Managed by the Florida Forest Service, the Jennings State Forest offers visitors 25,000 acres and several miles of trails for numerous recreational activities including hiking, cycling, horseback riding, birding, canoeing, hunting, and fishing.
However, several trails are open only to foot traffic and provide some of the best hiking in this part of Florida. The longest of these is the Pioneer Trail, which follows the southern edge of the North Fork Black Creek.
It was the brainchild of Frank Burley, Jennings State Forest Supervisor. He wanted to connect all of the landings and campgrounds along the creek throughout the state forest.
After enlisting the help of volunteer Dennis Chapman three years ago, they began the monumental task of building a new trail from scratch.
To date, 11.9 miles are complete, linking Indian Ford, Knight’s Landing, and the Dunns Farm Trail. This hike follows the southernmost 8.2 miles. Other options are possible from the north end access points.
One final section will link the trail to North Fork Campground, but is awaiting a bridge to be built.
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Length: 8.2 miles linear (of 11.9 miles)
Trailhead: 30.111629, -81.906638
Fees: $2 per person day use
Land manager: Florida Forest Service
Open sunrise to sunset, unless you are camping overnight. Only foot traffic is allowed on this trail. Leashed dogs welcome.
If camping, leave a note for the forest rangers on the vehicle dash. Campsites must be reserved in advance online and cost $10 per site.
Bring bug spray, sunscreen, and extra water and/or a water purification system.
From Jacksonville take Blanding Boulevard (SR 21) south to Middleburg. Turn west on CR 218 and drive 5.3 miles. Turn right on Nolan Rd. Continue 1.9 miles to Hattie Nolan Rd. Follow this road for a mile. It turns to dirt at the entrance to Jennings State Forest at an intersection with Scully Rd and narrows significantly. Going may be difficult in a passenger vehicle if the surface is wet or soft. Continue another 1.5 miles, keeping right at the Y past the Padgett Cemetery, to Indian Ford Recreation area and the trailhead parking.
Since the southern trailhead can be challenging to access, you can optionally flip this hike to access it via the Dunn’s Farm Trail. To reach that trailhead, continue another 1.3 miles past Nolan Rd on CR 218 west to Longhorn Road. Turn right and follow it for 1.5 mile to the shared trailhead adjoining forest headquarters.
There are multiple access points to the Pioneer Trail, the longest trail in Jennings State Forest.
Most hikers utilize either the Dunn’s Farm Trail or the Crosscut Trail as a connector. Both are accessed from the primary trailhead adjoining forest headquarters at 1337 Longhorn Rd, Middleburg and enable you to form loops using the three trails.
On a south to north hike along the Pioneer Trail, start at the parking lot for Indian Ford Recreation Area. Follow the blue blazes along a wide saw palmetto-lined path. To the right is the North Fork Black Creek.
The trail descends and at 0.3 miles you’ll reach a low-lying area that sees flooding during the rainy season. Gravel and wood circles have been added here to assist with crossing.
At 0.4 miles you’ll reach a series of footbridges; tread carefully as they may be slippery when wet. The trail then ascends and at 0.5 miles you’ll reach a bench.
At a double blaze at 0.8 miles, take a right onto a forest service road. Walk 100 feet and take a right back into the forest, following the blue blazes.
At 1.1 miles, the path descends again toward and the creek and its adjacent lowlands. The trail becomes soft and damp here.
The mixed hardwood forest and denser understory can be very still and quiet, punctuated only by the sounds of distant woodpeckers.
At 1.2 miles, cross over McIntosh Branch. There is a high water crossing above the trail if needed.
Just after crossing the branch, you reach a short spur trail to Bluff Campsite, which has a picnic table, fire ring, room for two tents, and access to North Fork Black Creek.
Almost a half mile later is a footbridge with a steel cable handrail over Budding Branch. The water is very clear here. But if you need to fill your water bottle, be sure to filter it.
In addition to blue blazes on the trees. you’ll also see a great deal of pink and red-tinged red blanket lichen.
