Of all of the sections of the Florida Trail statewide, the Ocala National Forest is both the oldest and most compelling to hike. It’s a spectacular immersion in the world’s largest sand pine scrub forest and the longleaf pine islands that dot the landscape, all on a well-worn footpath first laid down in the 1960s. There are first-magnitude springs to visit, vast prairies to walk around, and a healthy compliment of wildlife, including the state’s most concentrated populations of Florida scrub-jays and Florida black bears.
Backpacking the Ocala National Forest
Since we are asked a lot of questions about backpacking the Ocala, this page is to assist you in planning a section hike or backpacking trip along this 72-mile section of the Florida Trail. Each of the segments of the Florida Trail within the Ocala National Forest are described separately and linked to below.
This description covers a traditional Florida Trail section hike between Clearwater Lake and Buckman Lock. While the majority of backpackers head south to north – and that is how we present our mileages – we prefer hiking north to south. It gives more of a psychological “downhill” feel, with the highest rolling hills being at the north end of the forest and the prairies and marshes towards the south end. The trip can be done in 6 to 9 days depending on your pace.
While you’ll meet a lot of hikers on weekends, weekdays provide a quiet escape, except for the muffled “thunder” you sometimes hear when bombs are being dropped on the Pinecastle Bombing Range south of Juniper Springs, a tradition started with training for fighter pilots in World War II.
Mileages referenced below are from the Florida Trail App, February 2019.
The Big Scrub is Florida’s desert, so plan appropriately: sunscreen and a hat are a must. Shade is limited. The terrain is both hilly and sandy. You must plan out your water sources, as parts of the forest are extremely dry and have no surface water.
The heart of the world’s largest sand pine scrub is also one of the state’s most flammable habitats. Be aware of current fire conditions and avoid hiking here when it is tinder-dry, especially in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, as no firefighting happens within the wilderness boundary. Call the Lake George Ranger District at 352-625-2520 for current conditions.
A bear bag or canister is required. A bear canister is recommended. Do not leave your pack unattended in areas that show camping use, and even at established recreation areas where you’ve paid a fee for camping. There are a lot of bears in this forest, and they’ve learned to raid residential garbage and other easy food sources. Sloppy behavior by campers has compounded the problem. Raccoons will try to get into your food. They’ll steal off with your stuff if you leave food, pots, or other shiny or smelly objects where they can get to them. Be careful with food prep and use a bear canister. Seriously.
Alligator sightings are infrequent, but they can be present in any body of water. Pay attention when you come to the edge of a creek or pond to filter. It’s always smart to scoop water up in a bag and take it elsewhere to filter.
Because this segment of trail is mostly high and dry, it’s especially popular for backpackers who hike with their dogs. Dogs are NOT allowed at the springs, but they are allowed in the campgrounds at the recreation areas at each spring.
The Ocala National Forest is a major draw for deer hunters from around the state. General gun season varies each year but is typically between Thanksgiving and Christmas. During all hunting seasons, always wear bright orange clothing. Check the FWC website for hunting season dates. During general gun season you must camp in designated areas only.
Use your smarts when you meet non-hikers; if the situation is uncomfortable, keep moving. Cell phone service is very limited throughout the Forest. The trail mainly avoids residences and businesses but does cross roads. Vandalism is an issue at some trailheads when cars are left overnight, especially at Clearwater Lake. It’s best to leave your car behind a recreation area or campground gate.
The annual migration of “Rainbow People” who set up primitive camps in the forest is often a concern to hikers, but shouldn’t be. The Forest Service generally requires them to stay away from the Florida Trail. Our personal encounters with them have not been a problem.
The only serious resupply along the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest is at Salt Springs. A 2.9-mile blue blaze heads into the small town, and you must walk a mile farther to the small grocery store, where you’ll find everything you need. There are some beauty spots along the blue blazed connector trail that make for nice camping on your return trip. For simple snacks and a limited supply of camp food, stop in at either Alexander Springs or Juniper Springs Recreation Areas, both of which have concessionaires with camp stores. The 88 Store is primarily a bar but has some snack food, including ice cream, and plenty of cold drinks. An adjoining cafe has opened and closed over the years and might be in business when you arrive.
