If there is one place that is the heart of the Florida Trail, it is the Ocala section, where the trail first began. In October 1966, Florida Trail Association founder Jim Kern and a handful of hikers with a dream painted the trail’s first blaze at the beginning of this segment at Clearwater Lake. It quickly grew to the state’s first 26-mile section for backpacking.
Now, with more than 72 miles of unbroken wilderness hiking through sandhills, prairies, pine flatwoods, and the beautiful Big Scrub, the Ocala section is a prime destination for backpackers who want to spend a week on the Florida Trail.
The footpath is well maintained and well worn, and signage at road crossings helps you figure out exactly where you are. Although there are a number of designated campsites, you may camp anywhere you wish, as long as it’s not deer hunting season.
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When other parts of the Florida Trail are under water, the Ocala is not. This is a high and dry section of trail, which also means that water sources are very limited in certain areas, particularly north of The 88 Store.
Wear a bright orange shirt or vest during hunting seasons in the Ocala National Forest. Check the FWC website for hunting season dates. During general gun (deer) season, backpackers must use designated campsites and recreation areas (fee camping). Random camping is permitted at all other times.
A bear bag or bear canister is required for backpackers in the Ocala National Forest. There have been many bear incidents centered around Hidden Pond, so it is now closed to camping and undergoing restoration.
This is an excellent section of the Florida Trail for hiking and backpacking with dogs. Dogs are not allowed in the recreation areas at the springs, but they are permitted to be in the campgrounds at those recreation areas.
Resupply for long distance hikers isn’t easy through this section, so be sure to stock up in Paisley if northbound, or in Palatka if southbound. The 88 Store has some basic munchies and ice cream, but not enough for a resupply, so the only viable resupply is at Salt Springs, 2.5 miles off the main trail via a blue blaze.
During the winter months, the “Rainbow People” migrate into the forest and set up primitive camps, often along the Florida Trail. These folks live a nomadic lifestyle much like followers of the Grateful Dead used to do. Use your smarts when you meet non-hikers; if the situation is uncomfortable, keep moving.
The muffled “thunder” you sometimes hear are when bombs are being dropped on the Pinecastle Bombing Range south of Juniper Springs, a tradition started with training for fighter pilots in World War II. Low-flying bombers may also startle you on weekdays near Farles Prairie and Juniper Springs.
It’s generally smart to leave a car behind the gates of a recreation area or campground than at a roadside crossing or trailhead. Vandalism has been reported at both the SR 19 and Clearwater Lake trailheads over the years. Recreation areas do charge a fee for leaving cars overnight. Call ahead to confirm costs.
Get acquainted with Big Scrub on this 8.4-mile stretch of the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest as it rises through longleaf pine forests to meet the world’s largest sand pine scrub, punctuated by a variety of ponds and prairies. Connecting a first-magnitude spring with one of the more beautiful lakes in the Ocala National Forest, it’s a delightful immersion into the woods.
Paralleling a segment of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, the Buckman Lock to Rodman Dam hike on of the Florida Trail sticks to a high berm for most of the 5.3 miles.
The oldest section of the Florida Trail runs 11 miles between between Clearwater Lake and Alexander Springs in the Ocala National Forest, showcasing longleaf pine forests and scrub
A six-mile-long prairie, a vast marshland in the middle of the dry Big Scrub, Hopkins Prairie is a beauty spot along which the Florida Trail lingers on this 9.5 mile section.
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
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 wildlife-rich mosaic of ancient scrub forests, pine islands, and broad open prairies.
72.2 miles. Of all of the sections of the Florida Trail statewide, the Ocala National Forest is both the oldest section of the trail and the most compelling for backpackers.
One of the most scenic segments of the Florida Trail, the hike from Pat’s Island to Hidden Pond immerses you in the Big Scrub en route to an oasis in Florida’s desert.
Providing a fine balance between the Big Scrub habitats and breathtaking old-growth longleaf pines, the Florida Trail from Rodman to Lake Delancy is simply superb.
Florida Trail Videos (Ocala)
How to order a copy of The Florida Trail: Florida’s National Scenic Trail, our limited edition full-color coffee table book that tells the comprehensive story of the first 50 years of routing, building, maintaining, and enjoying our statewide National Scenic Trail.