Connecting the Ocala National Forest and the northern end of the Cross Florida Greenway with Rice Creek Conservation Area, the Florida Trail between Buckman Lock and SR 20 west of Palatka is a 7.4-mile ramble down old forest roads through timber lands. Slip in there before hunting season starts in earnest (see Caravelle Ranch Conservation Area WMA for details) and you will see deer. The trail’s route works its way around some serious wetlands, including cypress strands, with a bridge along an old rail line for good measure. While not the most picturesque section of the Florida Trail, it’s a necessary connector for those working on section hikes and thru-hikes of our National Scenic Trail.
Length: 7.4 miles
Lat-Long: 29.546718,-81.726853 (Buckman Lock) to 29.630864,-81.744833 (SR 20)
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At Buckman Lock; open periodically
Starting from the intersection of SR 20 and SR 19 in Palatka, drive west along SR 20 for 4.3 miles to the small trailhead on the right. To get to the southern trailhead, start at the same intersection on Palatka and drive 4.6 miles south on SR 19 to the turnoff on the left for Buckman Lock Road. Follow the road to the parking area near the locks and former visitor center, and park there.
Starting at Buckman Lock (whether you crossed it as a backpacker, or are parked near it as a day hiker), the trail is a roadwalk up Buckman Lock Road for the first mile. It’s not a busy road, so it’s an easy walk. You pass the former Cross Florida Greenway visitor center on the right as well as the St. Johns Trail north trailhead, which was actively maintained once but looks like the landscape has been left to grow over the trail; some signage remains, but that’s all. The road is edged by a very pretty cypress swamp, but there is no shade as you make your way up to the road crossing at SR 19, reaching it after a mile.
Crossing SR 19 – beware of the high-speed traffic – you see a Florida Trail sign on the north side of the highway. The trail immediately turns and goes over a little plank boardwalk, and there is a trail register just in from the road. The trail enters a pine plantation, which is what you’ll be walking through for most of the hike. At 1.1 mile, the trail makes a right to start following a network of forest roads. Walking between young slash pines, you see a massive pond off to the left of the road. The understory is gallberry and wax myrtle, which means it can get wet here. In fact, this is a wet flatwoods turned to tree farming, so mud and water is highly likely along these roads except in the driest of seasons. At 1.5 miles you reach an intersection of forest roads which has lots of mud. Continue straight ahead, looking for the next blazes on the pines as you also watch for the big puddles underfoot.
By 1.9 miles, the trail swings right into another sand road. You’ll see a pond off to the right in the middle of the pines. At the next messy intersection of forest roads at 2 miles, make a sharp left onto the next forest road. Deer tracks lead through the mud. By the sounds of traffic in the distance, SR 19 is not far to the east. The trail ahead looks like a long, long tunnel down through the pines on an undulating sand road. Passing another big pond on the right, the trail comes up to another messy, muddy intersection with a giant puddle. Look to the right for a little cutoff to skirt through the forest next to a canal to avoid walking in the puddle. There are lots of puddles in this particular road. Beware of the edges, they are slippery!
You spend some time jogging around huge puddles on the trail, usually following well-worn paths where other hikers have done so too. Leaving the long tunnel in the pines at 2.7 miles, the trail swings to the left. This road is a bit narrower and has a marshy pine area off to the right, and a drier pine forest to the left, although the loblolly bay in the forest suggests that this area, too, can get wetter at times. At a large pond, the trail makes a sharp right onto the next forest road. There is a very swampy area on the right, submerged after a rain the day before. With cypress knees is evidence, you know this is a permanent swamp. In fact, all side trails we saw that day in this section were under water. Since this is timberland, it’s likely that the ponds are man-made for drainage of the landscape. Fallen blossoms from Carolina jessamine carpet the road.
A natural waterway slices through the landscape, lined with tall cabbage palms. Looking at a satellite view of this floodplain forest, it appears to be a feeder stream to Rice Creek, to the north. It’s a beautiful forested swamp, a counterpoint to the heavily altered landscapes around it. Resurrection fern climbs high into live oak trees. At 3 miles, the trail makes a very sharp left in this little slice of wild. Tannic water moves sluggishly across the forest floor, even under the pines.
At 3.5 miles, there is a large pond on the left where the trail makes a sharp right. Elevation increases as the trail climbs out of the floodplain forest and into a scrubby flatwoods with more planted pines. The frequency of puddles lessens as you start to see saw palmetto and scrub oaks under the slash pines and loblolly pines. It’s another long straightaway. Coming to the next intersection of forest roads at 3.8 miles, the trail continues straight ahead. You can see a lone cabbage palm in the distance, but the forest road curves to the left of it to follow a fenceline, still in a high, dry pine plantation.
There is an obvious gap between two land management areas at 4.2 miles, where the trail follows a firebreak for a while between rows of planted pines. By 4.4 miles the trail jogs off to the right and away from the firebreak onto a forest road with signs stating this is part of the Cross Florida Greenway. That’s a good thing, since there is a little clearing on the right in the pines where it would be possible to pitch a tent or two and hang a few hammocks if needed. Crossing a marked grade shortly after, there is a sign that says “8 Mile Road.” The trail follows it into Caravelle Ranch, a wildlife management area with a parking area for hunters. Walking beneath large cross-state power lines, you continue down a very broad, straight road lined with young pines.
At 5.8 miles there is a gate that the trail snakes around, crosses under a power line, and goes around another gate. From the amount of trash here, this is accessible by vehicles and you wouldn’t want to be near here at night. After you pass through the second gate, the trail finally leaves the forest roads and becomes an actual footpath again, heading into the undulating landscape of planted pines before joining an old railroad tramway through the forest.
As the tramway makes its way into a cypress swamp, you’re immersed in a picturesque landscape. The railroad was built to haul big cypresses out of this swamp, but the ones that remain have grown to significant sizes. Crossing a bridge over a tannic creek – one person at a time, please – the trail continues in a straight line with just enough elevation over the swamp to provide nice views down into it. By 6.1 miles, the habitat shifts to sandhills on both sides of the tramway. Although it’s a pine plantation, the underlying habitat is still obvious because of the laurel oaks and and a definite lack of water anywhere on or near the trail, even in the little ditches built to drain it.
Paralleling the tramway, you can see a cross-country power line here and you can hear road noise in the distance. At 6.4 miles, the trail drops down into a seasonally wet area, although it is still on the tramway. The trail exits the tramway to the left at a double blaze. Here, the forest floor gets wet. An old till from a tractor sits with its disks all rusted out. A small bridge crosses an even smaller canal. In fact, a whole strong of little bitty bridges lead through the depression areas underneath the power lines, these bridges the work of the Putnam Crew, a dedicated group of FTA trail maintainers who do a lot of bog bridge building in these swamps around Palatka.
Crossing under the under the power lines and onto a forest road, the trail is marked with a blaze on a post. There are a few nice, older pines here, but the surrounding trees are otherwise young slash pines. At 6.6 miles, the trail makesa sharp right at a deer stand down a forest road where you can see the busy traffic of SR 20 in the distance. Crossing a gas pipeline, you continue in a straight line toward SR 20.
Beware of high speed traffic as you cross to the parking area on the opposite side. It has room for two or three vehicles, and access to the next section of the Florida Trail, through Rice Creek Conservation Area, through a gate. Your hike ends here after 7.4 miles.
Thanks to Bryce Layman for transcribing these hike details from my audio files. He blogs about lightweight backpacking at litepacker.blogspot.com.