As you leave the creek, going northwest, the trail ascends to the edge of a sandy pine forest. The trail meanders through this boundary area, with its mix of hardwoods and pine.
Soon after the trail veers left, you reach Knight’s Landing at 2.5 miles. This is a busy put-in for canoes and kayaks, especially on the weekends.
Cross a road here. There’s a Jennings State Forest Knight’s Landing Recreation Area sign on the right. After crossing the road the trail heads back into the forest.
At 2.8 miles there is a right leading to a footbridge over Scully Branch. A quarter mile beyond is a bench beneath a shady live oak tree.
At 3.7 miles the trail ascends quite abruptly and at 3.9 miles you’ll reach a sign marking the unimposing Mt. Reagan. Nevertheless, it’s a surprising elevation change, considering you’re hiking in Florida.
Bear right to soon reach a short spur trail to Creekside Campsite. It is directly along the creek, with a picnic table, fire rings, and room for 2 or 3 tents.
Pass through the campsite to reconnect to the Pioneer Trail via a quarter mile spur trail in your direction of travel.
After the campsite spur turnoff, the trail becomes narrower and steeper, up and down like a small roller coaster.
Trail reaches Taylor Overlook, where there is a bench where you can take a rest and catch your breath.
At 4.5 miles, take a hard right, following the blue blazes. The path becomes a series of turns and small elevation changes at it follows the creek.
This section is reminiscent of more mountainous terrain found in states to the north. At 4.6 miles you’ll reach Tippins Branch, crossing over a small footbridge.
A small stand of cypress knees are on the left. As you continue on your hike, reach Ellis Ford Landing at 5 miles and cross Ellis Ford Road.
Passing a bench, the trail turns left to climb along the top of a long ravine shaped by Padgett Branch.
At 5.8 miles, descend a switchback to a beautifully built bridge called “Many Seeps Walkway” that spans over Padgett Branch.
After you cross the bridge, you’ll climb up the other side of the ravine and make your way back to North Fork Black Creek.
Notice the many natural features that define this as a seepage slope, including the clear water of the many seeps.
There are moisture-loving plants on the slopes, as well as cypress, red maple and other water-tolerant trees at the bottom of the ravine.
At 6.5 miles, the trail reaches the end of this ravine Take a left, then climb steeply, following the blue, veer left and follow the creek again.
A short way along is a spur trail on your left that leads to Dunn Cemetery, a recently restored cemetery of the Padgett and Dunn families, early settlers of this area.
Soon after the cemetery spur at 6.8 miles is Osteen Overlook, one of the prettiest places on this hike.
Here there is a large bench so you can stop, rest, and take in the beauty of the North Fork Black Creek and stairs leading down to the flat sandy areas near the water’s edge.
Just behind the overlook is the Mule Landing campsite. It has a small table for cooking/eating and a fire ring. There’s room here for 2 or 3 tents, although the ground is not exactly flat.
Continue down the trail, following the creek, and at 7.1 miles you’ll reach Borden Branch and a loop of the Dunn’s Farm Trail. After crossing the branch, the Pioneer Trail turns right.
Here, the two trails share the same path for a while and you’ll see both blue and pink blazes on the trees.
At 7.5 miles, you reach Prescott Falls, where there is a bench and a barrier fence. Do not attempt to go down to the water as this is a fragile area.
Around 8 miles you’ll see two more cascades, Schoolhouse Falls and Duck Pond Falls. By 8.2 miles you reach a 4-way intersection that marks the end of the Pioneer Trail.
At this point, a 0.9 mile trail leads out to the Dunn’s Farm trailhead, if you want to make this a linear hike and have someone pick you up there.
If you’re camping overnight, go back to the Mule Landing campsite, pitch your tent, and fill your water bottles from the creek.
Sleep well listening to the mysterious calls of barred owls, rising the next morning to hike back to the Pioneer trailhead.
Learn more about Jennings State Forest
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
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On a walk through Camp Milton Historic Preserve, discover Civil War stories through a grove of historic trees that have tales to tell beneath their leafy shade