PARKING & SHUTTLE
If you are leaving your car for multiple days while backpacking, it’s best to leave it behind the gates of one of the recreation areas in the forest so as to minimize the chance of vandalism. The recreation areas do charge a parking fee, but it’s well worth the peace of mind. This service is available at Clearwater Lake, Alexander Springs, Juniper Springs, Salt Springs, and Rodman Campground.
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, as it’s 150 miles or more of driving back and forth to span the entire Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest.
Overview map of the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest.
All of the mileages below start with mile 0 at the Florida Trail state historic marker at the Clearwater Lake trailhead in Paisley and end at St. Johns South trailhead within sight of Buckman Lock.
During general gun (deer hunting) season in the fall, hikers are only permitted to camp in designated campsites, as well as dispersed camping in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness, where hunting is not permitted. Note that recreation area campsites must generally be reserved in advance through Reserve America.
0.0 – Clearwater Lake Recreation Area (fee)
10.1 – Alexander Springs Recreation Area (fee)
27.9 – Juniper Springs Recreation Area (fee)
38.5 – Hopkins Prairie Campground (fee)
45.2 – Salt Springs Recreation Area (2.9E blue blaze) (fee)
52.7 – The 88 Store (private, fee)
54.8 – Grassy Pond
59.1 – Lake Delancy West (fee)
67.7 – Rodman Campground (fee)
72.3 – St. Johns South Campground (fee)
Each of these segments are described from the perspective of a day hiker, noting landmarks, water, and campsites along the way. Not all are aligned in a S > N perspective, but this is the order they are in, starting with mile 0 (FT mile 409.9) at Clearwater Lake trailhead and ending at mile 72.3 (FT mile 482.2) at St. Johns South adjoining Buckman Lock.
- Florida Trail, Clearwater Lake to Alexander Springs- The oldest section of the Florida Trail runs 11 miles between between Clearwater Lake and Alexander Springs in the Ocala National Forest, showcasing longleaf pine forests and scrub
- Florida Trail, Alexander Springs to Farles Lake- Get acquainted with Big Scrub on this 8.4-mile stretch of the Florida Trail in the Ocala National Forest as it rises through longleaf pine forests to meet the world’s largest sand pine scrub, punctuated by a variety of ponds and prairies. Connecting a first-magnitude spring with one of the more beautiful lakes in the Ocala National Forest, it’s a delightful immersion into the woods.
- Florida Trail, Juniper Springs to Farles- Winding along and around a mosaic of both dry and wet prairies that make up the Farles Prairie complex, this 8.5 mile segment of the Florida Trail provides a deep immersion into the Big Scrub
- Florida Trail, Juniper Springs to Hopkins Prairie- 10.6 miles. One of the few designated wilderness areas that the Florida Trail traverses, the Juniper Prairie Wilderness in the Ocala National Forest is a wildlife-rich mosaic of ancient scrub forests, pine islands, and broad open prairies.
- Florida Trail, Salt Springs to The 88 Store- Amid a patchwork of scrub ridges and longleaf pine islands, the Florida Trail makes its way northwest of Salt Springs around the vastness of Lake Kerr on this 10.1 mile section
- Florida Trail, Delancy to The 88 Store- An immersion in both sandhills and scrub awaits on this 7.4 mile hike along the Florida Trail between Lake Delancy and Lake Kerr, an excellent section for fall wildflowers and wildlife watching
- Florida Trail, Rodman to Lake Delancy- Providing a fine balance between the Big Scrub habitats and breathtaking old-growth longleaf pines, the Florida Trail from Rodman to Lake Delancy is simply superb.
- Florida Trail, Buckman to Rodman Dam- Paralleling a segment of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, the Buckman Lock to Rodman Dam hike on of the Florida Trail sticks to a high berm for most of the 5.3 miles.