Part of the Florida State Forests Trailwalker program, the Bear-N-Oak Trail at Indian Lake State Forest is a 1.6-mile loop that provides a fascinating look at habitat diversity centered on Indian Lake, a major karst feature in the Ocala Limestone. Purchased to protect a portion of the upland recharge area for Silver Springs, Indian Lake State Forest covers more than 4,440 acres, most of it accessible through an equestrian trail system. This hiking trail showcases the gem of the forest, the lake itself.
Location: Silver Springs
Length: 1.6 miles
Lat-Lon: 29.271983, -82.056583
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate
Please do not block the gate when parking in the parking corral. This trail is for hiking only, but don’t be surprised to run into evidence of equestrian use. Leashed dogs are welcome.
The trailhead for the Bear-N-Oak Trail is north of Silver Springs along CR 35 (Baseline Road), on the east side of the road 2.2 miles north of the traffic light at its intersection with SR 326, and 4 miles north of the traffic light in Silver Springs at SR 40.
Here are some of the highlights along the trail that we filmed in September 2016.
0.0 > At the trailhead, you’ll find a kiosk with a map of the loop. The trail starts on either side of the kiosk. Take the left fork to follow our descriptions clockwise around the loop, saving the most fascinating karst features for last. Starting off in a healthy sandhill habitat, the trail quickly loses elevation as it drops into the deep shade of a hardwood forest.
0.2 > As the trail slips out to the ecotone between the enormous live oaks on the edge of the hardwood forest and the sandhills to the north, you enter an open area where cypress trees loom overhead. This is the north end of Indian Lake Prairie, and was once part of Indian Lake. Ignore the side trails and continue straight ahead across the white sand to the forest beyond, where the trail climbs a hill.
0.3 > The trail turns sharply, tunneling through a patch of scrub forest before emerging into a deeply shaded climax sandhill forest dominated by laurel oak.
0.6 > As you see a grove of massive live oaks ahead, the trail jogs to the right to circle around a large oak and approach the sandy shoreline of Indian Lake. “Hat rack” cypresses, pond cypress trees that have formed with broad bases and stunted tops, speak to the limestone that is very near the surface here, impeding their growth. Indian Lake itself is a karst window, a sinkhole that directly connects to the aquifer. As such, it is very deep, up to 85 feet deep in the middle. The flat spot adjoining the trail above the lake was a picnic pavilion that was still in place until the fall of 2016, part of the former retreat center (and then RV park) that protected this land from development for many years. You’ll find picnic benches along this shoreline and some brand-new porch swings placed in the oaks along the edge of the lakeshore.
0.8 > A low canopy of oak limbs covered in resurrection fern creates a picturesque spot as it arches over the footpath. Cross a bridge over the outflow of Indian Lake through a cypress strand. You can see watermarks on the cypress trunks indicating just how high the water can get when the aquifer level rises and the lake spills out through this waterway.
1.0 > Enjoy the view of the far shore of Indian Lake – and its stand of hat rack cypress – from this shoreline. The trail continues into the woods above the sandy edge of the lakeshore to circle around a sinkhole filled with cypress knees.
1.2 > Keep alert for signs of karst features throughout the forest, as the trail is flanked by a variety of sinkholes, some in a line that likely indicates the location of an underground stream. One deep sinkhole is hidden behind a screen of saw palmettos to the left. You enjoy some views of Indian Lake Prairie from beneath a canopy of live oaks.
1.3 > The trail turns sharply to leave the lake and prairie and enters the hardwood forest. Ignore what looks like a side trail to the right, since the trail was relocated to the left to showcase several more sinkholes in this deeply shaded area. In winter, you can see the stark contrast between this forested area and the sandhill habitat beyond it; it’s obvious you’re hiking in a bowl of forest below the sandhills.
1.6 > Emerging from the shade into the sandhills, you cross over a power line easement from which you can see the trailhead. Follow the trail up to the kiosk to complete the loop.