Amid a patchwork of scrub ridges and longleaf pine islands, the Florida Trail makes its way northwest around the vastness of Lake Kerr on this 10.1 mile section. It’s accessible to day hikers via two connector trails – blazed in blue – that attach at Salt Springs and from behind The 88 Store, a popular watering hole for folks who live out in these wilds. Watering hole notwithstanding, it’s one of the drier sections of the Florida Trail, with virtually no surface water except along the connector trail to Salt Springs. This makes it a tough piece for backpackers, and The 88 Store a near-necessary stop to top off. Vast views beneath the canopy, along with rolling hills, make this an excellent section for a sample of what the Ocala National Forest has to offer.
Location: Ocala National Forest
Length: 10.1 miles
Lat-Long: 29.342217, -81.734356 to 29.359464, -81.820402
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At The 88 Store
Surface water is nearly non-existent along this section. The only place you may see ponds is along the blue-blazed connector trail from Salt Springs. Pack enough for your day hike. If backpacking, plan to stop at The 88 Store for water.
South trailhead: Park at the Salt Springs Observation Trail trailhead off SR 19 just south of the town of Salt Springs. Cross the highway and hike north about a quarter mile to find the orange-blazed trail connector, clearly marked with a Florida Trail sign.
North 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.
Whether you park along SR 19 or at the parking area near the marina, or even at the Salt Springs Observation Trail, you won’t miss the entrance to the blue-blazed connector trail. It’s a big break in the fenceline on the south side of the highway, with signage and plenty of blue into the pine forest. By 0.4 mile, there’s a place where the blazes peter out, however, and it’s not obvious where the trail goes. Continue straight, and you’ll see a prairie off to the left. A tricky spot comes up soon with a pond off to your left, and a firebreak crossing the trail perpendicularly. Continue straight ahead, but take a moment to ponder the pond: it’s a real beauty spot, especially on a foggy morning. It’s also a probable year-round source of water, not that you need it this soon in the hike. As you knock off the first mile, the trail rounds a very large, picturesque flatwoods pond on the left side and then rises up into sandhills topped with longleaf pine and wiregrass. Crossing a jeep road, you see a large, shallow depression that is a prairie or a pond at times, depending on rainfall, off to the right.
Climbing up and away from the ponds and prairies, the trail enters a mixed forest of sand pines and slash pines. Within five minutes, the landscape yields to another wet prairie complex as the trail crosses a Jeep road around 1.5 miles, making a sharp left to follow the rim of the prairie. It’s not easy to get to the water here, however, since a thicket of saw palmetto stands between you and the open grassland. For the next 0.4 mile, the trail works its way around the prairie, which (if wet) is the last place you’ll see surface water until the end of this hike – or Grassy Pond, if you’re backpacking.
Turning left away from the prairie, the trail enters oak hammocks overhung in Spanish moss. Very soon, you’re walking in a narrow tunnel of oak scrub, with lush hanging gardens of mosses and lichens just overhead. After you cross another Jeep road, turn left and immediately right to stay on the Florida Trail connector, still following the blue blazes. At 2.2 miles, you cross another Jeep trail, continuing under a dense canopy of oak scrub beneath sand pines. You reach the intersection with the orange-blazed Florida Trail at a bench and sign at 2.5 miles, and there’s no mistaking this junction. Turn right to continue your journey north.
You’re in the heart of the Big Scrub, the world’s largest scrub forest, and it shows. Around you are tall sand pines whose pine cones mainly release only when they burn, popping like popcorn. Crossing a Jeep road, you’re in the thick of lyonia and sand live oak beneath the sand pines – a two-tier forest, crowded and intimate. As the trail jogs to the left, you can see through the scrub to a place where the habitat transitions to longleaf pine and wiregrass, the wiregrass casting a yellow haze in the winter months.
