The southernmost concentration of ancient longleaf pine in America, the Big Pine Tract of Chinsegut WEA is also the second largest contiguous tract of old-growth longleaf pine in Florida. Protected within over 400 acres flanking the south slope of Chinsegut Hill, which is topped by an 1840s manor home, this virgin forest was set aside by Colonel Raymond Robins, who donated the plantation to the federal government as a wildlife refuge and agricultural experimental station. Connected to the Conservation Center Tract via the Prairie-to-Pines Trail, the loop trail on the Big Pine Tract has several options for exploration.
Length: 1.6 miles
Lat-Long: 28.599042, -82.377272 (Big Pine trailhead), 28.609986, -82.359181 (Prairie-to-Pines Trailhead)
Type: loop with spurs, shortcuts, and connection to larger trail system
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Bug factor: Low to moderate
Open sunrise to sunset.
Head north from the north edge of downtown Brooksville along US 41 for 2.8 miles and make a sharp left onto Old Crystal River Road. Continue a mile north to the parking area on the right.
Starting at the trail kiosk, turn right to follow the Longleaf Loop. Although the hike is mainly along forest roads – the blazes medallions with hiker symbols – the ancient trees make it well worth the hike. Walking along the Longleaf Loop, you pass a shed along the route. The forest of towering trees begins within a quarter mile.
The longleaf pines are extremely tall and skinny and spindly, very unlike the older pines you see in the Osceola National Forest, Ocala National Forest, and Eglin Air Force Base. In fact, it almost seems like they aren’t as tall as they actually are. It helps to be hiking with a friend to put them in perspective. Step way back and look up.
While this is a virgin forest, the pines are not pristine. Many show signs of catfacing, which likely occurred before 1842, when Colonel Pearson built the big manor house on the hill. The slashes in the pines were used to collect turpentine. Some of the pines have oddly curved trunks and many have spreading crowns. As you walk along, the scent of pine fills the air, even on a dry day. The understory has many small longleaf pines, the grass-stage ones distinguishable from wiregrass only by the deep green of their needles, the taller ones with their needles raised to the sky. As the trail winds through the pines, you’ll see this new generation of young pines throughout the sandhill understory.
The trail curves past a sinkhole full of forest debris before you reach an intersection with the Tortoise Loop – the shortcut back towards the trailhead – on your left, and the Hammock Trail on your right. Turn right for a short walk down the Hammock Trail. You come to the Prairie-to-Pines Trail connection almost immediately along the edge of a bayhead. It continues straight ahead to connect the Big Pine Tract with the Conservation Center Tract, but as the connector is soggy at this end – and mainly runs between a pasture and US 41 to get to the next trailhead, I strongly advise driving to the May’s Prairie Trailhead if you want to hike the other WEA loop.
Instead of heading onto the Prairie-to-Pines, make a left to continue along the Hammock Trail. It’s a narrow footpath, a little damp, along the edge of a hardwood hammock, with sandhills uphill to your left. Once the Hammock Trail drops you back on the main Longleaf Loop, turn right and continue down to the Burns Prairie Spur, which heads down a shady path through grand old live oaks to the edge of a large sometimes-wet prairie. The trail becomes indistict as you come to the overlook along the water, so turn around and retrace your steps. Returning to the Longleaf Loop, you’ve hiked a mile. Turn right, and make a sharp left at the next intersection so you don’t wander off on a perimeter trail.
The hike continues to immerse you in the pine forest – younger ones at this end of the preserve – on both sides. Fall wildflowers will be in bloom in the sandhills, so watch for purple blossoms of blazing star and deer’s-tongue. At the next unmarked trail junction, 1.3 miles in, make a sharp left. The trail heads down a long straightaway partially shaded by the pine forest. Soon after passing a forest road that meanders off to the left, you’ll reach a second junction with the Tortoise Loop. Have you been watching for gopher tortoises? They do love the sandhill habitat, and I recall seeing several burrows when doing this hike. When you see the clearing up ahead, you’re coming up to the trailhead, completing the loop after 1.6 miles. Turn right to exit.