Linking the Florida Trail through the Ocala National Forest and 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 south, the trail enters a tangled jungle of rampant growth along tiny streams and tributaries flowing into the Ocklawaha River. It also passes through many pine plantations that are reverting back to wild wet flatwoods.
This southern end of this hike takes you to the edge of the Hulls Creek Swamp, a cypress swamp with quicksand-like mud. If the forest is at all wet, follow the blue-blazed roadwalk around the swamp for your safety. See the logistical details for connecting to the Cross Florida Greenway at the bottom of this page.
Location: Lake Eaton to Lynne
Length: 5.6 miles
Lat-Long: 29.269410,-81.873542 to 29.223679,-81.916042
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate to high
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.
NE 145th Avenue: From the intersection of SR 40 and CR 314 at Nuby’s Corner, drive east on SR 40 to NE 14th St Rd. Turn left. Turn left on NE 145th Avenue and follow it to the trail crossing. There is a pulloff but no parking area.
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 Florida Trail. Turn right and follow the orange blazes into a lush floodplain forest. A boardwalk leads you to the Eaton Creek Bridge, a scenic spot, where tannic water sluices past islands in this broad creek that drains Lake Eaton. Tall hickory trees and cabbage palms rise from the forest floor. Cross the bridge and turn left. The pines are simply enormous here.
At a junction with a forest road, turn right. You pass an unusual natural landmark: a hickory tree with four branching trunks coming out of a very thick base. At a clearing, the trail makes a sharp right. A large pond sits off to the left at 0.4 mile, big enough to be a water source. Make sure you look for the next blaze at the junction of forest roads. The trail twists and winds through scrub forest and reaches a jeep road. At 1 mile, you see a small faux rock garden of busted up concrete surrounded by scrub plants. Turn sharply right and follow the trail over undulating plow lines amid a pine plantation.
After 1.3 miles, the trail emerges onto CR 314A. Cross the road and look for the trail entrance offset over to your right. It enters mesic flatwoods with a well-defined path between the saw palmetto. The trail then enters a bayhead swamp with tall ferns. Some of the ferns may be over your head. Beware of where you step, as there are deep mud holes in a few spots.
You reach a boardwalk, and follow it into the depths of the bayhead swamp to pass by an island of large slash pines, each of which shows evidence of turpentine tapping. Bog bridges lead you into another area where ferns grow to enormous proportions. The trail becomes hummocky as it crosses over old plow lines.
After 1.6 miles, you reach a forest road. Turn left. The blazes lead to a set of bog bridges that skirt the edge of a flowing stream. The bridges provide a nice place to enjoy this tropical setting. The habitat transitions to old scrub pine forest with a dense understory, and the trail emerges onto an ecotone between pine flatwoods and scrub. It crosses a jeep trail at 2.1 miles, entering wet flatwoods and a pine plantation before emerging onto a road that leads to NE 52nd Place, and a short distance south on NE 52nd Place to re-enter the forest.
From NE 52nd Place, the trail leads you south through a young pine plantation, paralleling the road. A wall of cypress to your left indicates a creek. The trail veers around a bayhead at 2.9 miles and then takes off to the left through a sea of pine plantation. After 3.2 miles, you leave the younger industrial-style pine plantation for a habitat with taller, older pines and normal understory plants. You cross a firebreak and turn left to start the cypress boardwalk.
This series of low-impact bridges connect islands in the creek’s floodplain, with lots of cinnamon fern growing between them. The third bridge runs more than a quarter mile through a shady glade beneath cypresses and pines. Beware the monstrous poison ivy vines dangling just overhead.
You leave the scenic boardwalk at 3.5 miles and a enter forest of taller pines. Turn left on the firebreak and reach a Y junction of forest roads at 3.8 miles. The footpath veers off to the left to parallel the forest road. Pass a marsh in a large depression on the left, and keep to the left at the forest road junction. To the left is natural forest, to the right, pine plantation.
Watch for where the trail veers off the road to the left and heads into the forest around mile 4.0. Follow the path into the pines; a cypress-lined creek is off in the distance to your left. The trail drops down through a cool spot in a bayhead swamp at 4.5 miles and enters a serious stand of saw palmetto under the tall pines. Be alert to mud holes in the road crossing.
After 4.6 miles, the footpath vanishes beneath immense ferns growing out of tall hummocks, and you must rely entirely on the blazes to guide you. Spot the next one before walking in any direction, or you may end up walking in circles amid the giant ferns. Some of the low spots between the hummocks have mud holes or deep pine duff that it is easy to sink a shoe into.
Once you are through the fern forest, the trail reaches the edge of the denser pine forest and follows it. Terrestrial orchids rise from the perpetually damp ground. The trail leads between more giant ferns under the tall pines and past ancient saw palmetto lifting their trunks well off the ground. The low spots between the ferns get wetter and more difficult to traverse. You can hear road noise in the distance. The trail reaches a long boardwalk over a perpetually damp sphagnum moss bog at 5.4 miles. A short stretch of footpath leads to a final boardwalk over a roadside marsh, depositing you at the NE 145th Ave trail crossing after 5.6 rugged miles.
Connecting to the Cross Florida Greenway
If you plan to continue to the Cross Florida Greenway, you must roadwalk from here to the Marshall Swamp Trailhead west of the Ocklawaha River if the terrain thus far has been at all wet. Do not attempt to enter the Hulls Creek Swamp if it is wet. I and a handful of other hikers can attest to how dangerous it is: if it is at all wet, there is a stretch of hip-deep mud that you cannot pull yourself out of if you sink in it and are alone.
Turn left and walk along NE 145th Avenue. After 0.6 mile, you pass a laundromat for a mobile home community. Continue to NE 14th St Rd, reaching it at 1.6 miles. Turn right and pass an elementary school. Come to a stop sign at 2 miles, across from the Ocklawaha Bridge Baptist Church on SR 40. Turn right and walk west along SR 40. You reach the next trail crossing at 4.4 miles. Follow the trail south from the south side of SR 40. After 2.2 miles of pine forest, it emerges onto Sharpes Ferry Road and follows the berm to cross the Ocklawaha River on the highway bridge. It returns to the woods at the Marshall Swamp Trailhead, a total of 8.7 miles of roadwalk from the NE 145th Ave trail crossing.