Starting at the Ross Prairie Trailhead, the 3.5-mile Ross Prairie Loop offers an overview of Ross Prairie, a sprawling complex of grasslands and ponds nearly three miles long. Edged by sand pine scrub, longleaf pine forests and oak hammocks lush with ferns and orchids, this unique ecosystem is a highlight of a visit to the Cross Florida Greenway.
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. The Ross Prairie Loop combines the Florida Trail, which runs along the north and western edges of the prairie, and two blue-blazed connector trails to the trailhead.
Length: 3.5 miles
Lat-Long: 29.038717, -82.295367
Fees / Permits: Free permit required for primitive camping
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
Restroom: bathhouse at trailhead
September 2012 update: the trail segment from Ross Prairie Trailhead east to the Florida Trail has been opened up to mountain biking. Be especially cautious traversing the trail as the cyclists don’t seem to expect you to be there.
Primitive campers must obtain permission in advance in writing from the Office of Greenways and Trails to use the campsites. Call 352-236-7143 for details.
Follow SR 200 south from Ocala, crossing CR 484. Look for the trailhead at the green sign 1.5 miles past CR 484 on the left. Follow the road around to park near the restrooms. The trailhead offers an RV campground, access to equestrian trails, and another hiking trail, the 2.1-mile Holly Hammock Trail in adjacent Ross Prairie State Forest.
Start counterclockwise from the trailhead by following a break in the far corner of the fence, past the restrooms. 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. The 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.
You reach the Florida Trail at 1.3 miles at a signpost under the pines. Turn left and follow the orange blazes. You’ll soon pass a blue blaze which leads to an even higher spot with a picnic bench and fire ring for campers. Fall flowers – blazing star, deer’s-tongue, and yellow buttons – rise from patches of wiregrass beneath the pines. When the trail emerges through a cut in the fence to the shoulder of SR 200, it’s time to cross the highway, cautiously, as drivers have no warning of hikers crossing and the speed limit is 55 mph through Ross Prairie.
West of the highway, the habitat shifts to oak hammocks within the prairie. Take heed of rocks underfoot. Each hammock is dominated by at least one grand old sand live oak with limbs reaching in every direction. There are several brief crossings of the prairie here 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 the occasional panoramic glimpse of the prairie on your left and a constant view of the forest far below you on the right.
As the elevation relaxes, you’re led into a vibrant longleaf pine forest, where wiregrass forms a misty floor and winged sumac break out in fiery fall colors. Look for the trail junction sign at 2.8 miles. Follow the blue blazes down into the rolling sandhills, where an abundance of blazing star blooms beneath the young pines and turkey oaks. Keep alert for fox squirrels foraging—their size will surprise you. The trail passes a shallow depression, perhaps a sinkhole, on your right. It’s filled with prairie grasses. You’ll hear the sounds of traffic increasing. Soon after, you emerge at SR 200 again. Cross carefully and make a beeline for the Florida National Scenic Trail sign. Follow the fenceline to return to the restroom area and trailhead to complete the 3.5 mile loop.