Gushing more than 550 million gallons of water out of a cluster of springs each day, Silver Springs is the birthplace of the Silver River, a wild and scenic waterway that my paddler friends like to describe as “6 miles upstream and 1 mile downstream.” A tangled jungle of floodplain forest edges the meandering waterway as it snakes its way to its conclusion at the northward-flowing Ocklawaha River.
It’s here that the Silver River Connector comes in. Built to showcase a segment of the Cross Florida Greenway paralleling SR 40 – the Florida Black Bear Scenic Byway – it’s a 3-mile round-trip ramble through pine and palmetto flatwoods from the Ocklawaha Visitor Center, a must-stop for information about the Ocala National Forest and the Greenway, to Ray Wayside Park, where paddlers put in to explore from the rivers’ confluence.
Location: Silver Springs
Length: 3 miles
Lat-Lon: 29.2195,-82.0146 to 29.2166,-81.9932
Type: linear or round-trip
Fees / Permits: Free to park at Ocklawaha Visitor Center, but there is a $6 entrance fee to park at Ray Wayside Park ($2 entry fee for pedestrians)
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
Restroom: At both ends of this hike
Be sure to check the posted hours before you hike. If the parking area at the now-closed Visitor Center is gated, use Ray Wayside Park as your trailhead for this hike.
From Interstate 75 in Ocala, drive west on SR 40 through Silver Springs for 10.9 miles. As you pass the traffic light at SR 326, keep alert for the next turnoff on the left for CR 315. Turn left to head north, then make a right into the parking area if the gate is open. If it is not, you may need to drive farther east on SR 40 to Ray Wayside Park to access the trail.
From the visitor center, walk back along the entrance road past the volunteer’s campsite and look for a fence line beyond it to the north. The gap in the fence to the right of the kiosk is where this trail begins. A glimpse at the kiosk will show you the trail map, decidedly linear, and confirm your mileage. The trail starts out as a broad path behind shepherded by the fence – which has old interpretive plaques mounted on it – around a curve to the right to encounter an old kiosk with habitat information.
The uniqueness of this particular forest was first documented by steamboat owner R.M. Harper in 1915 as a “loblolly pine/cabbage palm bottom” featuring a mix of pines, oaks, and a profusion of cabbage palms in a damp forest between the rivers. Indeed, after a rain like we had the day before, the footpath fills with big puddles. But it’s a big footpath to start, broad as a forest road, beneath a dense canopy providing full shade even in winter. This forest marks the southernmost edge of many North Florida species, including cedar elm, bluff oak, and box elder.
The trail is about as old as the Greenway, more than a decade, and the understory has grown in nicely, showcasing the tropical feel of cabbage palms popping up from the ground beneath the pines and oaks. The noise of SR 40 persists for a little while as an annoyance, but fades into the background as you continue to walk into the woods. Keep alert for the sounds of woodpeckers in the trees and any crashing through the brush that might signal the passage of wild hogs or even a Florida black bear, both of which have been spotted in this vicinity.
One of the most splendid things about this trail is its humidity, creating furry layers of mosses and bromeliads in the limbs of the oak trees and patches of lichens in pinks and whites on both oak and pine bark. The cabbage palms are so tall they rise well above the canopy, with trunks that look like poured concrete.
At 0.3 mile is a point for confusion. The main trail stays to the right, or so we would believe; a well-trodden trail also heads off to the left. Keep right along this curve. One of my disappointments on this hike was the lack of blazing or signage. There was, once, soon after it opened, but as this is one of the few trails on the Cross Florida Greenway that isn’t part of the Florida Trail, it’s not been well-maintained. Anyone care to adopt a trail?
The footpath is carpeted in a soft pine duff, wonderful for hiking, gentle and comfortable on the feet. Resurrection fern simply glows in deep shades of green, swaddling oak limbs overhead and logs on the forest floor. The intimacy of the forest yields to a more open feel as you can see farther through the understory beneath the pines. Birds and birdsong grow persistent as a cloud of migrating robins flitters and flutters throughout the canopy.
Reaching a segment of split-rail fence at 0.6 mile, you come to another confusion point. A trail goes around the fence straight ahead, but that’s not the main path. The path less traveled, unmarked into the woods to your left, is where you want to go. Pay attention to the footpath to keep on-trail. Here and there are bits of ribbon tied to tree limbs – still no blazes per se – and a confirmation blaze of sorts comes in the form of the trail passing between split-rail fence to the right and left. It’s a little tricky to follow the trail. The big trees, however, are good markers that you’re in the right place. Some lean, others raise their limbs to the sky, but all are fuzzy with ferns and bromeliads.
A fence blocks a path off to the right at 0.8, and the trail becomes wide as a jeep track again, easy to follow. The landscape opens up into somewhat of a clearing with two massive oaks dominating the scene. Owl pellets at their base speak to these giants as a base of operations for large raptors. The clearing is along the edge of a floodplain forest; you can hear the crickets in the background. Turning right, the trail passes more split-rail fence before it enters a tight corridor that seems oddly familiar, and yet not. It’s an oak scrub, much as you’ll find throughout the Ocala National Forest, and yet it’s also been invaded by plants common to wet flatwoods, including loblolly bay and water oak. The footpath narrows to the point where I couldn’t fit my hiking stick perpendicular to me—a little claustrophobic, with fallen logs and overhanging branches to puzzle through.
Rising out of the scrub and up a small hill, the trail is now on a plateau topped with pines after 1.3 miles. Off to the right is a large pond where crickets and frogs sing in chorus. Off to the left, the woods drop off into floodplain forest. The trail curves around to work its way around a canal ditch on one end of the pond, with one brief glimpse down the waterway before coming up to the base of an enormous oak fuzzy in ball moss. Turning sharply left, the footpath continues through semi-scrub that echoes with the sounds of crickets and frogs in the floodplain forest.
The understory opens up and truly feels park-like amid this co-mingling of tall cabbage palms, loblolly pines, and large live oaks. Emerging from the forest, the trail crosses a small footbridge and pops you out into the green grass maintained by DOT beneath the oversized bridge over the Ocklawaha River. Curious why such a massive highway bridge for a small river? It’s a leftover legacy of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which almost destroyed the Ocklawaha and Silver Rivers in the 1970s. Believe it or not, President Richard Nixon signed the order to stop the madness. I, for one, am truly grateful.
If you wish to continue to Ray Wayside Park, cross under the highway bridge and head out the gate you see on the far side. The park itself used to be a pulloff along the original SR 40 where it crossed the Ocklawaha on a more sensibly-sized bridge, and is now a Marion County Park with bells and whistles like a playground, large picnic area, restrooms, and the boat basin, which is not on either river but is a channel that leads out to the Silver River, which you can’t see from here. Still, if you’re a photographer, you may find it worth your while to pay the $2 pedestrian fee to head down to the boat basin and watch for wading birds.
Your hike isn’t complete, of course. The thing about a round-trip hike is you do it all again, backwards, which provides another perspective on the trip and a change of lighting for your images. Following the narrative above, backwards, keep alert for the tell-tale worn pathway and split-rail fences to find your way back to the Ocklawaha Visitor Center. It’s a 3-mile round-trip if you stop at the edge of the grassy zone at the highway bridge, or 3.6 miles if you wander over to the boat basin and back.