One of the most awe-inspiring sections of the Florida Trail, the segment between the Rodman Dam (more properly known as the George Kirkpatrick Dam) and Lake Delancy immerses you into longleaf pine forests that seem to go on forever. Providing a fine balance between the Big Scrub habitats and breathtaking old-growth longleaf pines, the Florida Trail through this area is simply superb. It’s best hiked in a southerly direction for optimum scenic enjoyment. The trail passes by Penner Ponds, distinctly beautiful flatwoods ponds with a designated campsite, and crosses a variety of forest roads and ATV trails as it winds its way through the well-shaded forests.
Length: 7.6 miles
Lat-Long: 29.507838, -81.804003 (Rodman), 29.428644, -81.788477 (Delancy)
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: yes, at the trailheads
During hunting season, camping is only permitted in designated areas: Penner Ponds and Lake Delancy. If you are leaving a car overnight, it’s safest to do so at the Rodman Campground (fee).
Rodman Trailhead: From the intersection of US 19 and SR 316 in Salt Springs, drive north along US 19 for 12.3 miles. Turn left onto the George Kirkpatrick Dam Road and drive 3.6 miles to the recreation area on the left. Park near the spillway and restrooms.
Lake Delancy Trailhead: From the intersection of US 19 and SR 316 in Salt Springs, drive north along US 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 day use fee for parking.
Park your car at the recreation area parking for the Ocklawaha River and George Kirkpatrick Dam, where anglers hang out along the spillway, casting into the foam. Head up the staircase to the top of the dam and turn left to follow the orange blazes south. It’s a long, often windy walk across the dam along the access road, but you’re out of the sun and into the shade of old live oaks at 0.8 mile, when the trail turns and makes a right into the forest at a sign. It winds along the edge of the reservoir, known as the Rodman Pool, for a short, scenic stretch before swinging to the left away from the water and into the scrub forest.
Sand live oaks and rusty lyonia – which lives up to its other name, crookedwood – provide a low, tight-knit canopy as the trail tunnels through this scrubby corridor, where lichens drape from the trees. The trail alternates between sand pine scrub with patches of sun on bright white sand where prickly pear cactus thrive, and the diminutive oak hammocks, which provide the shady spots in this desert-like habitat.
After 1.4 miles, there is a blue blaze to the right leading around the Penner Ponds. This is a known, reliable water source and the primitive campsites are around the far side of the ponds, providing shady respite near the water. You catch a few glimpses of the ponds from the trail as it works its way along the high ground above them. Soon after the blue blaze you cross an ATV trail. The Florida Trail continues on a narrow path through diminutive scrub. Prickly pear grow profusely along the sides of the footpath. The scrub in this area is the perfect height for Florida scrub-jays, so be alert for the bright blue birds flitting around. This is also a favored roaming ground for Florida black bears, and many have been sighted along this section of trail. By 1.8 miles, the sand pines get very tall, and there is a thick understory of scrub oaks. Old man’s beard, a foamy sea-green lichen, dangles from the trees. There are armadillo holes hidden between roots.
After you reach the second blue blaze to the camping area, the landscape opens up a bit and you cross FR 77, a deeply rutted forest road. A trailside sign says “Lake Delancy, 6 miles,” although your destination is a little over 5 miles ahead. The forest transitions to “Riverside Island,” an island of longleaf pine savanna within the Big Scrub. The understory is wide open, carpeted with a soft haze of wheat-colored wiregrass. You can see beneath the trees for miles in every direction as you traverse the hills, gently rolling at first and then strongly undulating, offering rugged ups and downs to traverse. The pines are of immense stature, rising like columns to the sky. Sand live oaks form small hammocks with their own canopies well beneath the grandiose canopy of the savanna. A soft light filters through the pine needles, dappling the forest floor.
Passing through an oak hammock around 3.5 miles, there’s a sign that says “31,” and moments later, you cross a forest road. A little farther along, the habitat transitions into a patch of oak scrub, with large Florida rosemary, and then continues into a mixed forest of oak and pine. The trail is well-defined as it winds through the grass. In January, the turkey oaks are ablaze in crimson colors. The scent of damp pine needles rises from the forest floor. There is a “pine nursery” to the right side of the trail, thousands of young longleaf pines rising up from the wiregrass. The rolling hills just go on and on, with expansive views against a blue sky screened by pine needles. Watch for white bands around some of the trees, marking the location of red-cockaded woodpecker nests. There is a significant colony in these woods, notable for the candle-wax style drips of sap down the sides of the nesting trees.
Crossing a jeep road at 4.7 miles, the trail continues through the cathedral-like longleaf pine forest. Explosions of orange sand belie the nocturnal pocket gophers that live beneath the surface. Sunlight spotlights the bracken ferns beneath the pines. The trail drops down into a swale in a hillside to a sinkhole where water stands in the depths. Rising back up in a sweep to the left, the footpath continues beneath the canopy of ancient longleaf pines. These are the savannas of William Bartram’s time, the forests that once carpeted the southeast. There are more trees marked as red-cockaded woodpecker nests.
An oak hammock provides cool shade. A little farther along, around 6 miles, the trail crosses a jeep road and drops through some deep swales and before continuing up and over the savanna-cloaked hills which go on and on and on. It’s impossible to tire of such a beautiful landscape, this stately woodland, a rarity among forests. But all good things must come to an end, and so it is with this section of the Florida Trail. The landscape levels out a little, and becomes infused with more turkey oaks, more traditional sandhills vegetation, as you reach the trail crossing at FR 75 near Lake Delancy. Turn left and follow the blue blazes to the main parking area for the Lake Delancy West campground, completing your 7.6 mile section of the Florida Trail.