It’s not just the ancient live oaks, but the switchbacks and scrambles, the habitat diversity, the stories that the landscape tells—and “Stonehenge.” These are some of the reasons that the Pruitt section of the Florida Trail, the westernmost portion of the trail on the Cross Florida Greenway, is one of my favorite hikes in the region. Granted, I might be biased, since I maintained this section of the Florida Trail for quite a few years, but once you’ve hiked it, you’ll understand why it calls you back again and again. On this rugged 10.4 mile hike, you’ll see how native habitats swarmed back over a miles-long man-made gash in the earth and reclaimed the land.
Length: 10.4 miles
Lat-Long: 29.044856, -82.377631
Fees / Permits: free permit required for random primitive camping, no permit required for FTA members
Difficulty: moderate to difficult
Bug factor: moderate to high
Restroom: portable toilet at trailhead
Water is very limited along this section. If backpacking, plan to pack in what you need.
From I-75 exit 341, Belleview / Dunnellon, drive west on CR 484 for 14.5 miles, crossing SR 200 en route. The trailhead is prominently posted on the left hand side of the highway just past the Dunnellon Regional Airport.
Starting at the trail kiosk and Florida Trail sign, follow the limerock road – which is also the equestrian trail – into an open prairie. Blazes are infrequent. As the road curves to the left at 0.2 mile, look off to the right to where there is a sign in the distance. It marks a trailhead for adjacent Halpata Tastanaki Preserve, which serves as a stopover point for the juvenile whooping cranes of Operation Migration each season on their flight south. Although the this vast prairie is rarely wet, there are indicator plants – black needlerush, wax myrtle, Virginia willow – that say it could flood, and indeed, it has, which is why the Florida Trail now follows the road. When we originally built it, it was through the prairie, until a “hundred year” rainy season had it knee-deep in water in a long-forgotten pond.
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, turning left off the road to head for the cool shade of a live oak hammock. Reaching a large Florida Trail sign under the oaks, you’ll see a trail register just beyond. Take the side trail to the right to see “Stonehenge,” a circle of limestone boulders that form the Pruitt Memorial.
After signing the trail register, continue walking beneath the ancient oaks. You see a willow marsh to the left around 0.9 mile. The trail turns right and pops out into the sun to cross a scrubby spot en route to the next oak hammock, where resurrection fern grows not just on the limbs overhead but on the tree trunks and roots, too. The trail turns right, crossing another open prairie beneath the shade of a corridor of oaks. Birdsong fills the air.
By 1.2 miles, you reach a grove of particularly large live oaks. The first one on the left is so large it could take six people to reach around it. Many of the trees have limbs as thick as a normal tree trunk, which arch overhead to create a dense canopy. The next oak hammock, split by an old forest road that the trail draws parallel to, also has trees of spectacular size. Beyond it, the trail curves left to skirt an arm of the prairie, staying close to the oaks. As you cross a sand road, you see a kiosk off to the right for the equestrian trail system. Then it’s up, up, and up!
When the switchback levels out, the trail is now atop a levee created by dirt piled here during construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal in 1936. The forest floor undulates, in part from erosion, in part from hog damage. Beware of tripping on roots. The perspective here is almost like a canopy walk, as you can look out into the live oak canopy on both sides of the levee. Ferns, fungi, and orchids are at eye level. Although the forest on top of the levee can be no more than 75 years old, it’s amazing to see the size of the loblolly pines and cedars growing here. Looking down to the right, you can see the equestrian trail and an open prairie inside the bottom of the former canal route. The levee drops off precipitously on the left.
