One of my favorite places to hike is the Ocala National Forest, so I suppose it is no coincidence that the very first long distance hiking trail in Florida took shape there back in 1966. On October 29, five members of the fledgling Florida Trail Association set foot on the entrance road at Clearwater Lake Recreation Area near Paisley and stenciled an “FT” on the pavement before proceeding north through the campground to blaze the state’s first serious hiking trail.
40 years and thousands of volunteers later, the Florida Trail stretches over 1,400 miles from the edge of the Everglades to Fort Pickens on Pensacola Beach. Designated a National Scenic Trail, it provides the best long distance hiking that the Sunshine State has to offer.
This past Sunday, I had the pleasure of walking with a few of the folks who didn’t know they were making history back in 1966 when they blazed the Ocala Trail : Jim Kern, founder of the Florida Trail Association; Tom Montoya, its second president; and Margaret Scruggs, its first office manager. It was an honor to walk with these pioneers of Florida hiking and make my own memories at this spot by chatting at length and listening to their stories of establishing the trail. Today’s Florida Trail isn’t in quite the same place — it moved closer to town — but when you head north from the Clearwater Lake trailhead and enter the cathedrals of longleaf pine where the wiregrass below forms a yellow haze to the horizon, you’ll understand why the Forest is a special place and how the Florida Trail connects you to it….and those who have gone before.
Take a hike! The Ocala section of the Florida Trail provides a continuous 72-mile backpacking experience which can be broken into long day hikes if you utilize the many trailheads and shuttle cars between them. The Clearwater Lake trailhead is just off CR 42 to the west of Paisley in Lake County; CR 42 runs between SR 44 in Deland and SR 19 in Altoona.
The 10-mile segment between this trailhead and Alexander Springs Recreation Area (to the north) follows rolling sandhills topped with longleaf pine, dips through oak hammocks, and crosses boardwalks across jungle-like hydric hammocks. A blue blazed side trail leads to Alexander Springs. There is no charge for parking at the Clearwater Lake trailhead, but there is a per-person charge at Alexander Springs which can be circumvented by parking along the road shoulder at the trail crossing along CR 445A; look for the FNST signs.