One of the most popular hikes on the Florida Trail is also one of the most interesting. Hidden Pond is an oasis in the middle of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, a designated wilderness area in the Ocala National Forest, and it lies nearly halfway between the two access points to the wilderness area – at Juniper Springs and at Pat’s Island. Pat’s Island, in turn, has its own fascinating history to explore along the Yearling Trail, which this route also follows in part on the return trip.
Location: Ocala National Forest
Length: 8.4 miles
Type: round-trip and loop
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: moderate to difficult (hilly, lack of shade)
Bug factor: moderate
Wear orange clothes or an orange vest during deer hunting season (Nov-Dec). Bring plenty of water (or a water filter to use at Hidden Pond) as this is a desert-like environment.
This hike is a popular portion of the linear Florida Trail segment between Hopkins Prairie and Juniper Springs.
From the intersection of SR 40 and SR 19 in the Ocala National Forest (34 miles west of Interstate 95 and 37 miles east of Interstate 75), drive north 6.2 miles, passing the Juniper Wayside and then a few miles later, the entrances to Silver Glen Springs and the Yearling Trail. You’ll see a “Pat’s Island Trailhead” sign directing you to the left onto FR 46. Follow this single-lane forest road – it’s a little rugged, but passable by passenger vehicles – for 2 miles. A sign directs you into the trailhead on the right.
From the trailhead parking area, follow the narrow pathway west to where it emerges at some posts along the road. The connector trail turns right, but you can turn left and cross FR 46 to walk up to the Florida Trail crossing. Just beyond the road is a large “Juniper Prairie Wilderness” sign. Heading south past it, you see tall longleaf pines in the distance. These signal the edge of Pat’s Island, an island of longleaf pine and sandhill habitat, amid the surrounding sea of the Big Scrub, the world’s largest sand pine scrub forest.
Passing a trail junction at a double-blazed post – part of the Yearling Trail, which you’ll explore on the return trip – continue straight ahead. The scrub has grown in tightly here, forming a tunnel. Expect to share the corridor with wildlife: a rabbit dashed ahead of us through this section. You’ll pass a open primitive camping area off to the left with no access to water. Camping is allowed all along the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest except during deer hunting season (Nov-Dec), when designated campsites such as Hidden Pond are your only options.
Sand pine scrub is a very flammable habitat; in fact, it requires fire to properly regenerate. The USDA Forest Service has a “no firefighting” policy in this wilderness area, which means when large fires sweep through, they tend to level everything. After a large fire swept through this part of the wilderness from an out-of-control prescribed burn in 2007, an even worse fire consumed large swaths of the wilderness in early 2009. That’s why you’ll see many standing dead pine trunks and oaks burnt to a crisp along this hike. Treat the ones near the trail as very real hazards, since they can and will fall across the footpath at some point.
Climbing uphill, where roots act as natural waterbars in the footpath, you see signs of life. Thankfully, nature heals quickly in this habitat, so the understory growth is extremely dense and many of the surviving sand live oaks are lush with leaves again. Coming back down the other side of the hill, you see tall, unscathed slash pines with open grassy spots beneath them. Startled, a herd of white-tailed deer take off over the next ridge. Atop the next hill, the trail levels out in a healthy pine forest where you may spot downy woodpeckers flitting between the trees, tapping and chirping. Given all the dead wood along this trail, expect to see several different species of woodpeckers during your hike.
Fallen logs make a nice rest stop before you ascend the next ridge. Each of these ridges is an ancient sand dune, one of the rare places in Florida that the sea didn’t cover, which is why the assemblage of plants in the Big Scrub includes many rare and unusual species. Reaching the oak-shaded top of this ridge, you find the second junction with the Yearling Trail at 0.8 mile. Continue straight ahead, following the orange blazes towards the ridges in the distance, for a descent into the first of the prairies of the Juniper Prairie Wilderness.
As you traverse the edge of the prairie, which has a small pond in its middle, you can hear a Florida scrub-jay: a sentinel, fussing in the trees on the far side to let the rest of its family know of your approach. The scrub forest along the next few miles of trail is the perfect height for Florida-scrub jay habitat. These jays are only found in Florida, and only in the scrub; the Ocala National Forest hosts the highest concentration of them. We heard and saw dozens during our hike.
Climbing up and over the next ancient dune, you descend into a cluster of young sand pines and walk around the western edge of a larger prairie. You can tell by the grasses growing along the prairie rim that sometimes these prairies are lakes, and sometimes they are dry. The trail turns right and climbs up and away from the prairie, over the next sand ridge. Along the edges of the trail, you see deer moss and British soldiers, two common lichens in the Big Scrub. An impenetrable mass of young oaks crowds the understory.
Some of the larger shrubs are small by Big Scrub standards, including rusty lyonia, with its crooked branches, and silk bay, with its aromatic leaves. Particularly showy in springtime, bigflower pawpaw has dozens of ivory-colored blooms draping from its branches. The palmettos you see through this part of the scrub aren’t the typical saw palmetto, but a species especially adapted to these drier conditions, the scrub palmetto. One of the rarer creatures of the scrub might be found inside them: the red widow spider, only found in this ribbon of scrub on the eastern side of Florida. Don’t look too close; like its black widow cousin, it is venomous.