At 1.8 miles the trail turns left and goes down that steep slope, passing a lone cabbage palm before it makes a sharp right to go through a cluster of sand live oaks. You can look up to your right and see that the levee has narrowed to the point that the trail simply could not continue along it. The understory is crowded with young oaks, which yield to a grove of ancient live oaks draped in Spanish moss. Crossing the equestrian trail, you pass a bench at 2 miles and head into a meadow of planted longleaf pines about a decade old. Leavinge the pines at 2.2 miles, the trail leads you beneath another stretch of beautiful live oaks. Crossing a firebreak, you enter a laurel oak forest, the climax forest of the sandhill habitat, where the trees are about the same age as the canal diggings and at the end of their lifespan. The forest floor is littered with fallen logs covered in swarms of fungi. A patch of deer moss stands out beneath the scrub oaks.
Transitioning into an oak scrub with an open, park-like understory, the trail is surrounded by sand live oaks and lichens emerging from the white sand. As the footpath gains a little elevation, you rise up into the sandhills. Wiregrass covers the forest floor beneath the longleaf pines and turkey oaks. A big Florida rosemary shrub stands out alone in a patch of relict scrub. Crossing a firebreak at 2.6 miles, an old wooden cattle pen is visible to the right. In the intervening years between the end of canal building here (1936) and conversion of the land to recreational uses (1998), ranchers held cattle leases on this land.
The trail makes a full frontal assault on the next levee, powering up the small hill like the AT in Georgia. There are nice views down into the forest on both sides, and a lot of limestone boulders atop this hill. The natural-looking ravines are covered in leaves and duff. Between the cabbage palms sprouting from the levee and the limestone boulders, it looks like a tropical karst landscape from the Caribbean. The ravines are deeply cut, with steep drop offs everywhere. You descend off this second levee under the cover of sand live oaks, crossing a limerock road at 3.1 miles.
Passing another crazy huge live oak as you enter a rolling sandhill habitat, you see longleaf pines here in their various stages of life. Some look like the wiregrass that surrounds them, others are shaped like bottlebrushes or saguaro cactus. Above them all are towering giants dropping giant pinecones on the forest floor. This would be a nice area for a dry camp. Crossing an old trail, you walk through a thicket of shoulder-height oaks that crowd right up to the footpath.
On the far side of a two-track Jeep road, the trail ascends up a curving switchback. Limestone boulders, some painted with orange blazes, are scattered everywhere, poking out of the leaf litter beneath the oaks and pines, causing us to joke about naming this one “Rocky Top.” Reaching a bench at 3.8 miles, the trail turns right and drops steeply downhill to a lower terrace. It’s the finest place along the Cross Florida Greenway for a close-up look at what the canal was going to look like.
If you examine a topographical map of this area (including the map at the bottom of this page) you’ll see a series of disconnected rectangular lakes. This is the most prominent one. There is a “gator hole” pond in its bottom, down a beaten path – a tough to find but reliable water source. I’ve also seen this canal basin brimming with water after a hurricane’s worth of rain. Most of the time, all that grows in the basin is wax myrtle and Virginia willow, dog fennel and grasses. The footpath winds back and forth on the rim of the terrace, providing scenic views.
The trail veers left to ascend steeply to the top of the levee, only to descend again down the tallest switchback at 4.4 miles. Crossing a sand road, it passes through a laurel oak forest, with islands of scrub and sandhill. Crossing the road a second time, the trail ascends into the naturally rolling landscape of the sandhills, with its tall longleaf pines and turkey oaks resplendent in fall color. Just past a firebreak, the pine needles are especially thick underfoot, cradled in a natural bowl in the landscape. Climbing uphill from this bowl, you reach the turn-around point for this hike: the junction of the Florida Trail and the Ross Prairie Loop at a bench at 5.2 miles. There is a trail register here to sign.
It’s only 0.8 mile to the Ross Prairie trailhead via the Ross Prairie Loop, and 1.2 miles along the Florida Trail to SR 200. But on this out-and-back hike, this is your turn-around point. Take a break and hydrate. Return along the orange blazes to the Pruitt trailhead for a 10.4 mile round-trip, enjoying the peace and solitude of this unique section of trail.