Looping around a cypress-lined pond in the midst of pine flatwoods, the Buck Island Pond Trail at Goethe State Forest has quite a few interesting features going for it. For one, a great little boardwalk to make it easy for birders to simply sit along the pond’s edge and scan avian activity to their heart’s content. Despite a portion of the forest being restored from pine plantation to sandhill habitat, this trail is off the beaten path, which means wildlife encounters are highly probable, so keep your eyes open as you walk. Finally, there are hooded pitcher plants for you Sarracenia fans. Part of the Trailwalker program, it’s a great little day hike.
Length: 2 mile loop
Fees: $2 per person day use fee
No restrooms; the nearest ones are at the forest office along CR 337. This is an interpretive trail with a keyed map. You might find one in the kiosk.
The trailhead is off CR 337 in Levy County, between Inglis and Bronson and to the west of Dunnellon. From US 19 between Inglis and Gulf Hammock, take SR 121 north and turn right on CR 337, continue south 2.1 miles from that intersection to the trailhead on the right, not far past the park office and the Apex trailhead. From Dunnellon, follow CR 40 west to CR 336. Turn right and drive 4.1 miles along CR 336. Turn right on CR 337, passing the Tidewater trailhead soon after the turn. Watch for the Buck Island Pond sign on the left after 4.7 miles. On the dirt road leading to the trailhead parking area, take the right at the T intersection to continue to the parking area.
From the trail kiosk at the parking area, follow the path downhill to the boardwalk. You can see a lime-green blazed trail coming in from the right. The straightaway down the boardwalk leads to the end of the pond The boardwalk ends in a big observation deck with a picnic table, a place to sit for birding.
Walk back up the boardwalk and turn right to follow the lime-green blazes clockwise around Buck Island Pond. You pass a “no horses” sign. Passing an enormous pine, the trail drops into an oak hammock with scattered pines. Beyond a stand of young slash pine, the trail drops down a little towards the fringe of the pond. After 0.2 mile you reach a T intersection. Turn right to walk downhill to the edge of the pond for another scenic view.
On your way back uphill, you walk beneath the gnarled limbs of sand live oaks, passing a twin-trunked slash pine with gallberry growing between its trunks. Pines dominate this forest, with fallen needles draped over every branch and shrub, pine cones throughout the understory, mounds of pine straw, and a massive slash pine rising over it all. Just beyond it is a sign: “Beware the Cypress Knees.” The sign made us laugh, since the knees are the tiniest of nubs. But they are in the footpath, and you could trip over them as you walk between the twinned trunks of a loblolly bay tree.
The trail turns right to follow along the edge of the pond’s floodplain. The ground is somewhat rough underfoot and can flood. You see bigger cypress knees off to the right. Passing an oak tree with goldfoot fern and resurrection fern growing in its nearest crook, the trail goes uphill briefly, headed towards planted pines.
Passing within sight of the sand road at a half mile, the trail drops down towards the cypresses again. It reaches the other side of the “Beware of Cypress Knees” zone at 0.6 mile, then continues its twisting, winding path, leaving the cypress for oaks and pines. Past Marker B, the Wood Duck Box, a spur trail leads downhill through the saw palmetto to the edge of the pond.
Return to the main trail and turn right. Just past a picnic table is Marker C, “Slash Pine Plantation.” You pass a tall clump of saw palmetto as the trail gets farther and farther from the pond, entering a sandhill restoration. Marker D is for the gopher turtle, although no burrow is obvious nearby. The footpath is more distinct on this side of the pond than it was at the beginning.
At a mile, the trail takes a sharp turn. A depression in the landscape could have been an old road going out to the pond. The trail transitions into pine flatwoods, with pines randomly spaced and of different ages, a thick understory of saw palmetto edging the footpath. Marker E shows off older saw palmetto standing up on its roots. Past an old road headed towards a cypress dome, you see Marker F, which points out the red cockaded woodpecker and its need for mature longleaf pine. Keep alert for these not-so-common birds. We spotted one in this section.
The trail snakes through the thicket of saw palmetto beneath the longleaf pine and reaches Marker G, about the turpentine industry. Watch for catfaced pines, carved into for the tapping of their sap. The trail is very well defined as it cuts through the saw palmetto. The forest floor is drier, hosting reindeer moss and low-bush blueberries beneath myrtle oak and rusty lyonia.
After 1.5 miles, the trail starts to descend back towards the Buck Pond floodplain. Dropping into a wet flatwoods, you come to the back side of a sign – “Hikers to the left, Horses to the right” – marking the junction of a shared trail. Continue straight ahead as the trail widens for a bit and is multi-use to get everyone through the bayhead swamp. Pine needles cover an old gravel road through this area, and it adds just enough elevation to keep your feet from getting wet.
A side trail leads to the right at Marker H down a short boardwalk to a seepage bog with a handful of hooded pitcher plants. These carnivorous plants love the acidity of the pine needles and constant dampness of the wet flatwoods. Look for their blooms in late March or April. Returning to the main loop, turn right, passing a clump of large saw palmetto. The trail continues through the wet flatwoods. At a double blaze, the multi-use trail diverges at a sign, horses going straight ahead, hikers to the right. Turn right.
The footpath narrows down greatly, the ground springy from all the pine needles. Coming face-to-face with a tall pine, turn right. The footpath transitions to sand underfoot, and you can see the boardwalk up ahead. The trail turns left to parallel it uphill. Exit towards the kiosk and parking area for a loop hike of 2 miles.