Leading through one of the finest examples in Florida of how a forest reclaims a landscape altered by human activity, the Florida Trail between the Pruitt and Ross Prairie trailheads of the Cross Florida Greenway showcases some of the best terrain and trees that this narrow recreational corridor has to offer.
You’ll discover layers of history – from the 1930s Ship Canal to 1990s ranching – along with the challenging terrain created by a massive earthmoving project now covered in a dense forest.
Full details on this hike, including a trail map, are in our guidebook Five Star Trails Gainesville & Ocala.
Disclosure: As authors and affiliates, we receive earnings when you buy these through our links. This helps us provide public information on this website.
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.
Length: 7.5 miles linear
Trailhead: 29.044856, -82.377631
Restroom: at both trailheads
Land manager: Cross Florida Greenway
Backpackers: you’ll find no reliable surface water along this section. Bring what you need. The only designated campsite in this section is north of SR 200. Call ahead for a free permit.
Ross Prairie trailhead has a developed campground mainly catering to equestrians. Showers cost $7 if you are not camping.
Ross Prairie Trailhead: From Interstate 75 Belleview/Dunnellon Exit 324, head west on CR 484 for 9 miles. Turn left onto SR 200. Drive 1.6 miles south, crossing Ross Prairie before turning in at the trailhead. Follow the entrance road back to the parking area closest to the restrooms.
Pruitt Trailhead: Follow the above directions to the intersection of SR 200 and CR 484. Head west on CR 484 for 5.4 miles to the trailhead entrance on the left, just past the Dunnellon Airport. Turn left and follow the access road 0.2 mile back to the parking area. The trailhead is on the opposite side of the access road from the parking area.
Starting from the Pruitt trailhead, the Florida Trail shares an access road for the first mile with the equestrian trail system. Blazes are infrequent. The road winds between grasslands and open fields smothered in blackberry vines.
At 0.6 mile, you reach the corner of a fence. It is here at a Florida Trail sign that the footpath begins in earnest. Near the first cluster of ancient live oaks, you’ll find a trail register. Sign in.
A side trail leads to see Stonehenge, a circle of limestone boulders that form the Pruitt Memorial. The Pruitt family sold a portion of their land to the Cross Florida Greenway. The standing stones memorialize their son’s life.
The trail emerges out of the oak hammock and into the former pastures of the Pruitt Ranch. Punctuated by oak hammocks, these open grassy areas have many blackberry bushes. By 1.2 miles, you reach some of the more massive oaks.
A few minutes later, the trail heads up its first switchback to climb atop the dirt piles left behind during the digging of the canal. Now covered in a forest more than 75 years old, these piles are why this hike is sometimes surprisingly rugged.
Workers dug broad and shallow in the 1930s for the Ship Canal, and tall and deep through the 1960s for the Barge Canal. That’s why the trail goes up and down two tiers of elevation above the forest.
As you walk along this tall man-made ridge, you can look down on the left into the forest, but the view of the old canal bed on the right is obscured by the density of the trees. The narrow ridge is like a long green tunnel at times.
Leaving the ridge, the trail makes a steep descent into the forest. Crossing the equestrian trail, you pass a bench at 2 miles and head into a meadow of planted longleaf pines almost 20 years old.
Wandering back into dense forest again, the trail reaches an open spot covered in deer moss. A lone Florida rosemary bush stands out in a transition zone between sandhills and scrub forest.
Passing an old cattle pen, the trail makes an assault on the next ridge, powering up the steep hill. Limestone juts out of the footpath. Channels carved by rain create miniature canyons where fungi cling to perilously vertical surfaces.
The ravines are deeply cut, with steep drop-offs everywhere. Descend off this second levee under the cover of sand live oaks, crossing a limerock road at 3.1 miles to enter a mature sandhill forest with ancient sand live oaks.
