Along this woodland in Ocala, enjoy a swath of true urban wilderness, a mile-wide corridor edged on both sides by subdivisions and strip malls. Both remain gratefully out of sight and sound as you walk along the Florida Trail in the Baseline section of the Cross Florida Greenway. Now I’m not a fan of paved trails, but the value of providing a ribbon of asphalt through a forest is amazing when you’re in the thick of humanity like this. People actually use it, and lose their fear of the woods! Think of it as training wheels for new hikers who evolve from dog walkers and joggers. The paved portion of this trail is extraordinarily popular and busy with bicyclists, moms pushing strollers, and folks out for a run with Fido. The Florida Trail parallels it in places, joins it in some, and then dives into one of the most beautiful wilderness spots in Florida—Marshall Swamp, where cypresses, pines, and oaks grow oversized and shade is a constant (as is the buzz of mosquitoes, except in winter).
Location: Silver Springs Shores / Ocala / Silver Springs
Length: 5 miles
Lat-Long: 29.142205, -82.052940 (Baseline), 29.183583,-82.015967 (Marshall Swamp)
Fees / Permits: None unless you are camping, which requires a free permit
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
Restroom: Available at both the Santos and Baseline trailheads
If you are backpacking and plan to camp en route, please contact the Office of Greenways and Trails (352-236-7143) in advance for a free permit. Inform them of the general area in which you plan to camp (suggestions are made in the text). Florida Trail members do not need a permit to camp along the Cross Florida Greenway if carrying their Florida Trail membership card, but in this urban corridor, it’s safer if you check in and let them know your camping plans.
The Baseline Trailhead (southernmost point) is 5.7 miles north of Belleview via SR 35 just north of the intersection of SR 464 (Maricamp Road) and SR 35 (Baseline Road) in Silver Springs Shores, to the east of Ocala and south of Silver Springs.
The Marshall Swamp Trailhead (northernmost point) is along Sharpes Ferry Road just past the Office of Greenways & Trails office. From Interstate 75 in Ocala, take exit 352 and drive 8.4 miles east on SR 40 through Ocala to Silver Springs. Turn south on CR 35 (Baseline Rd) and drive 1.5 miles to CR 314 (Sharpes Ferry Rd). Turn left (east) and continue 2 miles to the trailhead entrance on the right.
The “FT” sign is prominently placed in the parking area at the Baseline Trailhead so hikers coming from across the highway can find their way. To start down this segment of the Florida Trail, walk past the restrooms and large playground complex to the very obvious Florida National Scenic Trail sign along the paved trail. Walk down the well-defined grassy path between the blackberry bushes for this first piece of trail, which sticks to the south boundary of the greenway. It crosses the paved trail after a few minutes.
Walking through a young longleaf pine forest, watch for blazes. The trail emerges into an area where wild cherry trees grow, and a sea of blackberry bushes stretches around you. Be here in May to sample their delights! Inside an older longleaf pine forest, there is shade and a haze of blackberry bushes and wiregrass beneath the pines. After a downhill, the footpath is well-worn through a second or third-growth forest with lots of young sand pines amid the creepy-in-winter turkey oaks and occasional longleaf pines in this raggedy sandhill habitat.
The footpath crosses the paved trail and dives down a steep embankment past a sign, “Ocala Frisbee Golf Course.” You’ll see at least one of the “holes” along the course as the trail curves left and uphill. The landscape undulates rather severely and then gently through a mature forest, leaving me to believe that this is another part of the 1930s diggings for the original ship canal across Florida, since it is obviously terraced, but not so deeply as later diggings. The trail ambles up and down the hills through sandhill habitat, dominated by turkey oaks with leaves that turn brilliant hues in late fall, and a smattering of scrub plants such as the sand pines. You’ve walked 2 miles. Off to the left, you can see the pavement of the bike trail; off to the right, the topography drops off severely.
The trail makes a steady descent to a double-blaze where an old farm fence and posts embedded with barbed wire draw your attention. You spy a blue blaze off to the right near the fenceline. It leads out to the 67th Ave Trailhead, the southern parking area for the Marshall Swamp segment of the Florida Trail. A few steps forward and at 2.4 miles, you reach a firebreak where a sign greets you at the entrance to Marshall Swamp. Your surroundings radically change as you continue hiking into this floodplain forest, which drains into the Silver River basin. You are immersed in deep shade as you enter a hammock where cabbage palms and oaks form a canopy. The trail makes a sharp left away from a fenceline (a shortcut out to 67th Ave, where you could park a car or three along the road for trail access) and heads down a short corridor of wizened oaks, a patch of scrub. A long walk down a tramway – likely used to remove cypresses a century or so ago – ushers you into the quiet and grandeur of Marshall Swamp, with tall cypresses reflected in the clear but tannic waters and swirls of red seeds flying off the red maple trees. The trail makes a sharp left past a picnic bench – a good rest stop at 2.7 miles – and heads into a jungle-like forest (described under Florida Trail, Marshall Swamp) where indeed, Tarzan once swung through these branches.
A series of three long bridges get you over the wettest parts of the swamp, but after a heavy rain or in times of high water, you can expect to squish through puddles that settle in the middle of the trail. No matter. You’re wrapped in a blanket of thick air, humidity settling to make the forest ablaze in colors lent by orange fingers of fungi peeping through the leaf cover, chartreuse patches of sphagnum moss enveloping palm trunks like fur, enormous white shelf fungi, and brilliant red splatters of red blanket lichen on the trees. Against a backdrop of a thousand shades of green, the colors of moss and fungi are unmistakable and draw your eye towards small nooks and crannies in rotting logs and cypress stumps of enormous girth.
Winding through the forest, you encounter a false trail off to the right around 4 miles, amid the tall pines; don’t follow it. Not long after, you’ll come to the actual side trail for the nature trail, marked by a sign and blazed blue. The nature trail loops around a portion of the swamp, and is not part of the Florida Trail. However, just after you pass the nature trail, a short boardwalk beckons you out onto an observation deck on a willow pond, where frogs serenade you with a swamp chorus if you stand still long enough.
The trail crosses another bridge, a long one with a picturesque view off to the right, before meeting up with the north end of the nature loop, indicated by the back end of a sign and a blue blaze in the distance to your right. All around you are tall pines, mainly loblolly, that reach like pillars to the sky. Through the understory to the left, you begin to see signs of civilization—the restrooms and parking lot of the Marshall Swamp Trailhead. It takes a few more minutes among the pines before you emerge at the large kiosk marking the north end of this Florida Trail section. You’ve hiked 5 miles.