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. It 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. The Lake Eaton Sinkhole Trail provides an easy interpretive walk through the scrub and down into the sinkhole to an observation deck.
Location: Ocala National Forest
Length: 1.8 miles
Lat-Long: 29.263235, -81.855202
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Bug factor: Moderate
Restroom: Composting privy
Approach is by sand roads to the trailhead, which is shared with the Lake Eaton Trail.
From SR 40 in Silver Springs, east of Ocala, drive east 5 miles to the traffic light with CR 314. Turn left and drive 8.6 miles, passing both CR 314-A and the entrance to the FWC Youth Camp. Turn right onto Forest Road 50, a sand road. Drive uphill and turn right at the sign for Lake Eaton Trails. Trailhead parking is on the left.
The trail starts close to the composting privy. A connector footpath leads to the loop. Turn left. You soon encounter the same kiosk with map that has always been along the trail. Take a look, and continue into the tunnel of scrub.
The immersion in the scrub forest is, to me, as much a highlight of this trail as the sinkhole itself. Unlike the Lake Eaton Trail across the street, 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. Also known as crookedwood, it’s distinctive and common here. 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 views overhead of the tall sand pines that form the high canopy of the forest. You may see deer tracks in the compacted sand of the footpath as you pass several Florida rosemary bushes. As you come up to a bench, pause to notice the hanging gardens all around you. There are patches of red blanket lichen and crispy-looking shield lichen on the branches of the oaks, ball moss cradled in oak branches, and long stringers of old man’s beard. Low bush 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. A sheltered kiosk presents interpretive information on how sinkholes form. There’s a bench at the top of the staircase, which you’ll now descend to enter the sinkhole. The new staircase is certainly an improvement over the old one, easier to climb down – and up. At various points along the landings, you can look across the bowl of vegetation and see large oak trees, hickory trees, and Southern magnolias, which waft their sweet fragrance in late April and May. By disturbing the scrub landscape 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 forest.
Climb back up the staircase – a moment on the bench at the top might be in order – and turn left. A few steps later, you reach the shortcut trail on the right back to the trailhead, which shortens this to a 1-mile hike. Unless you’re in a hurry, skip it and keep heading straight through the corridor of scrub. You pass another bench. As the trail rises, it enters a more open scrub. There are lots of small sand pines, silk bay, and rusty lyonia, a perfect environment for the Florida scrub-jay. Indeed, on my most recent visit, I heard their calls in the distance but did not see them. Thanks to the Big Scrub, the Ocala National Forest has more scrub-jays than anywhere else in Florida.
After a mile, you reach a T intersection with no distinct marking as to where the trail goes next. Turn right. After the trail makes the turn, you re-enter the 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. The aromatherapy tree of the scrub, the silk bay, is also common along this stretch of the trail, notable with its shiny leaves. Crush a leaf, and a fragrant aroma emerges, reminiscent of a mild eucalyptus.
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.