Most hikers headed for Clearwater Lake in the Ocala National Forest are looking for the Florida Trail, which starts its northbound journey of 70 unbroken miles just north of SR 42 in Paisley. But the original segment of the Florida Trail blazed by Florida Trail Association founder Jim Kern and his first work crew in October 1966 was created on the opposite side of the lake. Today, the Clearwater Lake Loop, which starts and ends at the day use area inside the Clearwater Lake Recreation Area, offers a gentle walk through pine forests and scrub around the lake, which is edged by marshes but still offers a beach for swimming and a picnic area for relaxing.
Length: 1.3 miles
Lat-Long: 28.978510, -81.553909
Fees / Permits: recreation area entrance fee
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: available at the day use area
Dogs are NOT permitted at Clearwater Lake Recreation Area.
This is a gentle, level trail that just misses the mark of wheelchair accessibility due to a few stretches of soft sand. There are many benches (I believe I counted 10) along the walk for you to sit and savor the view, sketch a tree, or watch for birds. The benches make this an ideal stroll for persons with limited mobility.
From the junction of SR 42 and SR 19 in Altoona, north of Mount Dora, drive east on SR 42 towards Paisley. After 6.4 miles, you’ll see the entrance to the Clearwater Lake Recreation Area on your left. Turn left and drive up the park entrance road, passing the trailhead for the Florida Trail and Paisley Bicycle Trail on your right. Pay your entrance fee and continue through the gate to the day use area, the first turn on your left. Drive down to the day use area and park near the lake.
Start your hike by walking down to the beach along Clearwater Lake. Yes, it’s sand spread along what would otherwise be a marshy shoreline of a classic Ocala National Forest flatwoods pond, but that’s fine—plenty of families enjoy it, and you might too, as a cool-down after your walk.
Turn left and walk along the edge of the beach. If you don’t see a mowed path through the marsh grasses and sundew plants along the dried edge of the marsh (particularly if the water level is up, the trail might be underwater), move inland a little to discover a corridor beneath the pines, slipping behind a few of the campsites at the far south end of the campground. The mowed path narrows and leads you up there. Yellow blazes mark the path, but it’s obvious and broad beneath the live oak canopy, edged by saw palmetto.
The trail parallels the park road briefly, getting further away from the lake and into the pines. Sandhill cranes swoop past and their cries echo across the lake as they land on the far shore. Dipping in and out of shade and sun, the trail meanders back and forth across the ecotone between oak hammock and pine flatwoods. After ¼ mile, there is a bench in a clearing. The pines are well-spaced and the understory open, so you can see the lake. As the trail winds around the south end of the lake, it draws closer to SR 42—you can hear traffic, but the understory screens it from view. At the next bench, a track leads away from it towards the highway, which made me wonder if this spot was the original starting point of the Florida Trail. The trail continues to curve along the lake, with tall longleaf pines overhead, passing another bench.
After half a mile, the trail reaches a bench with a pretty view of the lake—a good spot to stop, relax, and reflect. Through the open understory, you can see the swimming area on the far shore. As the trail curves north, it makes a sharp turn away from the lake to head up into a patch of scrubby flatwoods with young sand live oaks shading the route. You can see a pond in the distance through the forest. There’s a bench in the saw palmetto as the trail comes up to the pond and a T in the footpath. Turn right to continue along the loop, walking through more scrubby flatwoods.
You reach a boardwalk after a mile. It traverses a small arm of a prairie extending off the lake. Continue straight ahead as you leave the boardwalk and you’ll see the next yellow blaze soon after. The trail drops you down along the water’s edge at a bench. Turn left and continue along the lakeshore, ignoring the little side trails to the right and left created by campers. Rising from the saw palmetto on the left, there’s a longleaf pine with an obvious v-notch in its trunk from turpentine tapping decades ago. A bench sits at the base of a tall pine.
As you cross the next boardwalk at 1.1 miles, watch out for missing boards. You see tents up ahead as the trail curves around to continue along the lakeshore, behind the backs of the campsites. Passing picnic tables, you’re still walking in the shade of the oaks with the panorama of the lake stretching out to your right. After one last bench on the left, you reach the beach. Walk up through the gap in the saw palmettos to return to the day use parking area after 1.3 miles.