Winding northward from Lake Griffin, the Ocklawaha River was once a meandering river through vast marshes, cypress swamps, and floodplain forests as it worked its way towards the St. Johns River near Palatka. But channelization by the Army Corps of Engineers radically altered its flow in many places, including around Moss Bluff. There are two large restoration areas flanking this small community, protecting the river’s original basin. At Ocklawaha Prairie, east of Lake Weir and south of Marshall Swamp, trails lead to some of the best birding in the region from a boardwalk nearly a half-mile long through the marshes.
Location: Moss Bluff
Length: 2.4 miles
Lat-Long: 29.106041, -81.906031
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: portable toilet at trailhead
Website: Ocklawaha Prairie Restoration Area
From Silver Springs, follow SR 40 east into the Ocala National Forest. At Forest Corners, turn right on CR 314A at the traffic light. Follow this road south for 6.6 miles to where you come to a sweeping bend in the road. Turn right onto SE 137 Avenue Road, which is next to a sign that says “The Refuge at Ocklawaha.” Follow this limerock road for 0.8 mile to the preserve entrance on the left.
Your hike starts at the entrance gate. Since this is a multi-use trail system, the parking area is especially large to accommodate horse trailers. A small building which looks suspiciously like a hunt check station and a permanent portable toilet are located between the entrance gate and a massive southern magnolia tree which is currently in bloom. The trail kiosk sits well off to the side of the tree, near the former gap through the fence. Check it out and pick up a map if one is available. The map on the kiosk has not been updated to reflect the major reason for hiking this trail – an extensive boardwalk out into the Ocklawaha Prairie marshes.
Diamond-shaped markers lead the way. They’re a little worn, but still provide good guidance. The trail slips past a small clump of woods and out to an old jeep road. Turn right. The forest on your left is planted longleaf pines – I remember, ten years ago, when they were freshly plunked in and provided no shade. They’re growing into a nice forest, and sport some large pinecones. Three pilated woodpeckers wing past in quick succession. You pass sweetgum and oak trees as the trail rises up to a large open space with side trails – and diamond markers – going off in all directions. There used to be a barn here, but no more. This conservation area is stitched together from ranches and homesteads along the river, where the forests are reclaiming the land for their own. Still, in this spot, you’re in the midst of an open meadow. Take a sharp left.
You follow the jeep track briefly, but keep watching for the next trail marker, off along the treeline to your right. The trail veers away from the jeep track and downhill into a tunnel of sweetgum trees. A large fallen tree blocks the path; work your way around it through gaps in the line of sweetgum on your right. There is an intersection with a horse trail, noted by the beaten-down track and the plops of horse manure. Continue past it to emerge in a more open area with patches of white sand and scrub plants. Turn right. Watch for the next marker, which guides you in the direction of the Ocklawaha River. As you leave the scrub and enter a canopied hardwood forest, the oaks overhead are laden with Spanish moss. The trail ascends a small bluff and meets a road at a T. To the left is private property, The Refuge at Ocklawaha. Turn right.
At 0.7 mile, a wooden bridge, complete with weight limit signs, crosses the C-212 canal, which carries the bulk of the Ocklawaha River’s flow. An earthen levee divides this canal from the river’s historic floodplain, the Ocklawaha Prairie. These are vast marshes where thousands of migratory birds spend their winters. Even on a summer day, the birding here is fabulous. Watch for bluebirds near the bridge. As you emerge on the levee, you can see the sweep of boardwalk across the marsh. When I first explored this trail, the observation deck off to the left was the only place to sit and watch the birds – and you needed binoculars to keep watch. It’s still a pleasant, shady place to watch the activity in the marsh from a porch swing under a canopy.
The reason this is Marion County’s best wildlife destination, however, is the boardwalk. Turn right and walk down to it. Depending on the time of year, you’ll see different water levels and a different array of plants. Right now cattails, which are invasive in Florida marshes, are winning the battle. The red-winged blackbirds appreciate the immense amount of cattails, and you’ll hear hundreds of them. Purple pickerelweed pokes through sunny patches in the marsh. The far line of trees are Virginia willows. The boardwalk heads down a long straightway, and it’s in this first section that I’ve always seen alligators, as long as there’s a lot of water in the marsh.
Open expanses of water are off to your left, where you’ll see dozens – if not hundreds – of birds, depending on season and water levels. Sandhill cranes are a common sight no matter what time of year you visit, and they’re obvious from their large size. Spotting smaller wading birds, such as little blue herons, green herons, and ibis, may take more time and some help from your zoom lens or binoculars. Large green and blue dragonflies and more delicate damselflies chase each other from railing to railing. Watch out for the scat on the boardwalk, as it comes in many shapes, sizes, and consistencies. Fortunately, the birds have not taken to roosting on the railings.
The boardwalk jogs left and heads down another long straightaway, with the vast open spaces – prime feeding ground for the wading birds – drawing closer on your right. Look for limpkins near the edges. You’ll hear the moorhens well before you see them in clusters on the water. Keep an eye on the sky, as there’s always another bird landing in the shallows. Underfoot, too, as lizards – especially green anoles – like to use the boardwalk to cross the marsh.
After 1.2 miles, the boardwalk ends at a small platform on the edge of what is often a pond ringed by willows. It’s a bit drier right now, but still a prime spot to see raptors in the taller trees. A cool breeze riffles across this massive prairie basin. Turn around and continue back along the boardwalk – which is nearly half a mile long, and still in very good shape, here in this sheltered area – watching for alligators in the open spots and birds winging across the marsh. When you reach the levee, ascend back up to the top.
I’ve walked a little of the levee, but it’s best left to an early morning or a cool day. There are nearly six miles of levee along the marsh, and yes, you’re allowed to bicycle it. To leave the levee, head towards the obvious roofed observation deck – the bridge is near it. Follow the bridge back across to the other side of the canal, and be sure to scramble back down the bluff to the left before you reach the “No Trespassing” signs. From here, it’s retracing your steps along the entrance trail, following the diamond-blaze signs. Keep alert at the multi-way intersection where the foundation of the old barn sits in the meadow and be sure to make a right, walking down along the plantings of longleaf pines to the final jog to the left, to exit.
0.3 multi-way junction
0.7 bridge over canal
0.8 start of boardwalk
1.2 end of boardwalk
1.6 return to levee
1.7 bridge over canal
2.1 multi-way junction