As a protected corridor south of Ocala, this section of the Florida Trail on the Cross Florida Greenway offers delights you just can’t imagine from the roads that bisect it—CR 484 and SW 49th Avenue. It may look like your typical forest of scrubby-looking turkey oaks, but once you get inside it, what a surprise. The digging that occurred in the 1930s to create the Cross Florida Barge Canal brought some mighty big rocks to the surface, big enough they rival glacial erratic boulders you’ll find in the North Woods. Draped in ferns and mosses, shot through with solution holes and teetering along depressions and sinkholes, they’re both botanically and geological intriguing. Rugged terrain adds to the fun of hiking through these shady forests with their hidden boulders.
Length: 6.2 miles
Lat-Long: 29.048199, -82.288598 (SR 200 crossing), 29.038717, -82.295367 (Ross Prairie trailhead), 29.040913, -82.201004 (SW 49th Ave trailhead)
Fees / Permits: None unless you are camping, which requires a free permit
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: Available at both the SW 49th Ave and Ross Prairie trailheads
For safety’s sake, be cautious when crossing CR 484 or 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.
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.
SR 200 crossing: follow SR 200 south from Ocala, crossing CR 484 just past the Walmart. Within the next quarter mile the Florida Trail crosses at a gate on the left. Park well off the road if you start your hike here, or get dropped off as part of a shuttle.
Ross Prairie trailhead: While this hike is described from the SR 200 crossing, you can safely access it from the Ross Prairie trailhead. Continue past the trail crossing to the green sign 1.5 miles past CR 484 on the left. Follow the road around to park near the restrooms. The trailhead offers an RV campground, access to equestrian trails, and another hiking trail, the 2.1-mile Holly Hammock Loop in adjacent Ross Prairie State Forest. Follow the northern part of the Ross Prairie Loop for 1.3 miles to meet the main Florida Trail as described.
SW 49th Ave Trailhead: From I-75 Belleview/Dunnellon Exit 324, head west on CR 484 for 2.3 miles. Turn right on Marion Oaks Course at the traffic light. Follow it 0.8 miles as it curves and becomes Marion Oaks Trail. Turn right onto SW 49th Ave and continue 0.4 mile to the trailhead on the right.
From the gate at SR 200, start your hike east into the pine forest. You’re on part of the Florida Trail that makes up the Ross Prairie Loop, a 3.5-mile loop from the Ross Prairie Trailhead. Deer moss flourishes on the pine duff under the gnarled sand live oaks, which draw closely together to create a shady canopy above. The hills drop off to the right into an oak scrub, and you can see a horizon line through the trees in winter that belies the location of Ross Prairie, the largest dry prairie along the Cross Florida Greenway. While the full loop immerses you in the prairie, this particular segment does not.
Crossing an equestrian trail, the orange-blazed Florida Trail winds through the oaks; it’s easy to miss the blue blaze to the campsite set up on a hill as you’re hiking in this direction. If you get to the trail junction sign, you’ve gone too far; turn around and look for the blue blazes leading up a meandering path beneath sand pines. The campsite is well tucked away in the woods, a shady spot with a fire ring and a few places for tents to fit beneath the trees. Soon after passing the blue blaze, you encounter a well marked trail intersection with the blue-blazed Ross Prairie Loop. It leads 1.3 miles to the trailhead, through the prairie, where potable water is available. To remain on the thru-trail, continue straight, following the orange blazes.
For nearly a half mile, the trail parallels the remains of the diggings for the Cross Florida Barge canal. The trail is down in the bottom of the canal, with hills going up to the left with deep erosional features with sand pines atop them. Off to the right, you can see a curvature through the woods that is the other side of the canal rising up. Within it, the trail is beneath tall loblolly pines and young sand pines. It is a well-worn track, fringed with deer moss. The trail heads right down into the Spring Park equestrian campsite at 1.1 miles. Hikers are welcome to use this campsite, which features a picnic table, fire ring, and yes, a spring deep down in the bottom of a sinkhole. Unfortunately, the pitcher pump hasn’t worked in years; I blame the problem on the water table dropping as development increases along nearby SR 200.
As you leave Spring Park, it’s easy to lose the trail since it led you right into camp. Backtrack a little to find the orange blazes; we found some flagging tape that led us in the right direction. It’s here, too, you begin to encounter the giant boulders. This is karst territory. Look deep into the spring and you’ll find that pipe-like drop is a solution hole, a type of cylindrical sinkhole that forms in rocks. Karst is a landscape sculpted by the steady soaking of slightly acidic water into spongy limestone, where it etches pathways in the rock. The oak leaves that carpet the forest floor help increase the acidity of the dripping water. The boulders strewn about were undoubtedly dug up during the creation of this canal – a canal you’re surrounded by but can’t see, thanks to the dense loblolly pine forest – and left scattered on the canal bottom. The trail crosses a natural bridge across a line of sinkholes that likely delineate an underground stream. More massive boulders are strewn about. Despite being shot through with smoothly eroded holes, they’re now cloaked in mosses and ferns, covered in pine needles and supporting small trees.
The trail begins a noticeable rise as you leave this set of boulders, scooting up towards the top of the diggings and back down again. More scrub forest is creeping in from the left, including wind-battered sand pines and Chapman and myrtle oak in the understory. Grazing up against an equestrian trail, the Florida Trail starts climbing out of the diggings under arches of sand live oak branches. Uphill, you can see the obvious erosion in the canal walls, and the trail takes some pointless ups and downs over them.
Emerging at a jeep road, the trail makes a sharp left past a very tall longleaf pine and what looks like haystacks, but are rocks swaddled in pine needles and ferns. More mounds of rocks lie beyond. Making a sharp left up the hill, you continue back up past a marker and blaze painted on a sand live oak that arches over the trail. Beneath a portal created by a sweeping sand live oak, you rise up past mosses and lichens up a rugged clay slope and out of the diggings to emerge at CR 484 after 2.4 miles. Be very cautious crossing the road, since drivers move at high speed and don’t expect to see hikers here.
On the north side of CR 484, the trail continues its northeasterly trend through an open sandhill area where the wildflowers should be spectacular in fall, thanks to a prescribed burn this winter. Meanwhile, you’ll see a lot of crispy shrubs and fried bark on the turkey oaks and pines. Crossing a limestone paved service road – which forks off to the right – the trail continues straight ahead into a sand pine scrub.
Layers of history are uncovered as you climb up through a very obvious set of diggings that have eroded over time, leaving deep gullies beneath the forest canopy. The trail winds its way through this landscape created by canal construction and reclaimed by forest, offering steep slopes, narrow ledges, and a lengthy switchback. It’s hard to believe this sort of terrain exists in Ocala, but that’s the legacy of the Cross Florida Barge Canal project, a plan to cut Florida in two to speed up shipping between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. First conceived prior to the Civil War, the canal actually began to be dug during the Great Depression but was abandoned until the 1960s, when the modern effort was staved off by the efforts of Marjorie Harris Carr, for whom the Greenway is named, leading a group of concerned environmentalists, the Florida Defenders of the Environment. By cutting off the canal project, they preserved our primary source, our aquifer, before quite even understanding how important that action would be.
Rising up into sandhills and scrub, the trail tap-dances with the limerock access road throughout open rolling hills with scattered hammocks of sand live oaks. Reaching the tunnel beneath SW 49th Ave, you climb steeply down and steeply back up. As you ascend, the Florida Trail forks to the left; keep to the right to reach the blue blaze that leads to the parking area at the SW 49th Avenue trailhead. You’ve hiked 6 miles—or 6.2, if you keep it honest and follow the Florida Trail to the blue blazes.