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, including a floodplain forest along Salt Springs Run. Here, the cry of osprey reflects off placid waters as the leaves of sweetgum and red maple turn.
An easy walk of 2 miles, this is a popular trek features 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.
The trailhead, near the parking lot entrance, is marked by a large Forest Service sign. At the trail kiosk, a map shows the loop and its two connectors. Turn right to walk beneath sand live oaks, their trunks painted with pink and white lichens.
Shortly after 0.25 mile of Big Scrub habitat is the trail junction at the top of the loop. Continue straight through a narrow, shaded corridor. Each scrub-oak limb nurtures its own hanging garden of lichens. Flanked by two dogwoods, a southern magnolia stands in a prominent spot. Look also for rusty lyonia, saw palmetto, and slash pines.
Reach a T intersection after 0.7 mile. Turn right here, down a broad path between loblolly pines. The trail drops into a bayhead swamp and crosses 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, reach the 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. This is a great spot for bird-watching; eagles, hawks, and osprey rule the sky, while the great blue heron shares the shallows with its many cousins.
Interesting fact: Inspired by naturalist William Bartram’s vivid descriptions of Florida, 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.”
Return back along the boardwalk, following the broad footpath and back to the trail junction. This time, continue straight. As you climb back up into the Big Scrub habitat, notice how the temperature changes. You’re following the econtone between oak hammock and scrub. The trail curve at a split-rail fence at 1.5 miles.
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. At the interpretive kiosk, the trail jogs left and uphill, ending at the parking area after 1.9 miles.