Crossing FR (Forest Road) 51 at 3.2 miles, the trail continues to cross obvious Jeep tracks, all part of the massive system of OHV trails throughout this portion of the forest, where they are preserved primarily for Jeep use. On weekends, you might encounter the single adventurer or groups of drivers traversing the hills on these roads. Fortunately, the trail sticks to its own, sometimes paralleling route. Cross FR 50 to mark the transition into longleaf pine habitat. As you see white bands painted on pine trees, look up for a candle-wax type dripping of sap down the bark. Keep looking up and you may see the holes drilled by red-cockaded woodpeckers – or artifical holes created by pieces of pipe – for a colony of these endangered birds, who only nest in well-aged longleaf pine trees, preferably a century old or more. More Jeep trails traverse the landscape through here. Listen carefully for the birds, which have an unusual call much like a dog’s squeaky toy.
The wonderful part about hiking this section of the forest is how the landscape stretches on and on, yet you’re beneath the canopy. The understory is very open, and despite the undulations of the landscape, you can see for a long distance in every direction. Keep alert for deer and other inhabitants of the forest, including indigo snakes – another rare species that lives in this area, a harmless snake that grows rather large. You may hear military jets overhead since the bombing range is near. Cross another few Jeep trails and the trail dips down at 4.6 miles along a depression that seems to be an old sinkhole, but without any water in it.
The longleaf pine canopy continues for quite some distance. You start to hear some automobiles in the distance, especially on a cold day, as you draw near to FR 11 (formerly 88, which everyone pretty much still calls it – I’m still trying to figure out why the roads were renumbered). You cross this paved road at 4.9 miles. There used to be a pulloff here for parking but it’s been blocked off. The tall longleaf pines continue on the other side of the road, and the trail weaves its way through this habitat up to the next road crossing, this of CR 314 at 5.3 miles.
It now feels like the trail is headed uphill, and it certainly seems like the case as you transition back out of the longleaf pine forest through open savannas dotted with the occasional pine or copse of sand live oaks. This is a great spot for fall wildflowers. Cross FR 19 at about 6.3 miles, rising into the higher, drier scrub, which offers little shade. Past FR 50, the trail becomes a narrow corridor edged with young scrub forest, young enough to offer habitat for another threatened bird, the Florida scrub-jay. Look for flashes of blue between the trees. At 7 miles, you cross an unmarked road beneath tall sand pines, which have a tendency to lean, especially in a breeze. The understory is very crowded with young myrtle oaks, chapman oaks, and lyonia with its twisty, windy branches. The corridor remains unbroken for another 0.4 mile until you reach another unmarked road. Low whistles that sound a bit like loud peepers at a pond are actually eastern towhees calling to each other from the underbrush of the dry scrub.
At 7.6 miles, you cross a clearing with a Jeep trail. The trail dives down a long, slender tight corridor with very few tall sand pines, with an obvious ridge coming up. The trail continues to ascend ever so subtly, the corridor remaining very narrow, as you reach a Jeep trail deep in soft sand around 8 miles. A little shade is provided along this still-narrow section, where mosses and lichens cling to the narrow edge of the well-beaten track. You can hear sounds of traffic along FR 11, which the trail is paralleling.
At FR 63, the habitat shifts again to longleaf pines. You’re headed into Kerr Island, one of the many named “islands” in the Ocala National Forest, each a haven of longleaf pines amid the sea of the Big Scrub. Two quick crossings of Jeep trails (which lead out to FR 11 to the right about a quarter mile), and you’re stepping off the island back into a short stretch of scrub forest again. Another crossing, and a Jeep trail now parallels the Florida Trail through the young scrub.
The trail transitions back onto Kerr Island, where once again you walk among the majestic longleaf pines, with small clearings where turkey oaks shed their colorful leaves.
** 1/5/14: the trail has been re-routed in this section and no longer meets up with the Western Corridor prior to reaching The 88 Store. Also, the trail now goes right behind The 88 Store, no longer a blue blaze away. We’ll update mileages soon as we can hike it **
Waiting at the end of your journey? A cold beer. Or a cold soft drink, if that’s your pleasure. And restrooms. And a trail journal on the counter of the bar, well worth perusing. It’s a slice of local color you won’t want to miss. Backpackers: this is your only water source for the next 2.3 miles. It’s worth the detour. Your hike ends after 10.1 miles at The 88 Store. Please be sure that, if you leave a car here, you check in first and make sure they’re cool with it – they pretty much are, but it’s good to ask.