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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Guthook Guides GPS-driven map-based guide to the Florida National Scenic Trail with thousands of waypoints from The Florida Trail Guide. Works offline. For iPhone and Android.
A bear bag or bear canister is required for backpackers in the Ocala National Forest. The Florida Trail Association has partnered with the US Forest Service and Buck N’ Bass Sports Center in Salt Springs to offer free loaner bear canisters: a 10 liter Backerpackers Cache 812 model. Deposit required. Call ahead to reserve at 352-685-0200.
Random camping is permitted along the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest except during deer hunting season in the fall. Unlike the Apalachicola National Forest, no designated campsites exist for backpackers use.
During deer hunting season, you ARE permitted to random camp anywhere within Juniper Prairie Wilderness except Hidden Pond. There have been many bear incidents centered around Hidden Pond, so it is now closed to camping for natural 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.
Bears are frequently seen along this portion of the trail. Keep a safe distance away if you spot one. Deer and wild turkey are also common, as well as sandhill cranes in the open prairies. We’ve seen otters in prairie ponds.
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.
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.
PARKING & SHUTTLE
Vandalism has been reported at trailheads to vehicles left overnight.
It’s generally smart to leave a car behind the gates of a recreation area or campground than at a roadside crossing or trailhead. Recreation areas do charge a fee for leaving cars overnight. Call ahead to confirm costs.
If you need assistance with a shuttle, join the Florida Trail Hikers Facebook group and ask for assistance. There are a number of volunteers in the area who can help. Be sure to compensate them for their gas and time.
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.
This is 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.
Important landmarks starting with mile 0 at Clearwater Lake trailhead and ending at mile 72.2 at St. Johns South adjoining Buckman Lock. $$ – fee charged for parking. ** – designated camping during hunting season (fee charged)
0.0 – Clearwater Lake trailhead (Clearwater Lake 0.2E **)
10.1 – Alexander Springs Recreation Area** 0.5W ($$)
13.6 – SR 19 trailhead
18.2 – Farles Prairie trailhead ($$)
27.9 – Juniper Springs Recreation Area** 0.5E ($$)
36.7 – Pat’s Island trailhead
38.5 – Hopkins Prairie trailhead (Campground 0.1W **)
45.2 – Salt Springs trailhead 2.9E
52.7 – 88 Store
53.2 – CR 316 parking
59.1 – Lake Delancy West trailhead (Campground**) 0.2E ($$)
65.9 – Rodman trailhead
66.6 – Rodman Recreation Area
67.7 – Rodman Campground ** 0.2W ($$)
72.1 – St. Johns South **
Each of these segments are aligned south to north along the trail route through the Ocala section.