As a protected corridor south of Ocala, this section of the Florida Trail on the Cross Florida Greenway offers delights you just can’t imagine from the roads that bisect it—CR 484 and SW 49th Avenue.
It may look like your typical forest of scrubby-looking turkey oaks, but once you get inside it, what a surprise.
The digging that occurred in the 1930s to create the Cross Florida Barge Canal brought some mighty big rocks to the surface, big enough they rival glacial erratic boulders you’ll find in the North Woods.
Draped in ferns and mosses, shot through with solution holes and teetering along depressions and sinkholes, they’re both botanically and geological intriguing.
Rugged terrain adds to the fun of hiking through these shady forests with their hidden boulders.
Length: 6.5 miles linear
Trailhead: 29.038717, -82.295367
Fees / Permits: Free. Free permit required if backpacking.
Restroom: At both trailheads
Land Manager: Office of Greenways & Trails
Open 8 AM until sunset daily. Leashed pets welcome.
Camping is available in a developed campground at Ross Prairie trailhead as well as in the woods nearby. Check with the camp host for details. This section also passes an access point to the lesser-used and quieter Shangri-La Campground, which makes a good base camp for the area.
If you plan to backpack, you either need to be a member of the Florida Trail Association or call ahead at the number above to arrange a free permit.
The blue-blazed trail from the trailhead to the Florida Trail is also open to cyclists. Be cautious, since it is very narrow and they can come around curves quickly.
Since the road crossing of the Florida Trail along SR 200 is now posted No Parking, you can only be dropped off there for a linear hike. We’ve adjusted our hike description to start from the Ross Prairie Trailhead.
To drop a car at the end point: From Interstate 75 exit 324 (Belleview/Dunnellon), drive west on CR 484 for 2.3 miles. Turn right on Marion Oaks Course at the traffic light. Follow it 0.8 miles as it curves and becomes Marion Oaks Trail. Turn right onto SW 49th Ave and continue 0.4 mile to the trailhead on the right.
For the starting point: Return to CR 484 and continue west along it for 6.8 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.
From the Ross Prairie trailhead parking area, walk to the fenceline corner beyond the restrooms. That gap in the fence is where the blue-blazed connector trail around Ross Prairie starts.
Part of the Ross Prairie Loop, it winds through a nicely shaded oak forest, popping out into the sun twice to cross arms of the prairie.
After 1.1 miles, you reach a junction with the orange-blazed Florida Trail. Turn right. The next half mile is spent in the bottom of the old canal, with hills sweeping up on both sides.
At Spring Park, the equestrian campsite has a picnic table and a large clearing under the pines. The spring itself is in a deep sinkhole and has been dry for years. It’s still interesting to look down into it.
Backtrack to the orange blazes and keep heading compass east. As evidenced by the spring, limestone karst is close to the surface here. You walk by boulders half-hidden by pine duff.
The trail crosses a natural bridge across a line of sinkholes that likely delineate an underground stream. More massive boulders are strewn about, cloaked in mosses and ferns.
Climbing up and out of the diggings, the trail emerges under the shade of live oaks to meet an equestrian path. Off to your left you can see CR 484. Join the equestrian trail to get down the hill to the underpass.
On the opposite side of the highway, there is a confusion of trails. Look for the orange blazes and markers leading left off the paved path and into the open sandhills.
The limestone service road you cross at 3.3 miles leads 0.9 miles east to the Shangi-La Campground and trailhead.
Crossing the paved bike path, the trail climbs uphill onto another set of diggings. More boulders are scattered. The landscape drops off around a horseshoe curve on the right.
It’s hard to believe this sort of terrain exists in Ocala, but that’s the legacy of the Cross Florida Barge Canal project, a plan to cut Florida in two to speed up shipping between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.
Fortunately, the project was permanently stopped in 1969 and the land turned over to the State of Florida nearly two decades later.
It’s why we now have the Florida Trail and paralleling bike and equestrian trails stretching from Dunnellon to Ocala and beyond.
Rising up into sandhills and scrub, the trail crosses the paved bike path two more times amid open rolling hills with scattered hammocks of live oaks.
Meeting the bike path again as the trail clambers down to the underpass beneath SW 49th Ave, it diverges from it on the other side. Keep left.
When you see the sign that points out the blue blaze to the SW 49th Ave trailhead, turn here. Follow the blue blazes across the paved path and uphill through the sand pines to the trailhead to wrap up a 6.5-mile hike.
Our slides from hiking this segment of the Florida Trail
Other trails connecting to this segment of the Florida Trail
Scrambling up and over the historic diggings of the failed Cross Florida Barge Canal, the Florida Trail between Pruitt trailhead and Ross Prairie tunnels through dense hardwoods
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.
A 3.5-mile loop using blue-blazed connectors and the Florida Trail to circle Ross Prairie, the Ross Prairie Loop shows off the beauty of this prairie on the Cross Florida Greenway.