This short and easily accessible loop in the Osceola National Forest showcases an old growth longleaf pine forest with a population of red-cockaded woodpeckers best viewed in the early morning. Some of the pines sport catfaces, evidence of the turpentine industry that flourished around Lake City in the early part of the last century. Spanning several habitats, it’s a great place to see wildlife, especially gopher tortoises, and the detailed interpretive markers along the walk enhance your knowledge of wildlife, habitats, and history in this forest.
Length: 1 mile
Lat-Long: 30.197783, -82.505942
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
The loop is marked with metal silver diamond markers with hiker symbols on them. When overgrown, it can be a bit tricky in places to follow the trail. US 90 is always to your south and the railroad tracks to your north.
Drive east from downtown Lake City for 8.3 miles along US 90 to the wayside pulloff across from the Columbia Correctional Institution. From the east, the pulloff is 4.7 miles west of Olustee.
Starting at the wayside pulloff, the trail crosses a short boardwalk over a small depression where bog plants – hatpins and wild bachelor’s button – thrive. You’re immediately impressed in an old-growth longleaf pine forest, where the pines rise like tall, stately columns towards the sky, creating a high canopy.
Look for the tell-tale signs of dripping sap high up in the trees, an indicator of red-cockaded woodpecker nests. Most are clearly marked farther along the loop. The understory is very open, with a clear view across a layer of saw palmetto, a classic Florida landscape. Watch for an interpretive marker talking about the tapping of turpentine from these tall trees.
After a quarter mile, the trail shifts into a sandhill habitat, where a massive gopher tortoise burrow sits off to the right, a six-lined race runner sitting at the mouth of the hole. You’ll find pawpaw in bloom here each spring. Peering through the forest to your right, you can see where the railroad track passes by, connecting Jacksonville with Lake City. The trail winds beneath the shade of some small sand live oaks. If the trail becomes indistinct, look around for the next marker on the edge of this clearing. You continue into a forest of young turkey oaks, small pines, and saw palmetto. Crossing a firebreak, the trail works its way back under the tall longleaf pines. From this spot, you can see banded trees up ahead, the white circles around the trees indicating the known locations of red-cockaded woodpecker nests.
At the next fork, turn right on the lesser-used trail. We got a little confused here, so I backtracked and counted 24 steps forward to the next trail marker, reaching an interpretive sign at the half-mile mark soon after. Turn left and head towards the next interpretive marker. This area is a confusion of side trails–birders have beaten paths to the bases of many of the nest trees, which have distinctive “waxy” build-ups of sap on them below the woodpecker nest holes.
The trail makes a sharp left past the next marker to follow an old jeep trail under the pines. You can see the highway, and prison complex, through the woods to the right, so you know you’re on the return loop. Crossing another jeep trail junction, continue straight. The trail veers off to the right around 0.8 mile and once again becomes a narrow footpath under the pines, this time passing through a patch of tall grasses as it makes a beeline back to the wayside parking area, which you reach after a mile.