A lesser-known part of Withlacoochee State Forest, the Oxbow Trail is on the northernmost tract of the forest along the Withlacoochee River, the trails and campsites all Eagle Scout projects. While the easy-to-follow big loop trail is a popular circuit for families and folks taking their dogs on a walk, the tougher-to-follow but more visually satisfying addendum, the Oxbow Nature Trail, makes its way out to the very tip of the peninsula, providing excellent scenic views of the river from a variety of perspectives. Riverside camping is open to individuals and groups who obtain a free permit from the Division of Forestry.
Location: Citrus Springs
Length: 1.2 miles
Lat-Long: 29.005735, -82.387856
Type: stacked loops
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor:moderate to extreme
Be sure to spray insect repellant on liberally. The trail is flanked by cypress swamps, so mosquitoes can be fierce early and late in the day, and chiggers are certainly here, as I learned when I used no bug spray one day.
Follow SR 200 south from Ocala. At the junction with CR 484, continue 6.2 miles south on SR 200 to the Withlacoochee River bridge. Immediately after crossing the bridge, turn right onto CR 39, between the two gas stations. Drive 2.7 miles to the trailhead on the right side of the road, just beyond the Johnson Pond Trail trailhead on the left side of the road.
At the trailhead, a kiosk points the way down the entrance trail to the loop, a pretty connector that winds its way beneath a canopy of wizened sand live oaks thick with lichens and resurrection fern, a classic oak scrub. Look carefully at the bases of the oaks – I’ve seen snails here crawling up the bark. Rusty lyonia, shiny lyonia, and scrub oaks make up this diminutive forest, a gateway to the habitats that lie ahead. Coming to a T intersection with the main loop – an easy to follow and somewhat broad forest road – take a left.
A cypress swamp lies off to the right briefly, and a dense scrub forest to the left, just thick enough to hide the trail from the highway. At a T junction with a gate to the left, turn right. Carolina jessamine dangles across the canopy, raining down yellow blooms as the wind ruffles the leaves of the trees of this hardwood forest. A summer tanager perches in a laurel oak. Birdsong is all around, as songbirds particularly like this dense forest. A pignut hickory rains down hickory nuts across the footpath. Cabbage palms appear here and there in the understory, indicating that the water table isn’t too deep here: no surprise, since the trail is dipping down slightly towards the river. On a summer hike, you’ll see plenty of mushrooms in the understory, enough to have you scrambling for a field guide to identify them all. Passing a very large oak, you see a trail off to the left, and it’s blocked off. Continue following the more obvious path into the cypress swamp. In the deep shade of the cypress, you’ll find a sign “Oxbow Nature Trail” at 0.4 mile.
Now most visitors to this trail just do the easy, obvious loop, but what’s the fun in that? The second loop is prettier but much more difficult to follow. Turn left to start walking the second loop. There are lots of obstacles in the form of small cypress knees underfoot. Notice the watermarks on the cypress? When the Withlacoochee River floods, at least half of this trail is under water. Passing through this “field of knees,” you can see a bluff up ahead and the river beyond, flowing behind the screen of trees. It’s very easy to lose the blazes in this section unless they’ve been refreshed, and it takes some tracking skills to follow the trace of the trail, which emerges at the Withlacoochee River. This is a beauty spot, with large cypresses lining the far bank of the swiftly-moving waterway. The Withlacoochee River has its origin in the Green Swamp, and flows northward towards Dunnellon, which is another five miles or so downriver as the river winds from this point. It’s there that the Rainbow River adds its waters, and the Withlacoochee, deeper and wider, becomes Lake Rousseau before.
Passing a cypress knee that looks like an inverted udder, you find another pretty spot, thick with bromeliads in the trees. Still guessing at the footpath, keep close to the water’s edge until you see a bench, and head towards that. The bench has a nice view of the river and sits in what’s labeled as a butterfly garden, but doesn’t seem to be attracting any, at least not in summer. Continue to follow the track of the trail – blazes questionable – looking for a bird box and a picnic table that marks another way point along the loop. You should find the path close to the river beyond this point, with more panoramas from the bluffs above the waterway. Don’t be surprised to see kayakers drift past, en route back downstream to where you can rent kayaks and canoes at Angler’s Resort next to the bridge in Dunnellon.
Still without blazes, it’s more of an adventure trail than a nature trail, with patches of coreopsis in bloom, as you attempt to follow the trace of the trail, now passing a bat house. Finally, you see a blaze – behind you. It guides you, however, in the direction where the trail is located, so walk over there and look for the track. Following the curve of the oxbow to your left, you’ll eventually find another blaze in the correct direction. Mind you, I’ve gotten lost several times here – since the two sides of the trail do draw close enough together to confuse – but this is a slender peninsula, so you can’t get very lost, as the base of the peninsula is the forest road you came in on. Just keep following the river’s flow upstream. Having a GPS helps you determine when you reach the tip of the oxbow. When you’re at the tip, you can see the river on both sides of you. Keep left.
On the return, the trail does a bit of a roller-coaster in and out of the floodplain, crossing an alligator slide – a smooth place where its obvious that alligators slip down into the river. You may see the bird box and bat house again off to your right, depending on how leafy the trees are. Stay close to the river this time. The trail works its way through large trees along the river’s edge, emerging at a campsite on the river bluff. Built by Boy Scouts – as was the trail you were just on – it serves as a group camp for them and for individuals hiking or paddling the river; a free permit is necessary from Withlacoochee State Forest. Crossing a bridge, you reach the main trail loop again. Turn left.
As the broad forest road works its way around the loop, the cypress floodplain sits off to your right. To the left, the river is just beyond view until you come up to a second campsite, also close to the river. It’s not as pleasant as the first one, but has easier access for paddlers to pull canoes up on shore. The river view here includes marsh plants in the foreground. Take your last glimpse of the river and continue following the trail, which keeps curving right around the cypress floodplain. A buttonbush is full of its white, globular blooms. An old fire ring sits off to the left, with a side trail – unmarked – beaten off into the woods to the left. A little bit of exploration down it shows that this is another group camping area used by scouts, more primitive and off the main trail, nicely shaded by oaks. Some metal hooks are embedded in the ground, perhaps for pitching massive Army-style tents. A rare scrub plant, sand squares, grows back in this area.
Backtrack to the main trail and turn left where you see the fern-fuzzy tree with a picnic table beyond, rejoining the main loop. You’ve walked a mile. Bird song echoes through the cypress floodplain. The deep-orange blooms of trumpet vine draw your attention to the canopy. Eventually you come up to the sign that indicates the start of the loop. Turn left to re-enter the oak scrub along the winding but short entrance trail to exit. You emerge at the parking area after 1.2 miles.