For a real blast, hike south on the Florida Trail from Juniper Springs in the Ocala National Forest. Back in the 1940s, Jimmy Doolittle and his squadron trained here for their bombing runs on Japan; today, you’re still likely to see or hear low-flying bombers on their practice runs throughout the bombing range that this section of the Florida Trail skirts. Winding along and around a mosaic of both dry and wet prairies that make up the Farles Prairie complex, this 8.5 mile segment of the Florida Trail provides a deep immersion into the Big Scrub.
1/4/14: The Florida Trail has been MOVED from the west side of Farles Lake to the east side to be farther away from the bombing range. We’ll fill in those blanks on a visit soon. The red line on the map shows the new route.
Location: Ocala National Forest
Length: 8.5 miles
Lat-Long: 29.180100, -81.712900 (Juniper) to 29.103519, -81.674882 (Farles)
Fees / Permits: Parking fee inside Juniper Springs and at Farles Lake.
Circumvent at Juniper by roadside parking along SR 40 (well off road on grassy berm)
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: At the recreation areas at the ends of this hike
North End: 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.
South End:: From the intersection of SR 40 and SR 19, drive south 4.6 miles to where you see the sign for Farles Lake. Turn right on FR 535. 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. There is a camp host here, so parking is relatively secure. A day use fee applies.
Picking up where the Juniper Prairie Wilderness leaves off, the Florida Trail crosses the entrance road to Juniper Springs Recreation Area and continues due east through the scrub. This segment used to be a beautiful, shady tunnel under the sand live oaks, but the horrific firestorm of 2009 – which started with careless campers at Hidden Pond – wiped out the entire forest. Fortunately, sand pines prefer to sprout from charred landscapes, so the young growth is well underway, just not tall enough to produce any shade. You’re within earshot, and sometimes sight, of SR 40 for the first 1.5 miles as you head east. The trail emerges from the trees and crosses SR 40 at an obvious spot with signage on both sides of the highway. Take care when crossing SR 40, since traffic moves at very high speeds and doesn’t expect pedestrians in their path.
Entering the sand pine scrub on the south side of the highway, meander beneath the trees as the trail winds its way, crossing a forest road en route. You emerge in a shady oak hammock with a thick understory of saw palmetto just in time to traverse a long boardwalk fortified with hardware cloth (the better the prevent you slipping) over a segment of prairie that can be wet at times. The trail continues through a lush hammock of cabbage palms, soon rounding a tallgrass prairie marsh. By 2.1 miles, the trail leads you past a prairie pond – a potential water source – before passing through an archway of sand live oaks to enter a diminutive scrub forest. Crossing two jeep trails, you emerge from the scrub forest into a beautiful palm hammock edged by pine forest, with beautiful tent sites just waiting for you – non-designated, but most of the year you can camp wherever you like. The trail transitions into older scrub with tall slash pines and sand pines the upper canopy and twisty branches of rusty lyonia just overhead.
The sounds of sandhill cranes echo across the prairie. To the left, the cabbage palms are getting taller as the trail continues beneath a tightly-knit canopy of scrub forest with crooked branches above. Lichens cling to tree trunks and mosses wave in the breeze. By 3.4 miles, you’re firmly in the thick of an ancient scrub forest, with taller Florida rosemary beneath the myrtle oaks and turkey oaks. Thick carpets of deer moss cover the ground. After crossing a jeep road, the trail rises up and you start to lose the shade above. The landscape starts to become hilly. Entering another scrub forest with an extremely dense understory, you start to hear muffled “booms” in the distance from the bombing range around the 4 mile mark within the mature scrub forest, where the trail crosses another jeep track before twisting and winding through the very tangled understory.
In this section, you may hear Florida scrub-jays calling to each other, as the conditions for their habitat are just right: perfect sized trees, mossy understory, and enough open space to flutter through. The trail crosses a wide clay-colored road – probable access to the bombing range – at 5 miles. Losing elevation in the pine forest, the trail continues towards a large opening up ahead. It’s Farles Prairie, which the trail meets at a T with a sand road at 5.4 miles.
** TRAIL NOW FOLLOWS EAST SIDE OF THE PRAIRIE **