4/17/2023 UPDATE: A reader says the trail is closed. On the USFS website, the current Recreation Area Status says “Area Status: Temporarily Closed.”
In the heart of the Big Scrub of the Ocala National Forest, the Lake Eaton Sinkhole is a relatively young phenomenon compared to the other large sinkhole in the region, Devil’s Millhopper.
This one punctured the ancient dunes with a massive collapse, which, when stabilized, formed a cool bowl in which a hardwood forest took root.
Eighty feet deep and more than 450 feet across, it’s quite a geological wonder, even obscured by the forest as it is now.
The Lake Eaton Sinkhole Trail provides an easy interpretive walk through the scrub and down into the sinkhole to an observation deck.
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Location: Lake Eaton
Length: 1.8 miles
Trailhead: 29.263235, -81.855202
Restroom: Vault toilet at trailhead
Land manager: Ocala National Forest
Leashed dogs welcome. Use insect repellent here for chiggers and ticks, which are partically bad from April through the fall.
It’s warm in the scrub, so carry more water than you normally would for a hike of this length.
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.
The trail starts close to the vault toilet at the trailhead. A connector footpath leads to the loop. Turn left when you reach it, coming up to a kiosk with a map.
Take a look and continue into the tunnel of scrub. The scrub forest here is quite dense and well-shaded by a tight canopy along much of the hike.
The trail winds through the sand pine scrub, with its low canopy of myrtle oak, Chapman oak, sand live oak, and rusty lyonia, which arcs its crooked branches above the trail.
In the understory, seafoam-colored puffs of deer moss sprout from the dense carpet of oak leaves beneath the trees.
Although it twists and turns so there is rarely a straightaway, the trail offers occasional glimpses overhead of the tall sand pines that form the high canopy of the forest.
Pass several Florida rosemary bushes before coming up to the first bench along the loop.
Notice the hanging gardens in the surrounding oaks, patched with red blanket lichen and decorated with crispy-looking shield lichen, ball moss, and long stringers of old man’s beard.
Shiny blueberries line the trail. In late spring, they’ll be in fruit, a tasty treat for bears, birds, and other inhabitants of the scrub.
At a half mile, the trail starts descending, approaching the sinkhole. Looking through the trees, you can see the vast gap in the forest ahead.
As you reach the rim of the sinkhole, the trail becomes a boardwalk with a view down into this natural bowl, and a sheltered kiosk with interpretive information.
The staircase leads into the sinkhole. At various points along the landings, you can look across the bowl of vegetation.
Growing from the bottom and along the slopes are large oak trees, hickory trees, and Southern magnolias, which waft their sweet fragrance in late April and May.
By disturbing the scrub with its collapse, the sinkhole provides a cooler environment where hardwoods can flourish.
Since it didn’t intersect the water table, which is deep below ground here, the bottom of the sink stays dry, but damp enough from transpiration and rain to host this hardwood forest.
Climbing back up the staircase from the overlook at the bottom of the stairs, turn left. A few steps later, the Shortcut Trail branches back to the trailhead, trimming this to a 1 mile loop if you’re in a hurry.
Our route stays along the main trail, straight ahead through the corridor of scrub. Pass another bench.
As the trail rises, the scrub understory is more open. There are lots of small sand pines, silk bay, and rusty lyonia, a perfect habitat for the Florida scrub-jay.
If you see a blur of blue, that’s one flying by. Thanks to the Big Scrub, the Ocala National Forest has more scrub-jays than anywhere else in Florida.
After a mile, there is a T intersection. Turn right and re-enter the tunnel effect and shade of the oak scrub.
Massive patches of deer moss appear in coves between the saw palmettos, covering the leafy forest floor. Lizards dash along the mottled branches of rusty lyonia and up the sand pines.
Passing the final bench at 1.5 miles, the trail continues to pick up elevation beneath the sand pines and oak scrub.
The shortcut trail comes in from the right, and you pass behind the composting privy. Watch for the exit back to the trailhead to complete this 1.8 mile hike.
This same trailhead provides access to the Lake Eaton Trail in the opposite direction.
See our photos of the Lake Eaton Sinkhole Trail
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
11.9 miles. North of Eaton Creek, the Florida Trail showcases spectacular sand pine forests and unique species adapted to this arid environment within the Big Scrub.
11.4 miles. In the damp southwest corner of the Ocala National Forest, the Florida Trail navigates boardwalks across a swampy subtropical jungle.
10.4 miles. Crossing a patchwork of scrub ridges and longleaf pine islands, the Florida Trail makes its way southwest of Salt Springs around Lake Kerr to The 88 Store