Amid the vast uplands between Orange Lake, Lake Lochloosa, and Paynes Prairie, Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve offers a day hiking destination on a series of loops created for equestrian use. The footpath is firm enough and the habitats an excellent mix to make this a worthwhile wander for hikers as well. Managed by St. Johns Water Management District, this 2,850 acre tract sports colorful wildflowers in the sandhills and scrub each spring and fall.
Length: 4.4 miles
Lat-Lon: 29.565300, -82.189277
Type: network of loops
Fees / Permits: free
Difficulty: easy to moderale
Bug factor: low to moderate
Follow CR 325 north from Cross Creek or south from SR 20 just east of Rochelle to find the trailhead.
From the gate, walk up a short entrance trail to the trailhead kiosk and pick up a trail map. This hike follows the perimeter of all the loops, starting with the White Trail. Turn right and walk north into an open landscape of pine savanna, with scattered longleaf pines rising from a saw palmetto understory. Yellow-eyed grass blooms in the footpath. Dragonflies flit between the low bushes of shiny blueberry. It’s not quite a month into spring, and wooly pawpaw are in bloom along the edges of the trail, rising out of a bed of bracken fern.
As the trail comes up to a wall of vegetation, a firebreak joins in from the right and the trail turns left along the saw palmetto and gallberry, with a thick stand of pines behind them. After a quarter mile you reach the junction of the White Trail with the White/Red Connector Trail. This intersection is a little confusing. Turn to the left, and as you see the white blazes lead off to the south – the White Trail is the shortest of the loops in the preserve – turn right to follow the red blazes to continue along the perimeter trail. You walk into a broad, open landscape of young pines that seems like it’s under restoration, as the longleaf pines here are much younger, excepting some tall, skinny, spindly ones that stand out sharply against the sky. There is little shade. The footpath can get damp, as the grasses that grow in this forest road are the ones you see in wet flatwoods. Clusters of wild bachelor’s button rise from the sand.
At half a mile the trail makes a wide swing to the right away from a treeline of taller pines and loblolly bay, heading towards a thicker wall of pines to the north. You see the ivory blooms of pawpaw scattered through the grasses between the saw palmetto. Shiny lyonia is in bloom, laden with bright fuschia-colored blossoms. Reaching a graded road at a T intersection, the Red Trail turns left to follow the road. The limerock road curves to the left to get through a bayhead. As it curves to the right, the habitat begins a shift to sandhills.
A double red blaze marks the beginning of the Red Trail. Continue straight ahead. There is a campsite symbol up ahead, as a group campsite is down this trail. The path narrows down and enters puddles of shade cast by post oaks, blackjack oaks, and turkey oaks among the sandhills. All decked out in resurrection fern, the live oaks here are of significant size, and most obvious when they’re resplendent with ferns after a rain. Young longleaf pine rise from the forest floor. Passing the turnoff for the group campsite at 0.9 mile, you continue straight ahead into a forest nicely shaded by the oaks. Wax myrtle thrives in low spots in this upland forest, as does bluestem palm and the occasional cabbage palm. Pine duff underfoot makes the walking easy.
As you see more and more pines throughout the forest, the landscape dips off into swales in various directions, sometimes looking like they’re tracing the path of an underground stream. This is a healthy sandhill habitat. If you look closely enough, you’ll notice some of the pines have catfaces from turpentine tapping, some with the old metal flashing still embedded in the tree. The forest is much denser to the right; to the left it’s longleaf pine and wiregrass as far as you can see through the open understory.
The trail reaches a T intersection with the forest road coming in from the right and makes a left, turning north to follow the road. You briefly see the property fenceline off to the right. Wooly pawpaw leaves a trace of sweet fragrance on the breeze. Gopher apple grows in dense clusters in this sunny sandhill habitat. Pinewoods milkweed splays across the wiregrass, showing off its pale pink flowers in spring. A transition zone comes at 1.6 miles, where the tall pines start and you enter a dense thicket of scrub for a brief stretch, with bright soft sand underfoot. Returning to the sandhills, you reach the junction of the Red and Yellow Trails at 2 miles. This is the bottom of the Red Loop. Turn right to stay on the perimeter trail, heading south.
On this part of the trail, the habitat to your left doesn’t look as healthy as the ones you’ve walked through. It’s more like an old pasture that has grown back up with opportunistic trees, like laurel oaks, along its perimeter. The forest on the right is denser. At the junction of yellow blazes and yellow blazes, turn right. The trail descends into an shady upland forest with a mix of pines – loblolly, slash, and sand – among the oaks. The unexpectedly tall column-like tree trunks up ahead make up a cypress dome, complete with frogs croaking in the marsh that surrounds it. Marsh ferns and dog fennel choke the water. The trail faces it briefly, then curves to the left.
This spur trail leads deeper into the shade before emerging at a spot with bright white sand and pond cypress trees on the rim of the pine forest. Although there is no sign here to confirm so, this seems to be the location of Palatka Pond on the preserve map, and the pond is dry – or has retreated well back into the open prairie in front of you. The blazes simply end here. Turn around and follow the yellow blazes back into the shady forest, past the cypress dome, and back to the main perimeter trail, reaching it at 2.8 miles. Turn right. The trail comes to a fork almost immediately; keep to the left. It leads you out into the former pastureland, an open, sunny area, where tall grasses dominate. Young longleaf has been planted to restart a forest.
As you come to an intersection with an unmarked graded forest road at 3 miles, continue straight ahead, following the yellow blazes. The landscape drops off to the right, indicating the potential of a wetland area amid the prairie grasses. The trail turns to the north. The forest is sandhill but relatively open. You can see a line of pines off to the right. Passing a double diamond marker, the trail reaches another confusing junction, this one with double yellow on two sides of a post and no blazes straight ahead. Make a sharp left at this post, and then an immediate sharp right at the fork to stay on the Yellow Loop. The trail now follows the ecotone between the upland forest and the open ranchland.
At the junction of white and yellow blazes, turn right to follow the Yellow/White connector trail. It leads you into a well-established wet pine flatwoods where low spots collect water after a rain. The orange blooms of candyweed rise from moist areas. A double blaze guides you away from tractor tracks into the forest, making a sharp right. Following the white blazes past sweetgum trees and a skinny pine bent over like a catapult, step over a swale where water drains across the footpath. The trail jogs to the left, passing under more tall slash pines.
Reaching a Y junction with the White Loop at 3.9 miles, turn right to finish the last segment of the loop. Tall pines provide shade. The hammock is very dense on the right, with loblolly bay in the background, grapevines draped over shiny lyonia and the crooked forms of rusty lyonia reaching out towards the trail from a thicket of saw palmetto. You start to hear traffic as you come up to a double diamond marker. As the trail curves through the shade of a small oak hammock, you can see the county road off to your right. Emerging along the edge of a grassy pine savanna, you can see the sparkle of sunlight off the roof of the kiosk in the distance. You reach the kiosk at 4.3 miles. Turn right to exit to the parking area, wrapping up a 4.4 mile hike.