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 miles
Fees / Permits: $2 per person day use fee
Good for: birding, wildlife, botanical interest
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
There is a picnic table on the observation deck / boardwalk along the pond. This is an interpretive trail with a keyed map; hopefully you’ll find one in the box at the trailhead. Or you can download this one and take it with you.
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, which is a large open wet prairie with deeper spots, like a lily-covered open water to the left, fringed with lance-leafed arrowhead and a stand of cypress.The boardwalk ends in a big observation deck with a picnic table, a place to sit for birding. The pond is ringed with younger cypress with a ridge of pine above it.
After enjoying the view, 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. Since the trail is not well known, it’ s not well-trodden, so you have to keep an eye on the blazes. Passing an enormous pine, the trail drops into an oak hammock with scattered pines. To your right, you can see the rim of cypresses that ring the pond. Some of the older pines are sloughing off their bark, a sure sign of pine bark beetle infestation. Many tiny saw palmetto grow through this area. 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. If you look farther uphill you can see the pine plantation atop the sandhills that surround the entrance road. Loblolly bay grows in here, slipping out of the bounds of a baygall along the line of cypresses surrounding the pond. Pines, however, dominate, 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. Oaks and floodplain trees, like dahoon holly and loblolly bay, shade this part of the footpath. The ground is somewhat rough underfoot and can flood. Between two rows of slash pine are netted chain rising from the forest floor, speaking to the dampness here, along with cinnamon fern and American beautyberry. You see bigger cypress knees off to the right. Passing an oak tree with goldfoot fern and ressurection fern growing in its nearest crook, the trail goes uphill briefly, headed towards planted pines. There are cedars scattered among the cypress to the right. The understory of the floodplain forest is quite thick.
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. Dropping down through sweetgum and loblolly bay along the edge of the pine plantation, you encounter Marker B, the Wood Duck Box. A spur trail leads downhill through the saw palmetto to the edge of the pond, where you can see the wood duck box, and beyond it to the far side of the pond, to the boardwalk you visited at the start of the hike. Water laps right up to the end of this spur trail, even though when you look out at the pond you only see tall prairie grasses. One gnarled looking cypress on the left appears to be quite old.
Return to the main trail and turn right. Smaller longleaf pines, barely out of candle stage, grow in a cluster to the left. On the right, loblolly bay grows between the pines and oaks. 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. Young longleaf pines grow beneath the slash pines. Deer moss forms seafoam-colored clumps on the forest floor. This is a restoration area, with a pine plantation being restored to sandhills. Nature is taking its course, filling in vegetation blanks for the pines that have been removed.
Marker D is for the gopher turtle, although no burrow is obvious nearby. Sand live oaks and shiny lyonia hint at scrub habitat as the trail gets farther from the wall of cypress along the pond. The footpath is more distinct on this side of the pond than it was at the beginning. It follows the ecotone between sandhill and bayhead. Watch for a dark green double blaze after the lime-green blaze. 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 immediately transitions into pine flatwoods. Unlike the planted plantation, the pines here are randomly spaced and of different ages, with a thick understory of saw palmetto edging the footpath, stretching into the distance in both directions. 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, as you can see cypresses up ahead. 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 cypress dome is off to the left with Buck Pond hidden to the right. Marsh ferns grow in the dark, rich earth.
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 carniverous 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 and is not as well maintained as the shared use section, with gallberry crowding in. Underfoot, the ground is springy from all the pine needles. Be cautious of a false trail junction where the main trail turns left and slips into the saw palmetto. You see a tangle of loblolly bay and cypress on the right again, the understory vegetation becoming rather dense. 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.