Rounding a swale, the trail climbs up to high ground from which you can survey more distant ridges, and continues its journey towards that line of pines you see to the southeast. By 1.7 miles, you’re in a maturing sand pine forest. Clustered tightly together, the sand pines manage to drop enough needles to carpet the sandy footpath. Most of the hiking through the Big Scrub is through soft sand, very much like beach sand, and can become tiresome after many hours of walking. The optimal time to visit is after a soaking rain, since the sand remains firm until it fully dries out.
Going up and over the ridge in the middle of this re-establishing sand pine forest, you can see you’re drawing closer to the line of pines in the distance. Up ahead are two very tall sand pines that managed to survive the fires. They stand out in stark contrast to the flatter line of vegetation around them. Reaching an oak hammock that also survived the fires, you enjoy a moment of shade before the trail turns to the right to follow the rim of a very large prairie, which is outlined by clumps of sand cordgrass. Sandhill cranes browse through the prairie grasses. The trail climbs up to the right and then makes a sharp right into another small oak hammock above a pond in a sinkhole. The pond is dry today, but I’ve photographed otters here in the past. The footpath leads you in a semi-circle around the sink atop a bluff thick with saw palmetto. From this bluff, you can see another prairie in the distance.
Making a sharp right away from the sink, the trail descends towards the next prairie’s edge, where fire-scarred trunks are all that remain of the sand live oaks that used to provide shade along the prairie rim. At 2 miles, the trail passes a deep pond in the prairie that persists even when water levels are extremely low. It’s covered in water lilies. The trail continues uphill and turns left to curve around the pond and prairie on a bluff. You step over saw palmettos with long snaking trunks. Leaving the deep pond behind, the trail turns right and continue along a bluff on the rim of this large prairie system. You see another large pond off to the left. Despite their location in this desert-like habitat, these prairie ponds sometimes have alligators in residence. You’re more likely, however, to see a lot of deer tracks in the mud.
Beyond the large pond, the trail curves to the right past a swale in the landscape, a bowl of bright white sand, and climbs up the next ridge. At 2.3 miles, you finally reach that line of pines that you kept seeing in the distance since the second intersection with the Yearling Trail. Several trees have toppled across the footpath. The trail stays to the west of two prairies ringed by slash pines, which you’ll have better views of on the return trip. As the trail pulls away from these prairies, it climbs up and over the next ridge.
By 2.8 miles, you reach the edge of a dry prairie edged with slash pine. The former oak hammock is a bit too crispy to provide shade, although a few hardy trees are still sporting leaves – and a bumper crop of lichens and mosses on their crooked limbs. Ascending the next ridge, it’s a surprise and a delight to find older sand pines and tall, spindly rusty lyonia, an island of scrub that survived the fires. As the trail drops down to the prairie’s edge again, you can see well across the sometimes-dry wetland. The oaks on the prairie rim, live or not, arch their limbs towards the prairie. The trail continues downhill, facing a pond in the prairie, before it climbs up into an oak hammock, a beautiful patch of forest.
Emerging onto the shore of a broad prairie that stretches off to the right, the trail passes some large prickly pear cactus as it continues up into the diminutive scrub. As you climb up the sand ridge through fluffy young sand pines, you reach a high point with a sweeping vista of prairies off to the horizon. As the trail begins to descend you see a line of pines on a ridge beyond, and you’re finally descending to your destination, Hidden Pond, at 3.6 miles.
Spring-fed, Hidden Pond is tucked in a swale between the sand ridges, a basin of cool, clear water. One of the most popular destinations in Florida for an overnight backpacking trip – which means it’s very busy on weekends – it’s also one of the more picturesque spots along the Florida Trail. The orange blazes continue to the left and ascend the ridge past the pond, but this is your turn-around point. Step off the Florida Trail to walk around the pond clockwise; a footpath circles its rim. You’ll enjoy several different perspectives on the pond as the trail climbs up into the oak hammock and leads you around to the camping area, simply flat, cleared spots under the oaks. A prairie is on the other side of this ridge, and the gradient between pond and prairie means it’s always breezy here, like a natural swamp cooler. The logs make a nice place for a mid-hike break. While you’re snacking, listen for the chatter of scrub-jays, as a family lives in the oaks along the pond.
Leaving the camping area, complete your full circle around Hidden Pond until you’re back to the Florida Trail. Juniper Springs is to the south, and Pat’s Island is to the north. Turn left to start the hike back towards Pat’s Island. As you climb away from the pond, be sure you’re headed north. At the top of this first ridge, you can see several ridges in quick succession ahead of you, and two more in the far distance to your left. At 4.2 miles, the trail drops out of the scrub forest to face the prairie rim where sand pines and oaks are charred almost beyond recognition. Keep alert for where an old trail goes up to the right. Although it’s the broader path, it’s covered with logs to discourage your forward progress. The Florida Trail stays close to the prairie rim, an obvious footpath snaking between the dead trees.
