Much like Hopkins Prairie, Juniper Prairie, and Farles Prairie in the Ocala National Forest, Ross Prairie is a fine example of a Central Florida prairie ecosystem with forested shorelines, marshes, and ponds.
Prairie grasses come in a variety of shapes and sizes, rising from ancient sand dunes on the Ocala limestone. Within the puzzle of grasslands lie permanent ponds, and when a rainy season is strong enough, the prairie becomes a marsh.
Connecting the thru-trail route of the Florida Trail with two blue-blazed side trails that lead in and out of the Ross Prairie trailhead, the Ross Prairie Loop does a full circuit of this large landform, which is bisected by a busy highway, SR 200.
Plans have been in the works for almost 20 years for an underpass to be built for the safety of trail users. Once that work is underway, half of this loop will close during the construction period.
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Length: 3.5 mile loop
Trailhead: 29.038717, -82.295367
Restroom: at the trailhead
Land manager: Cross Florida Greenway
Additionally, the eastern portion of the loop is shared with cyclists. Since it was not originally built to handle multi-use traffic, the trail is narrow and winding with limited visibility. Cyclists should yield to hikers, but in practice that doesn’t always happen.
Camping is available at a primitive campsite east of SR 200 and at the developed campground at Ross Prairie trailhead. If primitive camping, contact the Cross Florida Greenway at the number above, weekdays during business hours, and let them know your plans.
From Interstate 75 Belleview/Dunnellon Exit 324, head west on CR 484 for 9 miles. Turn left onto SR 200. Drive 1.6 miles south, crossing Ross Prairie before turning in at the trailhead. Follow the entrance road back to the parking area closest to the restrooms.
From the Ross Prairie trailhead parking area, walk past the restrooms towards the campground to reach the fence line. The loop follows this side of the fence in and out of the trailhead.
Go through the gap in the fence and look for the blue blazes. In the shade of oak hammocks, the trail winds its way along one arm of the prairie before crossing it. Look for jumbled limestone rising from the earth, including one formation that looks like a dinosaur backbone.
A second prairie crossing involves a trudge through soft sand churned by horses, as equestrian trails crisscross the area. A notable rise in elevation carries you up into pine forests sprouted atop eroded mounds of earth dug to build the Cross Florida Barge Canal in the 1930s.
After 1.1 miles, you reach a junction with the orange-blazed Florida Trail. Turn left. A few moments later, a blue-blazed side trail on the right leads uphill to the Ross Prairie designated campsite, which has a picnic bench and fire ring.
The trail soon emerges within sight of a picnic bench and a paved path. That’s the current end of the bike path that stretches east to Santos. Continue through the woods to a gap in the fence to the shoulder of SR 200.
While there are warning signs for an equestrian crossing, traffic rarely slows even when they see you waiting. A traffic light is within a quarter mile to the left so it does hold up the flow at times. Cross quickly and carefully.
Pass through the fence gap on the west side of the highway to return to the woods along the orange blazes. The habitat shifts to a string of oak hammocks on the prairie rim.
Each hammock is dominated by at least one grand old sand live oak with limbs reaching in every direction. There are several quick crossings of prairie arms as the trail remains in the shade of the oaks.
When you reach the old barge canal diggings, it looks like a hump rising out of the earth. The trail heads straight up to the top and stays there, providing some panoramas of the prairie through the forest.
As the elevation relaxes, you’re led into a healthy longleaf pine forest, where wiregrass forms a misty floor and winged sumac break out in fiery fall colors.
Look for the prominent trail junction sign at 2.8 miles. Follow the blue blazes down through rolling sandhills, where an abundance of blazing star blooms beneath the young pines and turkey oaks.
The trail passes a shallow depression, perhaps a sinkhole, on your right. It’s filled with prairie grasses. The sounds of traffic increase.
Soon after, you come to a gap in the fence and the shoulder of SR 200 again. Here, there are no signs to warn motorists that someone might cross.
Cross carefully and make a beeline for the Florida National Scenic Trail sign. Follow the fence line between the campground and trailhead to return to your starting point, completing the 3.5 mile loop.
Florida Trail Connections
See our photos of the Ross Prairie Loop
Cross Florida Greenway History
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
7.5 miles. With switchbacks, scrambles, and ancient oaks, the Pruitt section of the Florida Trail along the Cross Florida Greenway offers a fascinating hike into the history of the Cross Florida Ship Canal
6.7 miles. Between the Land Bridge Trailhead and Santos, the Florida Trail winds its way around horse farms to meander through stands of oaks and pines.
A 2.4 mile loop showing off the habitat diversity of Ross Prairie State Forest, this easy hike provides scenic panoramas across the prairie on a mostly shaded trail.
Official Map (PDF) Reserve a Campsite Official Website