mainly there for backpackers to reach town for resupply, it’s a pretty 5-mile round trip hike in its own right, especially in the early morning, when fog drifts across the prairie lakes.
- When other parts of the Florida Trail are under water, the Ocala is not. This is a high and dry section of trail, which also means that water sources are very limited in certain areas, particularly north of The 88 Store.
- Think about 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.
- This is an excellent section of the Florida Trail for hiking and backpacking with dogs. Dogs are not allowed in the recreation areas at the springs, but they are permitted to be in the campgrounds at those recreation areas.
- It’s generally smart to leave a car behind the gates of a recreation area or campground than at a roadside crossing or trailhead. Vandalism has been reported at both the SR 19 and Clearwater Lake trailheads over the years. Recreation areas do charge a fee for leaving cars overnight. Call ahead to confirm costs.
- Resupply for long distance hikers isn’t easy through this section, so be sure to stock up in Paisley if northbound, or in Palatka if southbound. The 88 Store has some basic munchies and ice cream, but not enough for a resupply, so the only viable resupply is at Salt Springs, 2.5 miles off the main trail via a blue blaze.
- 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.
- The muffled “thunder” you sometimes hear are 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. Low-flying bombers may also startle you on weekdays near Farles Prairie and Juniper Springs.