With the prairie to your back, the trail turns right and heads up over the ridge to the next line of pines in the distance. Atop this ridge, look for scrub holly, a tiny version of holly found only in Florida’s scrub, with miniature leaves that mimic the larger American holly. Reaching the bottom of the ridge, the trail turns left and weaves through the scrub, paralleling the pine-rimmed prairies to your right. Working its way to the next ridge, the trail returns to the large prairie system with its deep pond. At 5.5 miles, it almost looks like the trail plunges straight ahead and down into the sinkhole; make sure you take the sharp left here to stay on the bluffs above it, through the saw palmetto.
Hiking north, you’ll notice several very large prickly pear cactus above the rim of the next prairie. The trail turns away from the prairie and heads uphill to start climbing up and over scrub ridges for a while before descending to the edge of a circular prairie. You see the line of pines up ahead deliniating the edge of Pat’s Island. Following the grassy edge of the next prairie, the trail begins a steep ascent up to the shady intersection with the Yearling Trail, reaching it at 6.5 miles. Going straight ahead saves almost a mile, but it’s worth the extra footsteps to learn a little about pioneer life in the Big Scrub. Turn right to continue.
Blazed with yellow blazes, the Yearling Trail leads you into the heart of Pat’s Island, a historic settlement in the Big Scrub. In the 1840s, Patrick Smith, for whom the island was named, ran the post office. A circuit preacher from Paisley would arrive once a month to preach at the Chapel Methodist Church. At least a dozen families settled here, including Reuben and Sara Jane Long, who arrived in the fall of 1876. It was truly’s Florida frontier, where growing sugar cane and corn, peas, beans, and watermelons, the Longs scraped out a life in a very harsh environment. When their young son Melvin found a fawn whose mother had been killed by a bear, they allowed him to raise it. After Reuben and Sara Jane were long gone, Melvin’s brother Calvin entertained Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings for a few days in 1938, and shared the family’s stories, inspiring The Yearling, her Pulitzer Prize winning novel.
You quickly arrive at a sign that says “8.” When this trail was established in the 1990s, a interpretive map keyed to the numbering system helped explain the significance of sites along the loop. Some of the original numbers and sites (like a large Florida dogwood, lost in a fire) are now gone. The new map does not reflect the markers still found along this loop. Marker 8 calls attention to a rainwater cistern, all that remains of the original Reuben Long homestead.
Unfortunately,a forest fire swept through this area, denuding most of the grand old oaks. The trail drops downhill off the ridge into a bowl of slash pines as it heads east, edged by the new young growth of the scrub attempting to retake this island of sandhills. This is a beauty spot for fall wildflowers, including deer’s-tongue and yellow buttons. Where saw palmetto and wiregrass form an understory beneath turkey oak and longleaf pine, you’re firmly on Pat’s Island. As you walk past a row of young longleaf pine, notice how the trail has widened to the width of a road. This is the Old Grahamville Road, a historic wagon road connecting the original settlements of the Big Scrub. The trail descends through a stand of sand live oaks before you encounter the first Florida rosemary of today’s hike, a robust and rounded shrub.
Descending downhill at 7.4 miles, you reach a trail junction. The broad old wagon trail continues straight ahead to other points of interest, including the site of Calvin Long’s homestead, which was used as a set in the movie version of The Yearling in 1946. Turn right at this junction to take a quick walk up to the Long family cemetery. It’s a quiet spot in the sandhills, still tended, with the tombstones of Reuben and Sara Jane showing their age. Return back to the trail junction and continue straight through it.
A nice broad path through a pretty pine forest, with needles strewn across its surface, the trail passes by large sand live oaks with gnarled branches and a pine with an obvious catface from turpentine tapping. At 7.7 miles, the trail enters a oak hammock and emerges along the rim of an enormous, deep sinkhole. This is where the families of Pat’s Island collected their water, collected in catch basins below sheets of limestone where tiny springs once dripped. To supplement this source, they used rainwater cisterns, and if the need arose, took a four-mile round-trip to for buckets of spring water at Silver Glen Springs.
This clearing along the sinkhole is also the intersection with Jody’s Trace, a trail that heads east to join the wagon trail and eventually reach the Yearling Trail trailhead along SR 19. To stay on the loop around Pat’s Island, continue past the sinkhole and stay left at the junction with Jody’s Trace. Passing Marker 5 – where Patrick Smith’s homestead was located – you reach Marker 6, which corresponds to another historic road, the Major Churchill Road. Keep to the right and follow the footpath, leaving the leafy shade of Pat’s Island for the scrub again.
As the trail works its way through the scrubby understory, it winds through a tunnel of scrub before passing through an open area with wiregrass beneath the oaks. Look for gopher tortoise burrows along this stretch. By 8.2 miles, you reach the trail junction with the Florida Trail. Turn right. After you pass the back side of the “Juniper Prairie Wilderness” sign, cross the forest road towards the short posts to the right. Turn right to follow the path back to the Pat’s Island trailhead, wrapping up the 8.4 mile hike.