The most obscure interpretive trail in the Ocala National Forest is well off the beaten path along the Ocklawaha River, accessed via a narrow dirt road. Why here? Location, location, location—in the 1800s, Florida’s rivers served as highways to the interior. During the steamboat era, Davenport Landing was the last high bluff that steamboats would pass as they made their way downriver from Silver Springs to the St. Johns River, 8 miles away. The landing master, Thomas Cassidy Fillyaw, a Confederate soldier who survived the war, is buried on the site not far from a more ancient burial ground, the Davenport Mound. Although heavily looted over the centuries, in 1894, finds from the mound were declared to be up to 1,200 years old.
Location: Ocala National Forest
Length: 0.7 miles
Fees / Permits: none
Good for: archaeology, birding, wildlife, scenic views
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to high
Camping is permitted in this area, but not at the landing. Be cautious during hunting season; wear blaze orange if you hike here then.
Driving 8.5 miles north from the intersection of CR 316 and SR 19 in Salt Springs, turn left off SR 19 onto FR 74 just before the Ocklawaha River bridge. FR 74 parallels the river in a northwesterly direction, and can be rough or soft sand in spots but accessible by most vehicles except after heavy rains. Drive 2.5 miles down the forest road. The trailhead is on the right just past a junction with FR 21, where you’ll see a trailhead sign on the right. Turn right and follow the two-track road to where it ends at a gate.
The trail starts at the gate. Flanked by blueberries and bracken fern, this is a scrubby flatwoods habitat with shoulder-high saw palmetto, pines are longleaf and pond pine, which tends to grow along tributaries of the St. Johns River. A line of scrub oaks parallels to the left. You feel a slight downhill trend to the trail. After 400 feet, the trail reaches a marker which points to the left. Ill-defined at first because of infrequent maintenance, the footpath slips right into the scrub oak forest, down a tight corridor beneath the oaks.
The trail starts to drop sharply. Curving to the right to avoid dropping into the floodplain, it reaches an intermingling of habitats: bluff forest creeping into the Big Scrub, with tall Southern magnolia, pignut hickory, and American holly. Off to the left you can see water in the distance, beyond the cypresses of a floodplain forest. The break in the sky confirms you’re almost at the Ocklawaha River. This sinuous river and its jungle-like floodplain shores attracted tourists by the boatload during the early days of Florida’s statehood; the Hart Steamship Line built special, narrow steamboats to navigate its twisty, winding channels from its mouth at the St. Johns River to the hotel at Silver Springs.
Lined by switchcane, a native bamboo, a side trail leads down to the river. Take this trail for a walk right to the river’s edge, keeping alert for alligators and snakes. By the watermarks on the surrounding cypress – up to three feet high – you can tell how much the river can rise after heavy rains near its source. One of several rivers in Florida that flows north, the Ocklawaha rises from a mosaic of wet pine flatwoods and cypress domes near Tampa called the Green Swamp, working its way towards the Ocala National Forest through a series of large lakes near Leesburg. Heavily disturbed by the Army Corps of Engineers around Moss Bluff and Rodman Reservoir, its wild nature remains along a lengthy stretch outlining the western boundary of the Ocala National Forest.
Returning to the main trail, turn left. Large rusty lyonia – the tallest of the species is found in the Big Scrub – joins sand live oaks in shading the trail as you continue through the scrub forest. At 0.3 mile, the trail reaches a junction with directional signs and two kiosks off to the left. Step over to the leftmost kiosk, which adjoins Davenport Mound and explains its archaeological importance. Arrowheads found along these shores indicate human settlements here as early as 10,000 B.C., living off the bounty of the forest and waterways.
The other kiosk explains steamboating on the Ocklawaha River, as you’ve reached the high bluff of Davenport Landing. A historic map shows the location of the many landings that steamboats would visit on their route to Silver Springs, as well as vividly named points for navigators to keep alert for, like Needle’s Eye, Rough and Ready Cut, and Hell’s Half Acre. As the last high bluff before northbound boats reached the St. Johns River, it was an important place to stock up on wood to feed the boilers.
From the kiosk, a series of steps lead down to the riverfront, where stonework and an old cypress log might have been used as part of the landing. It’s a beauty spot, well worth your time for birding. The trail loops around and up the slope to the right. Once you climb back to the kiosk, take the other path under the live oaks at the “parking” sign. Nicely framed by saw palmetto and gallberry, the trail corridor provides a good bit of shade as it follows the edge of the ecotone between scrubby flatwoods and oak scrub. The sugar white sand in the footpath shows imprints of many animals, especially raccoon and deer.
At a fork in the trail, keep to the left, walking between the pond pines. Within a few moments, you’re back to the beginning of the loop. Continue straight ahead to exit, reaching the gate and parking area after a 0.7 mile walk.
|0.2||side trail to river|