When the Florida Trail was first blazed across the Ocala National Forest more than 50 years ago, this stretch of rolling hills and prairies through a designated wilderness area was considered its crown jewel.
The Juniper Prairie Wilderness has seen many changes since then. Repeated wildfires have changed the character of the landscape dramatically, with the crispy bones of ancient oak hammocks a counterpoint to the lush green scrub.
More than most, this section of the trail offers insight into the complex dance of wet and dry in the Big Scrub. While a desert-like habitat, these ancient sands that once were prehistoric islands soak up the rain.
Yet the prairies that formed in swales in the scrub collect rainfall and absorb it much more slowly, creating a constrast of white and blue across the landscape painted with streaks of charred trees.
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Location: Juniper Prairie Wilderness
Trailhead: 29.180100, -81.712900
Length: 10.6 miles linear
Fees: None to hike. $6 per person day use fee at Juniper Springs
Restrooms: At Juniper Springs Recreation Area. Vault toilet at Hopkins Prairie complex
Land manager: Ocala National Forest, Lake George Ranger District
If you choose to leave a car along SR 40 rather than pay the entrance fee and walk the extra distance in to reach the FT, do not leave it parked overnight on the road shoulder. Cars can be left at both Hopkins Prairie and Pat’s Island overnight.
Random camping is permitted at any time in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness. North of the wilderness area (past the Pat’s Island trailhead), wear bright orange if hiking during any hunting season. Check the link at the bottom of this page for hunt dates.
Bears are frequently seen in this area and have raided both food bags and tents. Protect your food. 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.
Although it has been a popular destination for decades, Hidden Pond has been loved to death and has been the central problem spot for bear activity, forcing annual trail closures for several years. We recommend you find a less-trafficked spot to camp.
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.
Hopkins Prairie Recreation Area: Leaving Juniper Springs, drive east towards Astor on SR 40. Turn left at the traffic light onto SR 19. Continue north for about 10 minutes, crossing Juniper Creek and passing Silver Glen Springs and the sign to Pat’s Island trailhead. Turn west at the sign for Hopkins Prairie. The forest roads are rough and rutted. Follow signs to the recreation area. The trailhead is at the trail crossing.
Ending at Pat’s Island trailhead as an alternative trims this hike to 8.8 miles.
Joining the trail where it crosses the entrance road at Juniper Springs, follow it into the ancient dunes that make up the heart of the Big Scrub. Past the prominent Juniper Prairie Wilderness sign, the trail enters a roadless area for the next eight miles.
This is not a flat landscape. These ancient dunes stood above primordial seas when the rest of the Florida peninsula was mostly under water. The trail rolls up and down them, sometimes in tunnels of scrub forest, sometimes past charred trunks of trees.
A line of cabbage palms to the east mark the edge of spring-fed Juniper Creek, which starts at Juniper Springs and is one of Florida’s most popular paddling runs.
Dropping down along the edge of a vast wet prairie, the trail then climbs through scrubby flatwoods and oak hammocks before crossing Whispering Creek at 3.1 miles. The trail continues up and down hills, drawing close to the edge of several prairie ponds.
By 4.2 miles, cross Whiskey Creek, a broader waterway. A side trail to the right leads to a level spot along the edge of Juniper Creek, where you can watch paddlers passing by while you filter water.
Rounding a pond dotted with water lilies, the trail climbs into the dunes, passing a sinkhole before climbing atop a high bridge. It then descends to Hidden Pond, a spring-fed body of water adjoining the trail at 6.6 miles.
Bears have caused many problems at Hidden Pond, as have human activities that have impacted the landscape. We suggest simply stopping here for water and the view, and moving on farther north to camp.
Following the edge of a variety of prairies – first to the west, then to the east – the trail provides sweeping panoramas across these breezy open spaces. Flat spots invite a tent. Circle a deep lily-dotted pond where we have seen otters fishing.
Climbing up a sand ridge past a large prickly pear cactus, the trail ascends to a junction on high ground: Pat’s Island. Where “islands” are referred to in the Big Scrub, they are pine flatwoods atop high ground surrounded by the scrub.
The Yearling Trail goes off to the right at this junction on its yellow-blazed loop. It’s a side trail that can be explored for its interesting history, particularly if you are cutting this trek short by ending at the Pat’s Island trailhead.
Past a clearing that is popular with tent campers, the second junction with the yellow blazes comes in from the Yearling Trail.
Right after that, the Florida Trail exits the Juniper Prairie Wilderness as it crosses a forest road and meets the kiosk at the Pat’s Island trailhead blue blaze at 8.8 miles.
If you are parked at Hopkins Prairie, continue north. Walking through a mature sand pine forest, you reach a tunnel of hanging gardens, where lichens and ferns drape from the limbs of a corridor of healthy sand live oaks.
The trail makes a quick jog around a small yet deep sinkhole hidden in the scrub forest before it crosses FR 50 at 10.1 miles. Just past this crossing on the right is Big Sink, a deep sinkhole that always has water in the bottom.
Along the final stretch of this hike, enjoy the views as you peer out from under a lush canopy of sand live oaks across the southern extent of Hopkins Prairie.
The trailhead is immediately north of the next forest road crossing, and the campground at Hopkins Prairie lies west along that road.
See our photos of Juniper Springs to Hopkins Prairie
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Connecting Silver Glen Springs with the river it feeds, the Lake George Trail provides an easy day hike to picturesque views of Lake George on the St. Johns River
A delight to visit, the Spring Boils Trail showcases bubbling springs both big and small, starting within sight of the main springs at Silver Glen Springs before it leads you to coves of tiny bubblers
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.