As a protected corridor south of Ocala, this section of the Florida Trail is the westernmost segment on the Cross Florida Greenway, showing off the unusual terrain created during construction of the Cross Florida Ship Canal in the 1930s. It’s one of the few places in Central Florida you’ll find switchbacks along a hike, and the sculpted terrain, now cloaked in forest, provides excellent scenic views down into the surrounding forest and diggings. When I lived nearby, I was the Trailmaster for this section, making sure it was in good shape, so it’s always been a personal favorite.
Length: 6.2 miles
Lat-Long: 29.044856, -82.377631 (Pruitt Trailhead); 29.048199, -82.288598 (SR 200 crossing), 29.038717, -82.295367 (Ross Prairie Trailhead)
Fees / Permits: None unless you are camping, which requires a free permit
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: Portable toilet at Pruitt Trailhead, restrooms with showers at Ross Prairie Trailhead.
For safety’s sake, be cautious when crossing SR 200. Traffic comes at you at high speed (posted 55, going 70) and does not expect hikers to be crossing the road.
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.
An open and sunny developed campground run by the Office of Greenways and Trails is available at the Ross Prairie Trailhead, on the blue blaze off the trail. Showers are open to all. The trailhead also offers access to equestrian trails, and another hiking trail, the 2.1-mile Holly Hammock Loop in adjacent Ross Prairie State Forest.
Long distance hikers: the trail crossing at SR 200 is a mile within a heavily developed area with restaurants, banks, a Walmart, and a 24 hour emergency room. Walk northeast up SR 200 to resupply.
Ross Prairie: Follow SR 200 south of Ocala for 11 miles to reach CR 484. Alternately, take I-75 exit 341 (Dunnellon / Belleview) and head west on CR 484 for 9.1 miles to the junction with SR 200, turn left. The trail crossing is on your right at a Florida National Scenic Trail sign. Pull well off of SR 200 if you access the trail here.
An alternative is to park at the Ross Prairie Trailhead, just 1.2 miles south of this point, and use the blue-blazed connector trail that is part of the Ross Prairie Loop to reach the Florida Trail. Continue past the trail crossing to the green sign on the left. Follow the road around to park near the restrooms. Walk up to the restrooms and to the fence. Turn left and walk past the campground; the Ross Prairie Loop (blazed blue) crosses SR 200 here (cross carefully, heavy high-speed traffic here) and continues a mile to meet the main orange-blazed trail.
Pruitt Trailhead: Follow the above directions to the intersection of SR 200 and CR 484. Head west on CR 484 for 5.4 miles to the trailhead entrance on the left, just past the Dunnellon Airport. Turn left and follow the access road 0.2 mile back to the parking area. The trailhead is on the opposite side of the access road from the parking area.
Starting at the Pruitt Trailhead, the trail shares an access road for the first mile with the equestrian trail system. It formerly was routed through the tall dog fennel and saltbush to your right, but several years after this segment opened to the public, we discovered that the grassland became a hip-deep wetland whenever it rained heavily. The access road winds between grasslands and open fields smothered in blackberry vines; visit here in late May or early June to reap their luscious bounty. After 0.6 mile, watch carefully for the Florida Trail sign directing you to the left and into a large hammock of live oak trees. Here’s where the fun (and the shade) begins.
The oak hammocks along this particular segment of the Florida Trail are rather spectacular. Many boast oaks that are a century or more, with both live oaks and sand live oaks represented. Spanish moss hangs in thick curtains. As the trail winds through the open understory beneath the oaks, you can see a set of standing stones off to your right. We dubbed this “Stonehenge” early on, for its resemblance to the landmark, but it’s in fact a memorial created by the family whose ranch encompassed this land, a celebration of their son’s life. Take a moment to follow the side trail into the circle of stones and reflect on the beauty of the spot. When you return, you’ll see a Florida National Scenic Trail sign marking where the trail goes.
The trail emerges out of the oak hammock and into an open area. These open spaces are a part of the old ranch, and the trail works its way through a variety of grassy spots – generally thick with blackberry bushes – and shady oak hammocks through this section. After 1.1 miles, the trail passes through two old fence lines strung with barbed wire. The Florida Trail and equestrian trail pull close together, and then veer apart. The sharp-eyed will spot an old geological survey benchmark along the trail’s edge in the grass. Hog damage is unfortunately frequent under the giant oaks throughout this section, so expect some undulations in the footpath and don’t be surprised if you scare up a sow and piglets rooting around. Official trappers try to take what they can – you may see traps along the trail – but this area is thick with wild hogs.
Young sand pines grow up in some of the open areas, looking like Christmas trees. Crossing a firebreak, the trail goes into dense forest and heads up its first switchback of this segment, climbing to the top of one of the old levees left behind during the construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal. The sculpting of the landscape during two different eras – broad and shallow in the 1930s for the Ship Canal, tall and deep through the 1960s for the Barge Canal – resulted in a series of double-tiered levees, the low one for the original canal and the high one for the Barge Canal. Throughout the next four miles or so, this segment of the Florida Trail makes good use of both tiers, which are now densely covered in second-growth forest. As you walk along this tall man-made ridge, you can look down on the left into the forest, but the view of the old canal bed on the right is obscured by the density of the trees. On this narrow corridor atop the ridge, the trail has a feel of an Appalachian-style long green tunnel with wispy looking cedar trees.
