A study in contrasts between prairie and scrub, this segment of the Florida Trail has been moved more than once over its lifetime thanks to the close proximity of the Pinecastle Bombing Range in Ocala.
This military test site in the heart of the Ocala National Forest dates back to World War II. It was here Jimmy Doolittle and his squadron trained here for their bombing runs on Japan.
Today, you are still likely to see or hear low-flying bombers on their practice runs, although the Florida Trail has been moved another mile or two east of the range to the east side of Farles Prairie, a massive landform recognizable by air.
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Trailhead: 29.103519, -81.674882
Length: 9.7 miles linear
Fees: None to hike. $6 per person day use fee at Juniper Springs, $5 parking fee at Farles Prairie Recreation Area
Restrooms: At Juniper Springs Recreation Area. Vault toilet at Farles Lake parking
Land manager: Ocala National Forest, Seminole Ranger District
Cars may not be left at Farles Prairie Recreation Area overnight. While there is a pitcher pump and vault toilet on site as well as picnic tables, camping is no longer permitted here due to bear activity.
If you choose to leave a car along SR 40 rather than pay the entrance fee and walk the extra mile-plus to get to it at Juniper Springs, do not leave it parked overnight.
Random camping is permitted except during general gun (deer hunting) season. Wear bright orange if hiking during any hunting season. Check the link at the bottom of this page for hunt dates.
If camping, protecting your food from animals is necessary. Bears are frequently seen. The Ocala National Forest requires that you either bear bag or use a bear canister. Raccoons will also try to steal unprotected food and gear.
Juniper Springs: From Ocala or Daytona Beach, follow SR 40 to Juniper Springs Recreation Area. It has prominent signage and is located east of Mill Dam, west of Astor.
Farles Prairie Recreation Area: Leaving Juniper Springs, drive east towards Astor on SR 40. Turn right at the traffic light onto SR 19. Continue 4.6 miles south to FR 535. Turn west. The road jogs after a half mile and becomes FR 595C.
After another 0.9 mile, turn right on FR 595-2 and continue 0.9 mile. The road becomes FR 595. Drive another 1.2 miles – following signs all the while – to get to the parking area. Pay your day use fee at the iron ranger.
Starting from the waterfront recreation area at Farles Lake, walk down towards the water’s edge where the picnic tables are located. The view north across the shimmering waters usually rewards you with birds, usually sandhill cranes cruising low.
Look for an orange blaze on a pine tree near the water, and start following the footpath north. It crosses the boat ramp into the lake before curving along the eastern shore into the pine forest.
Each little jog in the trail reveals another view, as the lake recedes in the distance and you join the edge of the vast Farles Prairie. In wet seasons, the prairie can fill up and simply expand the lake.
In drier seasons, prairie grasses rim the edges of lily-dotted ponds in depressions in the vast expanse. While camping isn’t allowed at the recreation area, you’ll find many scenic spots to pitch a tent along high ground above the prairie.
The trail follows the prairie rim for several miles, providing panoramas across to the west. At 3.4 miles, cross FR 30-6.0, a gravel road. Vehicles can access it, so don’t camp near it.
The trail enters a tunnel of scrub forest north of the forest road, heading in a westerly direction to circle around the north edge of the prairie by avoiding the road.
At a spot where you can walk down to the prairie for one final view, the trail turns north and leaves it behind. It’s now time to traverse the Big Scrub.
Entering the world’s largest contiguous sand pine forest, the trail leads through stands of sand pine of different heights. Cross FR 30, a linear gash of a wide clay road through the forest, at 4.2 miles.
The landscape becomes hilly past this forest road, the undulating landscape topped with the tall, thin pines. When the wind rolls through them, they clatter like bamboo.
Keep alert for Florida scrub-jays around the edges of small prairies that the trail works its way around. They prefer the shorter scrub oaks at the prairie edges.
Beyond two old sand roads, you enter an ancient scrub forest, with taller Florida rosemary beneath the myrtle oaks and turkey oaks. Thick carpets of deer moss cover the ground.
Coming to a palm hammock north of another open prairie, the trail passes possible random campsites before rising up to higher ground to cross two more jeep trails.
At 7.5 miles, the tunnel of scrub yields to a large wetland to the north. The trail circles it through a bower of sand live oaks and cabbage palms before crossing a corner of it via a boardwalk. Sometimes there is water here, but you can’t count on it.
After another walk through tall sand pines with clearings beneath them suitable for tenting, you reach SR 40 at 8.3 miles. Cross this high-speed highway carefully as sight distance is limited for eastbound drivers.
North of the highway, the Florida Trail sign marks the entrance to another tunnel of scrub forest, followed by a sign that announces your arrival in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. The trail turns due west, paralleling SR 40 but out of sight of it.
This segment of the Florida Trail ends when you reach the entrance road to Juniper Springs Recreation Area. If your car is parked inside the gates, it’s another half-mile walk up the entrance road to the parking area by the springs.
See our photos of Farles Prairie to Juniper Springs
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
With a strong aquamarine hue accented by refracted rainbows as sunlight plays across the ripples on its sandy bottom, Silver Glen Springs is a first-magnitude spring in the Ocala National Forest.
Surrounding one of Florida’s most picturesque first magnitude springs, Alexander Springs is a prime destination for a summer swim or snorkel
5.3 miles. On Pat’s Island, discover the landscape and the history that inspired Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings to write her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling in 1938.