The oldest section of the Florida Trail is one of the prettiest, as well. First blazed in the Ocala National Forest in 1966 by a hardy crew of trail maintainers led by Jim Kern, the Florida Trail between Clearwater Lake Recreation Area and Alexander Springs Recreation Area traverses beautiful, moderately hilly stretches of longleaf pine forest with an open understory, meanders around wet prairies and through hydric hammocks, and slips through a bit of scrubby flatwoods en route to one of the largest springs in Central Florida.
Length: 11 miles
Lat-Long: 28.976418,-81.550423 to 29.078871, -81.577816
Fees / Permits: $5 per person fee to enter / park at Alexander Springs
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: at the recreation areas only
There have been break-ins and vandalism of cars at this trailhead. This is one of the few Florida Trail trailheads in the Ocala National Forest that is within walking distance of a small community, and we’ve witnessed trash dumping and other vandalism in the forest as well. If you’re backpacking, get someone to drop you off here or leave your car inside the gates of the Clearwater Lake campground, 0.5 mile farther up the entrance road (fee). Day hikers tend to have less trouble than backpackers.
Clearwater Lake: 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. The first left turn is the trailhead parking area.
Alexander Springs: From SR 40 east of Astor, turn south on CR 445A and follow the signs. After 0.4 mile, turn left on CR 445 and continue south into the Ocala National Forest for 5.7 miles to the recreation area entrance on the right, just after the bridge over Alexander Run. From the south, follow SR 19 north past Altoona until you encounter the turnoff for CR 445 on the right. Turn right and continue several miles up to the park entrance on the left. There is a $5 per person fee for parking at Alexander Springs.
If you’re not planning to spend time at Alexander Springs Recreation Area – which is well worth the visit for swimming, snorkeling, paddling, camping, and the interpretive Timucuan Trail, one of my favorites in Florida – park off the side of the road at the road crossing along SR 445 and don’t take the blue blaze to Alexander Springs. It’s an extra half mile of hiking.
Start your hike by following the orange blazes north from the kiosk at the Clearwater Lake trailhead. Passing a turnoff for the Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail, the Florida Trail continues due north before arcing to the east through a series of undulating mounds. Are they natural, or diggings placed here, perhaps, when the recreation area was built? There’s no way to know, as the forest swarms across them, but they do make for interesting hiking terrain.
Rising up out of a deep bowl, the trail is in the heart of the classic Florida longleaf pine habitat you’ll be hiking through for the next couple of hours, with pines that rise like columns to the sky and a slight roll to the landscape, as if ancient creeks once flowed through the forest. In spring and fall, colorful wildflowers, including deer’s-tongue and lupine, peep through the haze of wiregrass on the forest floor.
Passing another bowl of forest with cabbage palms peering out of a sinkhole to the left, the trail works its way across the sandhills to its former route, crossing an equestrian trail. Undulating terrain makes the hiking both interesting and challenging. Although there are separate trails for bicyclists, equestrians, and ATVs throughout the forest, you may encounter them on the drier sections of the trail. The trail skirts numerous flatwoods ponds and small prairies fringed with saw palmetto.
At 2.7 miles, you pass a nice dry camping spot under the pines before the trail enters a series of open wet praries and the floodplain forest drainage of Alexander Run. Here, a series of boardwalks carry you through the swampy hydric hammocks, where cabbage palms and giant leather ferns evoke a prehistoric feel. You cross two hard-packed clay forest roads, FR 69-4.8, after you emerge from the hydric hammocks.
After 10 miles, you reach the turnoff to Alexander Springs. The 0.5-mile (each way) blue blazed trail leads to your last reliable water source for the next 4.9 miles. Although there is a fee for using the Alexander Springs Recreation Area, it’s a great place to take a break. The cool, clear spring gushes forth a river, and you can rent a canoe and take a float trip downstream. Camp at the recreation area for a fee, or enjoy the facilities for the day – the swimming and snorkeling is great, and there’s a small camp store with food on site – and head back down the trail for a free campsite.
If you prefer to skip Alexander Springs, you’ll reach the road crossing at CR 445 (a paved road) after 11 miles.