Four days, 39 miles: that’s just part of the challenge of the Citrus Hiking Trail, the second-longest backpacking loop on a single piece of land in the state of Florida.
Add aggressively rolling sandhills, steep descents into sinkholes, and rock-strewn footpaths, and you’ve got yourself one of Florida’s most rugged hikes.
Traversing extreme contrasts in habitats, from deeply shaded hardwood forests to longleaf pine savannas, rosemary scrub, and open prairies, this trail numerous opportunities for wildlife encounters.
Designed and developed by top-notch FTA trail maintainer Fred Mulholland in the late 1970s, it is a well-groomed trail, easily followed, with a clearly defined footpath and signposts at trail junctions.
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Length: Outer loop of 43.3 miles made up 4 loops, the shortest of which is 7.5 miles
Trailhead: 28.799305, -82.384676
Fees: $5 day use fee at trailhead. Camping fees at Holder Mine and Mutual Mine.
Land Manager: Withlacoochee State Forest
The only official parking area for the loop is now at Holder Mine. It costs $5 per day while you are backpacking.
Blazes on the loop have been painted yellow where they are not part of the Florida Trail thru-trail. You’ll follow either orange or yellow blazes, depending on location, to make the loop.
Mosquitoes can be annoying in low-lying areas. Hikers are no longer allowed to walk into Mutual Mine for water or restrooms unless they have a reservation to camp there.
There are numerous access points but for the way we describe this hike, park at the Holder Mine Recreation Area. From the junction of SR 44 and CR 581 west of Inverness, turn south on CR 581 and drive 2.5 miles, passing the fire tower, to the sign for Holder Mine Recreation Area. Turn right and continue another mile into Holder Mine Recreation Area. Pass the hunt check station and campground. The trailhead is on the left, with an FT sign and kiosk.
Backpacking the Citrus Trail takes some logistical planning. There are no surface streams, so you must consider this a dry trail.
Ephemeral ponds may provide water but can’t be counted on. For the full 43-mile loop, reliable water sources consist of two horse water cisterns, one off-trail pitcher pump, one large pond, and a long side trip to Mutual Mine.
Consider caching water jugs at forest road crossings before you start hiking. The primary north-south road through the forest, TR-13, provides access to several trail crossings where caches can be hidden up the trail.
Designated backpacker campsites are few and far between, so your days may be long, but camping is also permitted anywhere you see white bands painted around trees. If you are camping at the campgrounds, you MUST now reserve in advance.
This is an extraordinarily popular hunting ground, so be mindful of scheduled hunts and wear blaze orange during all hunting seasons. We don’t recommend that you backpack here during deer hunting season.
If you’re directionally challenged, make sure you carry a map and compass or GPS, since one wrong turn at a trail junction can send you a day out of your way!
You don’t have to be a backpacker to enjoy this lengthy trail. Using forest roads, you can break this trail up into a series of very comfortable day hikes.
However, since it is the longest backpacking loop in Florida on a single piece of public land, we describe it below from a backpacker’s perspective, following the 39.1-mile loop perimeter counterclockwise.
Cross trails can be used to shorten the backpack to a single overnight. See the map.
You can also use marked forest roads to change this up. As the trail crosses forest roads (designated TR on their maps) you’ll see signs with the road number which will help you figure out where you are.
Today’s hike covers 11.1 miles. Starting at the Holder Mine trailhead, follow a blue-blazed connector 0.8 miles through the scrub to the main orange-blazed loop.
At the Loop A sign, turn right to begin the outer loop, following the eastern side of Loop A. It starts out in the scrub forest and transitions into sandhill habitat with rolling hills.
It’s here you first discover the wonder of the longleaf pine habitat, where you can see a long way through an open understory beneath the pines.
After crossing TR-8 at 1.6 miles, continue through a grove of sand live oaks with wizened, windswept branches.
At 2.1 miles, the trail junction marks where the orange blazes of the Florida Trail leave the loop to continue its northward journey into Inverness.
Follow the yellow blazes to stay on Loop A. After crossing a paved road, the trail climbs a ridge at 3.9 miles before circling around Bull Sink, a large prairie with an ephemeral pond.
Traversing longleaf pine forest, the trail crosses TR-11 and passes another ephemeral pond, Five Mile Pond, which sits in a low bowl of prairie.
At the A-B Loop junction at 5.3 miles, keep right to join Loop B, staying on the outer loop. Enjoy the roller-coaster effect through the sandhills.
Where the trail crosses TR-13 at 6.8 miles, there is a cistern for watering horses just beyond. This is a reliable, if unappetizing, water source, and an important one. Strain before filtering.
The trail continues into prime scrub-jay habitat for the next several miles, in a portion of the forest that’s relatively remote for access but within earshot of traffic along SR 44.
As the trail swings south, it makes a long, slow descent through longleaf pine forest. Cross several little-used forest roads, including TR-17, which sits in a deep ditch.
