At the Ross Prairie Trailhead of the Cross Florida Greenway, there are two loop trails you can access – and this is the shorter of the two, taking you on a journey into the quiet woods of Ross Prairie State Forest, just south of the Greenway.
The grasslands of Ross Prairie sprawl in arms and coves on both sides of SR 200, and you’ll explore their edges while keeping cool in the shady embrace of dense upland hammocks. This easy day hike leads you through a variety of habitats, including longleaf pine forest, scrub, and oak hammocks. In the summer, orchids dance amid the resurrection fern, and in spring and fall, the sandhills come alive with colorful wildflowers. This 2.4 mile loop is part of the Florida State Forests Trailwalker program, and offers a primitive campsite perfect for family getaways.
Length: 2.4 miles
Lat-Long: 29.037983, -82.295851
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: at the trailhead. Flush toilets AND showers!
If you’re planning to camp overnight, you must obtain a free permit in advance from the Florida Division of Forestry. Call 352-732-1201
For more information: Ross Prairie State Forest
Follow SR 200 south from Ocala, crossing CR 484. Look for the Ross Prairie Trailhead at the green sign 1.5 miles past CR 484 on the left. Follow the road around to park near the restrooms. The trailhead offers an RV campground, access to equestrian trails, and another hiking trail, the 3.5-mile Ross Prairie Loop on the Cross Florida Greenway, which leads to the Florida Trail.
Start your hike at the sign near the parking area. It’s well marked, so you shouldn’t miss the gap in the fence that leads you into the deep shade of an old oak hammock. The narrow footpath emerges through another gap in a fence marking the boundary between the Cross Florida Greenway (where you’re parked) and Ross Prairie State Forest. A kiosk on the left shows the trail map and may have trail brochures available. Cross the firebreak and head into the forest, following the blue blazes into a very dense oak hammock. American holly is a major component of this hammock, as are sparkleberry and many colorful lichens.
A little elevation makes a big difference in habitat as the trail rises up into the sandhills, where young longleaf pines rise above a sea of wiregrass. The understory is very open, the better to showcase colorful wildflowers in spring and fall, like paw-paw and blazing star. In the winter, the winged sumac turns a bright crimson. As you descend back into the hammock, the elevation change is obvious, and you enter a mix of sandhills and scrub, where sand live oaks shade the trail and silk bay grows next to holly. Look for red blanket lichen on the holly trunks—it almost looks like blazes! The sand live oaks get very large here, and typically have lush gardens of resurrection ferns in the crooks of their branches. Look closely, and in summer, you may notice greenfly orchids in bloom, hidden amid the profusion of ferns.
After a half mile, the trail emerges along what looks like a large retention pond, but is in fact an arm of Ross Prairie, with dikes built up along the edges by a rancher who once owned this land. In the early morning, you may see sandhill cranes or herons here. Turn right and follow the dike to the next “Hiking Trail” sign, which steers you back into the forest through a thick carpet of deer moss and reindeer lichen. Back in the shade, the trail passes more massive oaks with ferns and orchids. Look for fungi, too, growing in the leaf litter and on rotting logs. After making a sharp left turn at a bed of moss, the trail ambles around more large trees to emerge again along the prairie arm. It makes a right and passes a large sand pine that sits low to the ground, where you can clearly see its pine cones. Turning right, the trail re-enters the shady hammock.
After 0.9 mile, a sign in the woods marks the side trail to the campsite. Lime green blazes lead to the right, snaking through a patch of deer moss to emerge in an open spot beneath the oaks. A picnic table and fire ring mark the center of the camping area, with places to pitch your tent scattered around in several directions. Returning to the main trail, turn right. You start to see light through the trees, as you’re approaching one of the larger expanses of Ross Prairie. As the trail slips out into the open, you’re greeted with a panorama of grassland and a distant treeline. Take a moment to walk out into the prairie to savor the view. American lotuses decorate a pond just down the slope. It’s a beauty spot, but be cautious of alligators.
The trail returns to the shade of the hammock, meandering past more large oaks. As the footpath winds through the woods past sentinels of sand live oaks, it passes through an oak portal before emerging at the end of a prairie arm. The bright pink blooms of pale meadow beauty lend color to the landscape as you cross a firebreak and re-enter the forest. It doesn’t take long for the elevation to rise again and you enter the sandhills, with longleaf pines all around. Delicate wildflowers peep out of the wiregrass.
Descending again, you’re greeted with patches of saw palmetto along the sides of the trail, and can see patches of prairie off to the right through the understory. The trail weaves its way around one patch to emerge into the sun within sight of a fenceline. Turn left and you’ll see the kiosk up ahead to complete the loop. At the kiosk, turn right to exit.
0.0 start @ parking lot
0.1 kiosk at forest boundary
0.3 enter sandhills
0.6 prairie view
0.9 junction for campsite
1.1 prairie view and pond
1.6 prairie view
2.3 return to kiosk
2.4 return to parking lot