An immersion in both sandhills and scrub awaits on a walk along the Florida Trail between Lake Delancy and Lake Kerr. Amid the tall longleaf pines of Riverside Island and the diminutive oaks of the Big Scrub you’ll find a parade of wildlife. Florida black bear sightings are most common along this segment, and plenty of landscape lends itself to perfect habitat for the Florida scrub-jay. While most of the trail is high and dry, meaning few water sources, a stop at picturesque Grassy Pond is a must for backpackers.
Location: Salt Springs
Length: 7.4 miles
Lat-Long: 29.428644, -81.788477 to 29.359464, -81.820402
Fees / Permits: $6 per vehicle parking fee at Lake Delancy West
Difficulty: low to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At both ends of this hike
There is no surface water south of Grassy Pond. If you’re backpacking past the end point of this hike, plan to stop at The 88 Store for water, since it’s nearly 9 miles south to the next reliable water source.
South trailhead: From Interstate 75 in Ocala, drive west on SR 40 through Silver Springs and towards the Ocala National Forest. After you cross the oversized bridge over the Ocklawaha River, turn left at the traffic light at Nuby’s Corner. Drive north on CR 314 for 15.4 miles to the south edge of Salt Springs. Turn left on FR 11 (formerly 88) at the sign for The 88 Store. Continue 2.8 miles to the store on the left. Park over near the BBQ, out of the way. If someone is around, do ask permission about leaving your car, as this is private property; the owners have always been friendly to hikers, enough so there’s a Florida Trail trailhead sign on the bulletin board at the front door.
North trailhead: From the intersection of SR 19 and SR 316 in Salt Springs, drive north along SR 19 for 5.7 miles. There will be a large sign to indicate FR 75 as the road to Lake Delancy. It’s a dirt road and can be rugged at times. Continue 2.5 miles to the parking area on the left. There is a $6 per vehicle parking fee. Be sure to grab a tag and place it on your rear view mirror before you leave.
From the official trailhead parking area at Lake Delancy West, walk out to the forest road and turn left. Follow the road until you see the orange blazes on the left and turn left to follow the Florida Trail into the woods.
At 0.4 mile, the Florida Trail crosses the ATV trail through a gap in the fence and works its way around the ATV corrals before ascending into the expansive longleaf pine forest that makes up Riverside Island, one of the many named “islands” in the Ocala National Forest. You’ll find no water here, just high ground and an open understory great for wildlife watching. Ascending into a forest dotted with cabbage palms and saw palmetto after the first mile, you loop around the upper rim of a very large sinkhole. However, the trail continues to rise back up into the majestic forest of longleaf pines, which continues for some distance with a very open understory. Wildflowers like pawpaw and hairy wicky rise above the soft grasses. After 1.7 miles, the trail goes up and over a hilltop topped with a stand of spindly sand live oaks creating a middle canopy beneath the longleaf pines.
Just after crossing over a sand road at 2.1 miles, you’ll see a copse of oaks and a large sand live oak just beyond, with sand pines rising from the forest floor. The landscape transitions into open scrub with no shade, just diminutive oaks surrounding the footpath and the charred stubs of former sand pines. Crossing a forest road, the footpath slips back into a beauty spot of longleaf pines. After another ten minutes of walking, the trail drops down into a densely-packed scrub forest, following a very narrow corridor. You cross an ATV trail. Immediately past the crossing, the Florida Trail makes a sharp left, and another trail tries to mislead you into hiking straight ahead. Watch for the orange blazes!
After coming to a blue-blazed and signposted junction for the Grassy Pond campsite, follow the trail in a tunnel through the scrub downhill and you’ll emerge into an open field – the former Grassy Pond Recreation Area at 4.3 miles. Now closed to drive-in traffic, it’s a nice place to set up camp. If you continue farther downhill through the opening in the trees, you’ll see the expanse of Grassy Pond, a classic wetlands pond in the heart of the scrub. This is a reliable water source all times of year.
Returning back up the blue-blazed connector trail, you reach the orange blazes again. Turn right. You remain in a tight tunnel defined by scrub oaks as the trail works its way around Grassy Pond. At 5 miles, you’ll see the “Western Loop, 3.2 miles” sign, with an ATV trail crossing soon after. The trail loops around atop hills that offer the occasional peek across the scenic landscape. After it pulls away from the views around 5.3 miles, the trail continues down a very long green tunnel beneath sand pines and sand live oaks. Then suddenly, you pop out of the scrub at a road crossing of FR 11, the former FR 88 that leads all the way south to the fire tower on SR 40 and all the way north to Rodman Reservoir. This is bear country. Keep alert for bear tracks in the sand or bear activity in the thick scrub understory. I saw a very large Florida black bear right here when I was driving home this same day after completing this hike.
Once you’re across FR 11, it’s a plunge back into the scrub again. This is the BIG Scrub, after all. The world’s largest. Florida rosemary and large sand pines, the perfect size for Florida scrub-jays, edge this section of the trail. The trail starts to descend, flowing noticably downhill through the scrub forest off the high hills and back down into an island of longleaf pines. There are an excess number of trail markers, it seems – until you realize this section of the forest was probably clear-cut within the past five years, since the trees are so young. The trail is tightly bounded by the understory, making it easy to follow the footpath and providing a great highway for wildlife, especially bears.
The trail drops out of the scrub and into the pines just in time to to cross a paved road, CR 316, at 6.5 miles. Look both ways for high-speed traffic. On the other side of the road, you’re amid the longleaf pines of Kerr Island, where the wiregrass creates a fog-like haze across the forest floor beneath a very sparse understory of turkey oaks. There is still a feeling of walking downhill as the trail winds between stands of turkey oaks, which in winter are losing their colorful leaves, to descend into denser patches of longleaf pine forest.
**1/5/2014: The trail has been rerouted behind The 88 Store through this section. If you have an update, please share in the comments. **
After crossing a logging road, the trail turns left to parallel it. At 7.2 miles, in the midst of a beauty spot of extremely tall pines, you reach the blue-blazed trail to The 88 Store. A water symbol points the way to the only water source in this part of the woods down a 0.4-mile blue-blazed side trail. It’s here, as a section hiker, you leave the Florida Trail behind and start down those blue blazes. They lead you through a dense forest of planted pines and up and around a depression that looks like an old borrow pit. After you ascent the small summit, walk around the building. Reward yourself with a cold beer. Or a cold soft drink. And a trip to the restroom.
Backpackers, while the side trip might seem like more extra mileage than usual, this is your only water source for the next 9 miles or so. It’s a detour you really should take, not just for the liquid refreshments but for the local color and a trail journal on the counter of the bar, where you should leave your legacy for others to read. If you ask, the owners permit camping behind the bar and have a shower available for a fee.