At a dense corridor under the sand live oaks, watch for a campsite sign at 10.9 miles. Follow the blue blaze west to the Jackson Campsite (marked PCZ-B on the forest map).
A pitcher pump is located a half mile west of the campsite at 28.812750, -82.475017 along the Dixie Land equestrian trail. It’s painted orange so you can see it from a distance. Use TR-8 or TR-10A for access.
You’re in for a long and rugged hike, with 13.9 miles to cover across terrain that includes steep hills, deep sinkholes, and caverns.
Longleaf pine and wiregrass comprise the majority of the habitat for the first few miles. Reach the B-C Loop junction at 2.7 miles.
The landscape descends steeply into Mansfield Pond, a flatwoods pond that does go dry. A giant split oak stands along the trail within sight of the pond.
Past TR-14 is a spur trail to the Youngblood Campsite (PCZ-C) at 4.5 miles. It’s a dry camp.
When rocks appear underfoot, you’ve hit the famed karst of Withlacoochee State Forest. Expect not just rocks but also trailside sinkholes filled with ferns.
Cross TR-13 and reach the C-D Loop junction at 7 miles. Several depressions cradle water after a rain, but karst is a sponge—it soaks up all the rainfall it can get into the Floridan aquifer below.
Climbing out of a karst bowl, the trail rolls through the sandhills before crossing TR-13 again. After crossing TR-20 at 9.1 miles, the trail intersects various equestrian trails blazed in a variety of colors.
Past TR-22, the trail drops steeply down through bluff forest into the rocky lip of Lizzie Hart Sink, a large sinkhole depression with numerous caves.
Through this area, the footpath is rocky and fragile. Step carefully and watch out for holes in the karst. Pass a colossal swamp chestnut oak and the dark mouth of a cave.
Cross paved CR 480 at 12.5 miles. South of it, the trail encounters an unusual streambed – it flows only after a big rain – that drains into a big sinkhole.
In a forest of oaks and hickory, the side trail to the Taylor Campsite (PCZ-D) is at 13.8 miles. Follow it down to an dry open space in the forest and select your spot.
At 7.8 miles, today’s hike is shorter to take advantage of a developed (fee) campground. You can also skip this stop and head back to the beginning of the loop by hiking a 14.1 mile day.
As you leave the denser forest, the landscape opens up around Stage Pond, a permanent and reliable water source at 0.9 mile. It’s so named for stagecoaches that once stopped here.
The trail crosses CR 480 again at 1.6 miles on its way north. North of the paved road, you rejoin the orange blazes for the remainder of the hike.
Past TR-11, the trail passes through a sand live oak forest on its undulating route through the sandhills. After 4.9 miles, meet the sign for the C-D Loop cross trail. Turn right, staying on the orange blazes.
At TR-18A, there is a historic railroad bed from the phosphate mining era, complete with ballast but no tracks. Cross several more forest roads through the sandhills.
A bench and sign mark the connector trail to Mutual Mine at 6.4 miles. It’s a 1.7-mile blue blaze (each way) into this comfortable campground. You MUST reserve a site here in advance. You are not allowed to enter the campground otherwise.
Mutual Mine sits on the lip of an old phosphate pit under the shade of tall pines.
Potable water, picnic tables, and restrooms – plus pitching a tent on pine needles – makes this an appealing overnight. It is also an important place to load up on water for tomorrow’s hike.
Exit the Mutual Mine campground and head back along the long blue blaze to the main trail. Headed north, you have a 9.5 mile hike for today.
The trail traverses open grasslands created by logging almost a century ago. After TR-7, the trail drops down a steep, sandy hill that you almost have to slide down, and then it’s a trick to get up the other side.
At 4.3 miles, a square concrete block water cistern shimmers along the side of the trail, right past TR-14A. Use it if you need to. It’ll be the last water you see today, and it is often covered in algae.
Reach the junction with the B-C Loop cross trail at 6.2 miles. Continue straight along the orange blazes. As the vegetation gets greener, you reach the karst belt again.
At the bottom of a hill is the biggest cave in Florida that the Florida Trail provides access to. Drop your pack and take a moment to explore, as sunlight streams into the cave through a crevice far above.
Rising out of the fern-rich karst bowl, the trail crosses TR-13 one last time at 7 miles, and reaches scrub habitat by 8 miles.
Watch for the sign that says Loop A, which signals the end of your circuit of this forest. Turn right and follow the blue blaze back to Holder Mine to complete the hike.
Around the Citrus Hiking Trail in a video slide show
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
In downtown Inverness, Cooter Pond Park is a great place for birding and watching the turtles beneath the extensive boardwalk over the pond.
Tracing 46 miles of railroad history down forested corridors, past big lakes and city parks, and through quaint communities with restaurants, bicycle shops, and restrooms: the Withlacoochee State Trail is one sweet ride.