Linking the Florida Trail through the Ocala National Forest with the Florida Trail on the Cross Florida Greenway, the Western Connector traverses a variety of habitats along the western fringe of the Big Scrub. From the Eaton Creek Trailhead north, this 12 mile segment is high and dry, and showcases the entire life cycle of the sand pine scrub ecosystem. This is a linear hike, so you may want to work out a shuttle or a second car placed at The 88 Store along FR 11 near Lake Kerr or at CR 316. This portion of the trail can be enjoyed as a long day hike or a two-day backpacking trip.
Location: Ocala National Forest
Length: 12 miles
Lat-Lon: 29.269437,-81.873532 to 29.366319,-81.821858
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate to high
Restroom: at 88 Store
Eaton Creek Trailhead: From the intersection of SR 40 and CR 314 at Nuby’s Corner, drive north on CR 314 for 9 miles to NE 172nd Ave, just north of CR 314A. There is a sign for an environmental education camp. Turn right. The trailhead is 1 mile up the road on the right.
The 88 Store: Passing the turnoff at NE 172nd Ave, above, continue north another 6.4 miles on CR 314 to FR 11 (formerly FR 88). Turn left and drive 2.8 miles to The 88 Store on the left. Be sure to ask permission before leaving a car there.
CR 316: Park at the former hunt check station at the intersection of FR 11 and CR 316.
Start your hike at the Eaton Creek Trailhead kiosk. Follow the blue blazes adjoining the power line for almost 0.1 mile to a T-junction with the orange-blazed Florida Trail. Turn left to walk along a well-defined corridor lined by saw palmetto. A broad spot in the trail would make a good place for camping. The trail turns left here, passing under the power line and crossing NE 172nd Ave.
The trail becomes more of a forest road than a footpath, a long straight corridor that pops out into a recently logged area with only small stands of forest to provide shade. You reach an intersection of sand roads at 0.7 mile. Continue straight. Look for bear tracks in the sand. At 1.4 miles, the trail follows a firebreak around shady woods next to a bayhead and then turns off the firebreak to the left. Keep alert for the turn, which leads you down a narrow, shady corridor under tall sand pines.
After 2 miles, you cross CR 314 at a power line. Watch for high-speed traffic. Continue into the forest at the Florida Trail sign. The LAM Equestrian Trail parallels the Florida Trail under the power line. There is a nice open grassy spot for tenting, but no nearby water source. Walk under the power line and enjoy the shade of a lush hardwood forest surrounding Mud Lake. The trail turns right, but if you need to filter water, follow an old wagon road down to the lake by going straight ahead. As the trail climbs back into the sand pine forest, it crosses a jeep trail that leads downhill to a stream that serves as a reliable water source.
Follow a fence around private property, cross their driveway, and look for a T intersection at a junction of jeep roads. The blaze is on a post. At a Y intersection at 3.5 miles, keep left. You pass an open, dry spot for camping. The Ocklawaha River is off to the left through a screen of floodplain forest and tall longleaf pines and magnolias. At 4 miles, a stand of prairie grass fills a small clearing. Soon after, the trail rises back up into the sand pine scrub, making a sharp left uphill into prime scrub-jay habitat.
Following the orange blazes, you make numerous sharp turns. As you walk through a tall stand of sand pines, they creak like bamboo poles rubbing together. Cross FR 67, a major unpaved road, at 5.1 miles. The trail heads down a moss-lined corridor, a beauty spot under the pines, showcasing the best of the Big Scrub. Notice how you pass through different heights and ages of sand pine forest? That’s because this is a fire-based ecosystem, requiring fire to kill off the forest so it can regenerate. All pines within any particular area will be the same age.
Cross FR 67 again at 5.6 miles and start a gradual uphill. The trail passes under another power line. At 6 miles, there are logs along the trail that provide a good place to take a break. Another power line is overhead before you cross FR 67 for the third and final time. Continue on a pleasant meander through medium-sized sand pines. You hear the sound of thunder in the distance—the Air Force bombing practice at the bombing range to the east.
Drop down around a depression and circle a small sink. The habitat becomes more desert-like, with whiter sand and tiny trees, and then denser, with soft pine duff underfoot. After 8 miles, you cross FR 97 and continue through the scrub forest. A jeep path crosses and then curves past on the right. The understory under the tall trees is open and has clusters of saw palmetto and spongy deer moss. The tall pines clatter and warble.
The trail makes a sharp left to follow the edge between an older pine forest and a younger one. Another sharp left leads you into a dense stand of small trees. Cross a jeep road. The habitat transitions to sandhills with turkey oaks beneath tall longleaf pines. Follow the undulating hills another north to the “88 Store” sign and water symbol. The blue-blaze leads 0.4 mile east to The 88 Store, intersecting the Eastern Corridor of the Florida Trail right behind the store. The 88 Store is a popular watering hole, barbecue, and hiker-friendly destination along FR 88 near Lake Kerr. For a small fee, they offer tent camping with showers, restrooms, and self-service laundry behind the store.
Alternately, you can stay on the orange blazes, which lead you out of the dense longleaf pine forest into sandhills with turkey oaks. The trail junction with the Eastern Corridor is within sight of the old hunt check station at the corner of FR 11 and SR 316.