After another horse trail, the trail ascends to a tall terrace. With a footpath carpeted in pine needles, it’s a pleasant walk. A steep, eroded downhill leads to the lower terrace, bringing the trail out to a view of the linear lakes created in the 1930s.
Depending on recent rainfall, the vegetation-filled ditch may be full of water, or there may be a pond in a depression in the distance. Huge chunks of limestone, which were hand-dug out of the canal bed, are strewn about.
Scrambling up to the top of the levee again, it’s an even more narrow corridor on top. Rising from ancient piles of earth, the rocks look like ogre’s teeth jutting out of the steep embankment. At 4.4 miles, the trail drops down its last switchback for this section.
Ascending out of the laurel oaks and into the sandhills, the trail leads beneath turkey oaks and longleaf pine. It provides a softly woven carpet of pine needles to walk on.
At 5.2 miles, the west junction of the Ross Prairie Loop is clearly signposted. If you use this junction to reach the Ross Prairie trailhead, your hike ends along the blue blazes after 6 miles.
Alternatively, you can turn around here for a 10.4-mile round-trip from the Pruitt trailhead.
Otherwise, continue ahead along the orange blazes after signing the trail register. Beyond a vibrant longleaf pine forest with a hazy wiregrass floor, climb up a final set of canal diggings.
Rising in a long hump off the forest floor, it lifts the trail into the tree canopy while providing an occasional panorama of the prairie that has formed in the old canal bed. It drops down into a laurel oak forest at its north end.
Entering a lush stand of sand live oaks, you catch glimpses of Ross Prairie for the first time. It is a massive grassland with an outer ribbon of a sandy shoreline. Just after you walk under Oaky Doky – a massive old oak with a geocache – the trail briefly crosses a prairie arm.
Soon after, the trail emerges through a fence onto the grassy berm along the west side of SR 200. Cross the highway, being cautious of high-speed traffic. Enter the gap in the fence on the other side.
Continuing along the orange blazes, pass a picnic bench that adjoins the current end of the paved bike path that stretches west from Santos. The trail slips into the woods, paralleling the bike path briefly before pulling away from it.
Less that a half mile after crossing SR 200, watch for a blue blaze to the left. It leads up a short hill to the Ross Prairie campsite, the only backpacker’s campsite along this section.
Almost immediately after that side trail, you reach the prominently signposted intersection with the Ross Prairie Loop at 6.6 miles. If you are parked at Ross Prairie trailhead, this is your last opportunity to get to it.
Turn left and follow the blue blazes across the arms of Ross Prairie and through patches of dense oak hammocks. It has many blind curves, so be cautious of fast-moving off-road cyclists who have been permitted to use this hiking trail. Ending at Ross Prairie, you complete a 7.5 mile hike.
Otherwise, continue northbound from the Ross Prairie east junction into the next segment.
NORTHBOUND: Ross Prairie to SW 49th Ave
SOUTHBOUND: CR 484 Roadwalk. Exit the entrance road to the Ross Prairie trailhead and follow the shoulder of CR 484 westbound towards Dunnellon for 3.4 miles. Utility poles are blazed. Past the traffic light at SW 180th Ave Rd across from the entrance to Cannon Farms, watch for a gap in the fence on the left. Enter a forest of planted pines. Follow blazing through three right angles for 1.5 miles before emerging at the Bridges Rd trailhead of the Dunnellon Trail.
See our photos of the Florida Trail, Pruitt to Ross Prairie
Cross Florida Greenway History
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
3.5 miles. Circling the largest prairie ecosystem on the Cross Florida Greenway, the Ross Prairie Loop showcases massive oaks and panoramic views
6.5 miles. With hilly terrain to traverse past fern-covered boulders and large sinkholes beneath the pines, this is a rugged and interesting segment of the Florida Trail on the Cross Florida Greenway.
A 2.4 mile loop showing off the habitat diversity of Ross Prairie State Forest, this easy hike provides scenic panoramas across the prairie on a mostly shaded trail.
Official Map (PDF) Camping Reservations Official Website