NOTICE: This section of the Florida Trail has been relocated north of SR 19 and south of Caravelle Ranch as of February 2019
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. From this point north, the trail has been relocated for the next 2.3 miles, and we have not yet hiked it to assess the route or conditions. We are told by thru-hikers that it is quite wet but there are some boardwalks. It is updated in the Guthook app.
After you cross a marked grade, 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. 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. The trail makes a sharp right at 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 the gate at SR 20.
When you reach SR 20 there is a ditch that hasn’t been bridged and you will get dunked crossing it. Beware of high speed traffic as you cross SR 20 on the opposite side.