Little known except to those who frequent this beautiful campground in the Salt Springs Recreation Area in the Ocala National Forest, the Bear Swamp Trail provides a glimpse into the ancient forest that undoubtedly crowded the shores of Salt Springs when botanist and explorer William Bartram visited the “amazing crystal fountain” in 1774. The easy 1.3-mile loop is worth a visit to the recreation area in itself, as it’s a microcosm of habitats you’ll find in the Big Scrub.
Location: Salt Springs
Length: 1.3 miles
Lat-Long: 29.356367, -81.732083
Fees / Permits: recreation area fee
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: Yes, in campground
Dogs are NOT permitted at Salt Springs Recreation Area.
From the Salt Springs Visitor Center along SR 19 in the Ocala National Forest, drive south 1/2 mile to the entrance to the Salt Springs Recreation Area on the left. Enter and pay your day use fee. Turn left and follow the road into the campground. Turn right on the first one-way lane leading away from you. Turn right and follow the one lane road along the edge of the campground until you come to a parking area on the left. Park and walk over to the trailhead sign, next to a building.
Start by walking down to the kiosk. Turn right and keep left at the fork as you walk through a hardwood forest with hickory, dogwood, elm, and oak. Massive southern magnolias tower overhead. As you meander along the path, elements of the Big Scrub appear—tall, slender loblolly pines and rusty and shiny lyonia. You pass through a grove of tall straight loblolly pines.
At 0.6 mile, the boardwalk appears, ushering you into Bear Swamp. Birdcalls echo through the trees as you walk in dense shade and discover the object of this quest: an ancient cypress, close enough to touch, with a girth a good nine feet around. Look straight up, and you can see that the crown broke off this monster of a tree, no doubt a sacrifice to a hurricane in the past. How did this cypress survive logging? Its surface is flawed and lumpy from massive galls, which would not go well through the sawmill.
As you continue a few more feet down the boardwalk, you can see another giant cypress in the distance—taller and even more magnificent than the first. Well up its trunk, it has a huge gaping crack down the center, the perfect place for an army of raccoons to hide. A branch that comes out above the hole is thicker around than the girth of any of the trees surrounding this one in the forest. Continue a little farther, and you’ll see a third ancient cypress off to the right. It’s humbling to be in the presence of such giants.
The boardwalk ends, and you continue your walk through mixed hardwood and scrub forest, passing a natural “container garden” of resurrection fern atop a snag as you wander beneath the shade of lyonia, loblolly bay, and southern magnolias en route back to the campground, completing the loop at the kiosk at 1.3 miles. Turn right to exit.