Long referred to as the “jewel of the Florida Trail,” Juniper Prairie Wilderness in the Ocala National Forest is a complex mosaic of ancient scrub forests, pine islands, and broad, open prairies where wildlife thrives. The heart of the world’s largest sand pine scrub is also one of the state’s most flammable habitats. Hidden Pond is a favorite getaway for backpackers to the Ocala National Forest, and should not be missed, although – like this section of trail – it tends to be busy on weekends. Come out on a weekday and have the forest to yourself.
Location: Ocala National Forest
Length: 10.5 miles
Lat-Long: 29.276587, -81.687867 (Hopkins), 29.180100, -81.712900 (Juniper)
Fees / Permits: parking fee at Juniper Springs
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: At Juniper Springs
Potable water is available at Juniper Springs. The trail crosses two small creeks that feed Juniper Run, and passes many prairie ponds where you can easily filter water. During hunting season, camping is permitted only at the Juniper Springs Campground (fee), Hopkins Prairie Campground (fee), and Hidden Pond.
Hopkins Prairie Trailhead: From the intersection of SR 19 and SR 40 in the Ocala National Forest, head north along SR 19 for 9.2 miles, passing the entrances to Silver Glen Springs and the Yearling Trail as well as the sign for Pat’s Island. Make a sharp left onto a forest road where you see the Hopkins Prairie sign. Turn left and follow this dirt road for about 2 miles. Turn right at the next Hopkins Prairie sign and continue a half mile to the parking area; you’ll cross the trail en route.
Juniper Springs Recreation Area: Follow SR 40 east from Silver Springs for 22 miles into the Ocala National Forest to the Juniper Springs Recreation Area entrance on the left. A trailhead with free parking is slated to be built at the entrance to Juniper Springs, but for now, it’s still necessary to pay the entrance fee ($5 per person), drive into the recreation area, and walk back out the entrance road to the trail crossing.
Your hike starts at the trail crossing along the entrance road to Hopkins Prairie, within sight of the parking area. Turn right to head south into a shady oak hammock which overlooks Hopkins Prairie, a massive wet prairie basin in the Big Scrub. After a quarter mile, the trail pulls away from its dance with the prairie rim, the footpath deeply shaded by the gnarled limbs of sand live oaks.
A seasonal pond offers a glimmer of shallow water in the distance on the prairie. The trail is lined by blueberry bushes, laden with fruit in early summer, with a thicket of saw palmetto behind it. Views of the prairie continue for some time as you hike through the oak hammock. Keep left at the fork, looking for the next blaze. After half a mile, there is a side trail to the left to a very large, deep sinkhole filled with water, a permanent water source that can be reached by a series of steps on the far side. The trail works its way around the sinkhole rim with some nice views, and pops out at a sign along FR 50 (old FR 86.) The blue blazes at the forest road delineate an alternate route north around Hopkins Prairie in case of high water, but it’s a long roadwalk.
After crossing FR 50, the trail makes a quick jog around a small yet deep sinkhole hidden in the scrub forest and then pops out on a bluff above a vast area of young scrub filling in an area of sand pines that were logged. Eastern towhees “tweep” in the underbrush, and the scrub is a good height for scrub-jays. It’s a long walk across this open area before you enter a tunnel of hanging gardens, where lichens and ferns drape from the limbs of a corridor of healthy sand live oaks. A mile into the hike, you’re in a more mature forest of tall sand pines. This stretch of scrub seems to go on and on, and then you reach the kiosk for the Pat’s Island trailhead after 1.5 miles. A short blue blaze leads to the trailhead.
Immediately south of FR 46 (old FR 10) you enter the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, marked by a large sign. Its significance as a designated wilderness area is that it is roadless – you won’t see another road crossing, not even a jeep track – and no motorized vehicles or tools are permitted here, nor are fires fought here. Pat’s Island, like Kerr Island, is high ground topped with longleaf pines, an island in the scrub. A previous fire cleared the dense understory, leaving a lot of green stubbles of saw palmetto regenerating from the blackened earth. At 1.7 miles, you meet up with the Yearling Trail coming in from the left. This is the outer edge of the 5-mile loop for the Yearling Trail, which comes in from a trailhead on US 19 to explore the historic community at Pat’s Island. Many years of major fires have left the trail surrounded by the blackened branches of dead trees. The two trails part ways at a well-marked trail junction at 2.3 miles, with the Florida Trail continuing straight ahead down the hill.