Leaving the ridge, the trail makes a steep descent into the forest to the left, which has a high shady canopy but is a climax laurel oak forest with a significant amount of deadfall. The trail gets a little difficult to follow because of the downed trees and thickets of invasive caesar weed, which are covered with burrs that stick like Velcro to your clothes. Look for interesting shelf and oyster fungi at all times of year on the rotting logs. Red blanket lichen glows on damp tree trunks. Watch for twists and turns of the trail through this section.
Crossing a firebreak at 1.9 miles, there is a field filled with planted longleaf pines which show a good decade’s worth of growth, reclaiming the old ranch. The trail winds around into a picturesque stand of oaks draped in Spanish moss before continuing across another open segment. This is a great spot for watching for (and listening to) a variety of songbirds, especially warblers. Wandering back into the woods again, the trail reaches an open spot dense with deer moss and some lone Florida rosemary bushes standing out in a transition zone between sandhills and scrub forest.
Ascending back to a man-made ridge, you are now in a spot with excellent views, thanks to the more open understory. Bits of surface limestone jut out of the footpath. Channels carved by rain create miniature canyons where fungi cling to perilously vertical surfaces. Visit in late fall for spectacular arrays of Indian pipe – a flower that looks like a mushroom – violet cort mushrooms, clusters of collybia, and shelf fungi in a variety of weird shapes. In the heat of summer, keep looking up—this section of the Cross Florida Greenway is notable for its variety of native orchids, which bloom during the least pleasant months to take this hike.
After 2.8 miles, the trail drops from the high ridge to the lower terrace down a short switchback. Crossing an old sand road, it continues into another climax laurel oak forest, passing more mossy places with tall longleaf pines as it transitions to a mature sandhill forest with ancient sand live oaks. Although there is no access to water here, this is a beautiful area for setting up camp, a grand old forest with an extremely open understory. Goldenaster, beautyberry, and paw-paw lend dashes of color at different times of year.
Crossing a horse trail, the trail makes another ascent to a tall terrace at 3.4 miles. With a footpath carpeted in pine needles, it’s a pleasant walk down this linear section. A steep, eroded downhill leads to the lower terrace, finally bringing the trail out to a viewpoint along one of the linear lakes created during construction of the 1930s Ship Canal. Depending on recent rainfall, the vegetation-filled ditch may be full of water, or there may be a pond in a depression in the distance. This is another excellent site for camping beneath the oaks, particularly since the equestrian trail is now on the far side of the lake. Huge chunks of limestone, which were hand-dug out of the canal bed, are strewn about.
Around 3.9 miles, it’s a scramble again, this time to the top of the levee, to continue along this section of the trail. Rising from ancient piles of earth, the rocks look like ogre’s teeth jutting out of the steep embankment. Look for a deer scrape (depression on the ground and bits of fur on an oak tree) as you walk between the oaks and pines. The trail corridor is narrow and well-shaded and leads to a serious (well, at least for Florida) switchback, the steepest and longest switchback in Central Florida (and perhaps the southernmost switchback in the United States), to ease you off the high ridge and back down to the flatlands. Crossing a firebreak, the trail returns to the woods. Look off to your left for some funky metallic-purple violet cort mushrooms if you visit in the fall.
The trail gently ascends out of the laurel oaks and into the sandhills, where turkey oaks show off flashy crimson leaves each fall and tall longleaf pines rise overhead. You walk on a softly woven carpet of pine needles, the fresh scent gently released with each footfall. Transitioning in and out of laurel oak stands, you follow a gentle climb to the top of a hill beneath the longleaf pines and reach a sign and trail register at 5.2 miles. This is the junction point for the Ross Prairie Loop, which provides a 1-mile blue-blazed connector to the Ross Prairie Trailhead off to your right. Use the blue-blazed trail (and follow the directions outlined for that segment of the Ross Prairie Loop) if you are parked at the Ross Prairie Trailhead. If you’re hiking through, or are parked along SR 200 at the trail crossing, continue following the orange blazes. Either way, do take the time to sign the trail register!
Dropping down into a vibrant longleaf pine forest, where wiregrass lies like a haze on the forest floor, you gently climb up onto another set of old canal diggings. Like a long hump rising out of the earth, it lifts up into the tree canopy and provides an occasional panorama of the prairie that has formed in the old canal bed off to your right. Reaching the end of this final rise, you drop down to the left to wind through a forest where dying laurel oaks are strewn about. Entering a more lush forest, you catch glimpses of Ross Prairie, grasslands bound with an outer ribbon of bright white sandy shores, which the trail occasionally crosses to jump from oak hammock to oak hammock. The oaks here are particularly grand examples of ancient sand live oaks, but none as grand as the one I dubbed “Oaky Doky” years ago (and placed a geocache here, which remains active to this day).
After a final ramble through a oak-shaded forest where bits of limestone and roots emerge from the footpath, the trail emerges onto the grassy berm along the west side of SR 200. The trail continues on the other side of the highway, but this is where your journey ends after 6.2 miles.