10.6 miles.. One of the few designated wilderness areas that the Florida Trail traverses, the Juniper Prairie Wilderness in the Ocala National Forest is a mosaic of ancient scrub forests, pine islands, and broad open prairies where wildlife thrives.
When the Florida Trail was first blazed across the Ocala National Forest more than 50 years ago, this vast stretch of rolling hills and prairies was considered its crown jewel. The Big Scrub is the largest swath of contiguous sand pine scrub in the world, and the Juniper Prairie Wilderness – a designated roadless area – is at its heart. It is a complex dance of wet and dry, for the ancient sands of the scrub, once an island when Florida was otherwise under prehistoric seas, soak up the rains. 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.
The Big Scrub is Florida’s desert, so plan appropriately: sunscreen, a hat, and plenty of water are a must. Shade is limited. The terrain is both hilly and sandy.
Backpackers are required to bear bag or carry a bear canister. Bears are frequently seen in this area and we strongly recommend use of a bear canister. Use dispersed camping techniques and leave no trace.
During hunting seasons, always wear bright orange clothing. Check the FWC website for hunting season dates.
During general gun (deer hunting) season in the fall, hikers are only permitted to camp in designated campsites. In this segment, that means the Juniper Springs campground and the Hopkins Prairie campground, where fees apply. Dispersed camping is also permitted within Juniper Prairie Wilderness during hunting season, except at Hidden Pond, which is now closed for restoration. Although the Juniper Prairie Wilderness is technically off limits to hunting, in reality hikers have encountered hunters here.
The heart of the world’s largest sand pine scrub is also one of the state’s most flammable habitats. Be aware of current fire conditions and avoid hiking here when it is tinder-dry, as no firefighting happens within the wilderness boundary. Call the Lake George Ranger District at 352-625-2520 for current conditions.
A pleasant alternative to hiking the entire wilderness is to sample it with a 6.8-mile hike out-and-back to Hidden Pond, the only spring-fed water source in this desert-like wilderness. You can also shorten the hike by using the Pat’s Island trailhead as your ending point, for a 8.8-mile hike.
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. An entrance fee applies for parking. Drive into the recreation area and walk back out the entrance road to the trail crossing.
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.
Pat’s Island Trailhead (intermediate stop): A prominent sign along SR 19 north of Silver Glen Springs points you west down a graded forest road. Follow the road to a parking corral on the right, about 2 miles in.
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. Reaching the Juniper Prairie Wilderness sign, you enter a rare roadless area within the Ocala National Forest. You can see a line of cabbage palms and loblolly bay trees off to the east that mark the edges of spring-fed Juniper Run. Dropping down along a scenic wet prairie, the trail crosses an extent of scrubby flatwoods before reaching a small oak hammock where you could pitch a tent.
Tracing the western shore of two more large wet prairies, the trail comes to Whispering Creek, usually a decent water source if it’s flowing, draining the prairies to Juniper Creek. Climbing up and over hills topped in young sand pine, you enjoy more prairie views, occasionally coming right to the edge of them. When they’re full, they sometimes spill out across the footpath.
Just beyond Whiskey Creek after 4.2 miles, a half-hidden path branching off to the right leads over to Juniper Creek for views of paddlers passing by. North of Whiskey Creek is another small oak hammock that makes a nice campsite.
Rounding a pond dotted with water lilies, the trail circles another prairie and enters rolling dunes again, where a sinkhole sits off to the left. From this high ridge, you have nice views of the scrub. Descending past Hidden Pond, a crystal-clear spring-fed pond that does not dry up when all the others do, keep alert for the family of Florida scrub-jays that lives along the pond’s edge. Climbing another high ridge, you enjoy views in all directions.
Working its way along a long, linear prairie that sits to the east, the trail is open and breezy, except where the scrub vegetation has formed a tunnel. You circle a deep lily-dotted pond where we watched otters fishing. Past it, the trail climbs up and over another ridge and through another valley before reaching the junction with the Yearling Trail at Pat’s Island.
This side trail showcases a former settlement on a longleaf pine island in the scrub. Beyond a flat spot under the pines that serves as a large camping area, the trail passes the second junction with the Yearling Trail before exiting the Juniper Prairie Wilderness as it crosses FR 46. A side trail after the crossing leads to the Pat’s Island trailhead.
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. Just past this crossing on the right is Big Sink, a deep sinkhole that always has water in the bottom. While it isn’t easy to access, it’s there if you really need it. Visitors in vehicles often camp in this area.
Along the final half mile 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, one of the largest prairie systems in the Ocala National Forest. The trailhead is immediately north of the forest road crossing, and the campground at Hopkins Prairie (with vault toilet and crank pump well for water) is just up the road to the left of the trailhead parking area.