Two trails, one trailhead. The Lake Eaton Trail is in the heart of the Big Scrub, part of the “Lake Eaton Trails” on the northeast side of Lake Eaton in the Ocala National Forest, halfway between Salt Springs and Nuby’s Corner along CR 314. From the air (or satellite photo) you can see Lake Eaton is one of the larger lakes in the Forest. This 2.3-mile loop trail provides a gentle descent through a variety of ecosystems from scrub to floodplain forest until you reach the lake itself. Newly renovated boardwalks await to provide safer panoramas of the cypress-lined water. If you haven’t visited lately, you’ll also be delighted to find a composting toilet at the trailhead.
Location: Ocala National Forest
Length: 2.3 miles
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: Composting toilet at trailhead
This trailhead also provides access to the Lake Eaton Sinkhole Trail.
From Interstate 75 in Ocala, follow SR 40 east through Ocala and Silver Springs. Right after you cross the long, tall Ocklawaha River bridge, you reach the traffic light at Nuby’s Corners. Turn left and drive 8.6 miles north along CR 314. Soon after you pass CR 314-A, look for FR 50 on the right, the first major unpaved road beyond past the paved turnoff for the FWC Youth Camp. Drive uphill and turn right. The trailhead is on your left. Sand can be soft on this access road at times.
Leave the parking area downhill and cross the road. As you head down the hill, there’s a noticable blank space ahead in the forest where young trees are filling in a gap caused by logging. A golden orb spider dangles from the map kiosk at the start of the loop, casting an ominous shadow. In the heart of the Big Scrub, the Lake Eaton Trail is one of the easiest ways to see all of the communities that occur on a gradual slope from the dry, scrubby highlands to the water’s edge.
Bear right at the kiosk to walk counterclockwise around the loop. There is a bench surrounded by a variety of scrub plants, including Chapman oak, sand like oak, and the fragrant silk bay. You hear the calls between Florida scrub-jays in the distance. The trail crosses a firebreak and continues ever downwards towards the tall pines that define the skyline ahead. Fallen branches are cloaked in a fuzzy blanket of gray-green shield lichens.
The scrub is Florida’s desert, and after walking through it for a while, you begin to notice the heat radiating off the bright white ancient sands. Fortunately, this loop provides several shady corridors as a respite. At a half mile, a second bench sits among the scrub oaks as you continue downhill beneath taller oaks, sand pines, and slash pines, rapidly descending to the floodplain of Lake Eaton.
As you walk beneath the shady bower of oaks, pines, and sweetgum, dried leaves crackle like cornflakes underfoot. The insistent whine of mosquitoes increases, as does the height of the pines around you. Loblolly pines and cabbage palms reach for the sky. Off to the right, you can see a ribbon of sky through the trees, defining the edge of Lake Eaton. The trail is leading you there, to the boardwalk. Covered in pine needles from the last storm, the first boardwalk deck is a little slippery. Cinnamon fern grows beneath. The walkway leads to an observation point on Lake Eaton, a broad swath of blue dotted with water lilies, at 0.8 mile.
The closer to the cypress the trail gets, the fiercer the mosquitoes get, except during the winter months, when the woods are blissfully bug-free after the first freeze. Birdsong echoes through the dense forest as the trail continues to parallel Lake Eaton’s shore while staying within the shelter of the trees. A side trail leads back out to the lake to the next boardwalk, which offers another sweeping view.
After enjoying the panorama, return to the main trail and turn right. Here you walk beneath stately cabbage palms, with standing water in shallow depressions. The final glimpse of the lake is down a boardwalk to an observation platform over a small cove in Lake Eaton at 1.3 miles. It’s a good place to spot alligators and frogs but a tough place to be when mosquitoes are out. If it’s brisk, enjoy the echoes of kingfishers across the water and the slow movement of turtles and frogs in the shallows.
Leaving this final boardwalk, turn right. The trail continues along the floodplain for a short distance more, then turns left at a fence that directs the footpath back uphill into the scrub. A clawed-open saw palmetto trunk is a clue that a Florida black bear is in the area. One of the main reasons for walking the trail counterclockwise is to guarantee more shade on the return from the lake. The footpath drops through a little swale, perhaps dipping off to a hidden sinkhole. The forest is heavy on scrub oaks and sand pine and rather dense. Older sand pines create a very tall canopy, with muscadine grape and paw-paw beneath them. After a rain, a fresh pine needle smell rises from the duff.
A “confidence arrow” on a brown post assures you that you are on the right track. Sand pines rise against the deep blue sky. A five-lined race runner zips across the sand to hide in a clump of moss. Rusty and shiny lyonia grow within a couple of feet of each other. Another trailside bench tempts you with the opportunity to sit and drink a hearty draught of water. Climbing upward into open scrub, the trail leaves the shade and develops a distant horizon line. Cloud formations march across the sky.
The trail reaches the end of the loop, at the kiosk, after 2.2 miles. Continue straight ahead to exit to the parking area, completing a 2.3-mile hike.