Leaving Pat’s Island, you re-enter the heart of the Big Scrub, here shaped by the drama of fire. Tall spires of charred sand pines and crisply fried and ghostly stands of sand live oak rise above the bright white sand, where young scrub plants – especially prairie grasses, saw palmetto, and oak saplings – are re-establishing themselves. The young sand pines are fluffy and saggy like little “Charlie Brown Christmas” trees. No logging occurs in the wilderness, so the barren landscapes – lush green plants only a few feet high with nothing above them – are due to the fires. Climbs up and over the hills provide broad views.
The Juniper Prairie Wilderness is just that—a wilderness made up of grassy prairies within the swales of the bowls of the ancient dunes that made up the Big Scrub. Many of the prairies have tall grasses around their rim, and others have clumps of smooth cordgrass. You encounter a series of saucer-shaped prairies at 3.4 miles, and the trail dances between them. Some are centered around small ponds. It was at one of these perfectly round ponds we encountered an otter fishing for its breakfast, and stood, mesmerized, for nearly twenty minutes watching nature take its course. The trail loops around that particular pond and goes up and over a ridge overlooking a much broader prairie. For the next mile, the trail continues around arms of the great Juniper Prairie, winding along shorelines once defined by tall sand pines and oak hammocks. An encounter with a live oak hammock—that is to say, as opposed to a dead oak hammock—is an occasion to pause and enjoy the refreshing shade.
At 5 miles, the trail is atop a high ridge surrounded by scrub, and you can see for a mile or more in every direction. The trail drops down from here to Hidden Pond, one of the more revered spots along the Florida Trail. It’s a crystal-clear spring fed pond, unlike the prairie ponds you’ve passed. The trail comes down a hill to it, and a side trail leads to the right into the camping area, which is nicely canopied by an oak hammock. The camping area is on a slight ridge between the pond and a large prairie, ensuring a cool breeze most of the time. Scrub-jays and raccoons frequent this popular designated backcountry campsite.
Continuing onto the next scrub-topped ridge, you pass a sinkhole on the right. The vegetation still remains short and favored by scrub-jays. Within half a mile, you come off the rolling dunes and the trail levels out a bit. Descend through a low spot shaded by oaks and pines at 6 miles, rounding a little patch of prairie, where the dampness of the soil may have helped guard the vegetation from the last blaze. The trail rounds a pond dotted with lilies and heads into scrubby flatwoods and enters a hammock with a spot just large enough to pitch one tent. A half-hidden side trail leads off to the left, an unmarked way to get to Juniper Run. No need to head down it for water—you cross a Whiskey Creek a moment later. Off to your left, in the distance, you can see tall cypress trees and cabbage palms outlining the location of Juniper Run as you enter a grove of young sand pines.
At 6.9 miles, the trail emerges on the edge of a broad prairie with gorgeous views; it could be damp underfoot at times. The trail climbs up a rise through another stand of young sand pines, and drops down to parallel a large, open wet prairie. Looking out across the sparkling expanse to your right, you may see sandhill cranes browsing the edge, or a flock of blue-winged teals drifting across the placid pond. The trail continues past the prairie along a narrow corridor between the saw palmetto and rises up and over another hill through more young sand pines. Up ahead you can see a line of cabbage palms lending a clue as to the location of the next creek the trail crosses, Whispering Creek, at 7.4 miles. Rounding two more large prairies – the prairies now sport layers of grasses of different heights around their edges – and climbing up into a mixed forest of young oaks, holly, and young sand pines, the trail continues around a series of prairies of different shapes and sizes. By 8.2 miles, the trail passes a stand of cabbage palms and enters another oak hammock, with a spot nice enough to pitch a tent.
As the trail gets closer to Juniper Springs, it drops down into a scrubby flatwoods with longleaf pines above and a great deal of gallberry in the understory. The trail comes to the edge of another large and very scenic wet prairie before it starts to circle around the recreation area. You can see a line of cabbage palms and loblolly bay trees off to the left that mark the edges of spring-fed Juniper Run. Another ascent, and the trail rises back up onto the tall, ancient sand dunes into the high scrub, where the bleached stems of rusty lyonia look like driftwood. Reaching the wilderness area sign at the southern end of Juniper Prairie Wilderness, you’ve hiked 9.5 miles. The firebreak off to the left leads down to the canoe launch at Juniper Springs, about a half mile walk. Continue straight ahead atop the tall rolling dunes to complete this segment of trail, emerging at the Juniper Springs Recreation Area entrance road after 10.5 miles.