Amid the vast uplands between Orange Lake, Lake Lochloosa, and Paynes Prairie southeast of Gainesville, Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve offers a scenic day hiking destination on a series of loops created for equestrian use.
The footpath is firm and the habitats varied enough that this loop of forest roads makes for an interesting hike, especially when the wildflowers are ablaze in spring and fall.
Location: Between Cross Creek and Rochelle
Length: 4.4 mile loop
Trailhead: 29.565300, -82.189277
Fees / Permits: free
Land Manager: St. Johns Water Management District
The trails are open dawn to dusk to hikers, cyclists, and equestrians. A primitive campsite is located along the loop, and can be reserved for group use.
From Interstate 75 exit 374, Micanopy, drive east on CR 234 towards US 441. Turn south on US 441. Continue past the light at Pearl’s Store to make a left onto CR 346 where you see the sign pointing to Cross Creek. When CR 346 comes to a T intersection with CR 325 after 5 miles, turn left. Continue 2.6 miles to the trailhead parking area on the left.
Pick up a trail map at the kiosk. 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.
Scattered longleaf pines rise from a saw palmetto understory. Yellow-eyed grass blooms in the footpath. In spring, 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. 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. 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 a half mile the trail makes a wide swing right, heading north towards a dense wall of pines. Reaching a graded road at a T intersection, the White/Red Connector Trail turns left to follow the road.
The limerock road curves through a bayhead and then rises into sandhills. A double red blaze marks the beginning of the Red Trail. Continue straight ahead towards a campsite sign.
The path narrows, entering puddles of shade cast by post oaks, blackjack oaks, and turkey oaks. The live oaks are of significant size, and most obvious when they’re resplendent with ferns after a rain.
Passing the turnoff for the group campsite at 0.9 mile, continue straight ahead into a forest nicely shaded by the oaks. Pine duff underfoot makes the walking easy.
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. Some of the pines have catfaces from turpentine tapping.
The trail reaches a T intersection with a forest road coming in from the right. Make a left, turning to follow the road. Gopher apple grows in dense clusters in this sunny sandhill habitat.
A transition of habitats happens by 1.6 miles, where you enter a dense thicket of scrub with bright soft sand underfoot. Returning to the sandhills, you reach the junction of the Red and Yellow Trails at 2 miles. Turn right to stay on the perimeter trail.
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.
At a junction of yellow blazes and yellow blazes, turn right. The trail descends into an shady upland forest with a mix of pines 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. You’ve reached Palatka Pond, a beauty spot where the blazes simply end.
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 former pastureland, an open, sunny area, where tall grasses dominate. Young longleaf has been planted to restart a forest.
At 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.
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.
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.
A double blaze guides you 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.
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, with loblolly bay in the background.
You start to hear traffic as you come up to a double diamond marker. As the trail curves, you can see CR 325 to the right.
Emerging at the edge of a grassy pine savanna, the kiosk is visible in the distance. When you reach it, turn right to exit to the parking area, wrapping up a 4.4 mile hike.
See our slides of Longleaf Flatwoods Reserve
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
One of North Florida’s oldest bike paths, the Gainesville-Hawthorne Trail provides a mostly shaded rural ride
Peek through thick curtains of Spanish moss beneath grandfather live oaks along the shores of an ancient lake
In the deep shade of the floodplain of Prairie Creek near Gainesville, Prairie Creek Preserve is a beauty spot provided to the public by the Alachua Conservation Trust
Protecting a massive natural basin of prairie between Micanopy and Gainesville, Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park combines panoramic views with wildlife watching along its trails
Trail Map (PDF) Official Website