For a hint of fall color in the Ocala National Forest, the Salt Springs Loop trail just south of the town of Salt Springs showcases a variety of habitats, among them a floodplain forest along Salt Springs Run. Here, the cry of osprey reflect off placid waters as the leaves of sweetgum and red maple turn. An easy walk of 2 miles, this is a popular trek for visitors to Salt Springs with a payoff along the route – an observation platform along the run, great for photography or birding.
Location: Salt Springs
Length: 2.1 miles
Lat-Long: 29.340072, -81.728832
Type: Loop with spur to boardwalk
Fees / Permits: None
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
From Ocala, take I-75 exit 352 and drive east on SR 40 through downtown Ocala and Silver Springs en route to the Ocala National Forest. Once you cross over the high bridge over the Ocklawaha, turn left at Nuby’s Corner at the light. Drive north on SR 314 to Salt Springs. Turn right at the junction of SR 314 and SR 19. The trailhead is a half mile south on the left.
Once you’re parked and walking back towards the parking lot entrance, there’s no missing the trailhead for the Salt Springs Loop. A large Forest Service sign marks the entrance for hikers. The trail curves away from SR 19 to slice a broad path through the oak scrub, where Chapman and myrtle oaks crowd around sand pines. At the “Salt Springs Observation Trail” kiosk, a map shows the loop and its two connectors, leading to the parking area and to the observation platform on Salt Springs Run. Turn right and continue beneath sand live oaks, their trunks painted with pink and white lichens, as the trail descends from the habitat that best defines the Ocala National Forest, the Big Scrub. As you proceed down the mild slope, you pass a bench.
After a quarter mile, you reach the trail junction at the top of the loop. Continue straight. A split-rail fence blocks off the crossing of an old trail. The footpath continues forward through a narrow corridor shaded by the scrub oaks. Each oak limb nutures its own hanging garden of lichens. Flanked by two dogwoods, a southern magnolia stands in a prominent spot. The trail re-enters the shade of the oak scrub, and continues downhill before rising slightly. As you catch a glimpse of sky between the trees, the canopy lifts. Rusty lyonia grows tall, mingling with the oaks. Saw palmetto edges the footpath. Slash pines break through the understory.
Emerging at a T intersection after 0.7 mile, turn right, walking down a broad path between loblolly pines. The trail drops down into a bayhead swamp and crosses over a bridge. It then descends into an oak hammock with spreading live oaks. After passing a bench, the trail curves gently to the right, carpeted by pine needles. You reach a boardwalk through a floodplain forest, where cinnamon ferns and royal ferns thrive under the shade of sweetgum and cypress.
After 1 mile, the trail ends at an observation platform on Salt Springs Run. Fed by 52 million gallons of water a day pouring out from between the rocks at Salt Springs, this run spills out into Lake George – part of the St. Johns River – near Drayton Island. It’s a popular place for kayakers and anglers, so you may see both along the shoreline. It’s also where you’ll see a parade of wildlife, particularly birds, if you sit quietly for a while. Eagles, hawks, and osprey rule the sky, while the great blue heron shares the shallows with its many cousins. The water is clear; look down and see the aquatic grasses waving, the bass and bluegill floating past. Wind ripples the water.
Inspired by the vivid descriptions of Florida published in 1792 by naturalist William Bartram, Samuel Taylor Coleridge set his epic poem Kubla Khan in this fascinating scene. When Bartram visited Salt Springs in 1774, he described it as an “amazing crystal fountain … which meanders six miles through green meadows, pouring its limpid waters into the great Lake George,” where within the spring, “white sand and small particles of shells are thrown up with the waters.” Describing “Alph, the sacred river” as gushing forth from a “mighty fountain … mid dancing rocks,” Coleridge echoes Bartram, his fantasy river “five miles meandering with a mazy motion.”
To complete your hike, return back along the boardwalk through the floodplain forest, following the broad footpath through the oak hammock and back to the trail junction. This time, continue straight. As you climb back up into the Big Scrub, notice how the temperature changes. The trail follows the econtone between oak hammock and scrub, curving in front of a split-rail fence at 1.5 miles. Passing another bench, you see a saw palmetto raising its fronds into the air on long, slender trunks.
Curving to the left, the trail makes one final sharp ascent into the oak scrub to reach the top of the loop after 1.7 miles. Turn right and continue along the oak-shaded corridor. Reaching the interpretive kiosk, the trail jogs left and uphill, ending at the parking area after 1.9 miles.