It’s been a long time coming – Marion County’s first conservation area is now open for hikers to enjoy. Tucked between residential and business areas in Silver Springs across from Silver River State Park, this slice of sandhills and scrub is a crucial upland recharge area for the nearby first-magnitude spring. As rain falls on the landscape, it percolates down into the aquifer to flow through limestone and emerge from the spring vents in the Silver River.
Two stacked loop trails (with a cross-trail on the upper loop) provide several options for hiking, utilizing a combination of new trails and old forest roads. There are benches at most intersections, and a picnic bench at a beauty spot under ancient live oaks. Take an early morning walk, enjoy the birdsong, and take in the colors of the sandhills.
Location: Silver Springs
Length: 2.3 miles
Lat-Long: 29.194696, -82.059559
Fees / Permits: none
Good for: birding, dogs, wildlife, wildflowers
Difficulty: 2 of 5
Bug factor: 2 of 5
Open dawn to dusk. Managed by Marion County Parks & Recreation
From the intersection of SR 40 and SR 35 (Baseline Road), head south on Baseline Road for 1.6 miles. Turn right at the light at NE 7th Street / Sharpes Ferry Road and drive 0.4 mile. Look for the park entrance on the right. Drive around the loop to the trailhead.
Starting at the trailhead kiosk, pick up a map before you head down the narrow trail. The footpath is deeply shaded and well-defined, and despite there being no blazes along the trail system, you’ll only lose your way if you don’t pay attention while you’re deep in discussion while walking with a friend. At the first trail junction – the Eagle Pass – keep to the right. The trail continues through laurel oak forest with patches of deer moss and reindeer lichen growing atop fallen pine needles. Chicksaw plums bear small purple fruits in summer, and paw-paw grows in clearings.
After a quarter mile, you reach the upper end of the Eagle Pass at a confusion of corners. Just follow the signage – keep to the right, but not the sharp right – to start around the Deer Track counterclockwise. A footprint marker confirms your route soon after. Unusually shaped prickly pear rise from the sand, and the sun shimmers through spiderwebs hung in early morning dew. Beyond a sharp right in the trail, you make a sharp left and face a beauty spot under massive live oaks, where a picnic table invites you to sit and kick back a while.
Continuing out from under the canopy of oaks, the trail follows a two-track forest road, the habitats transitioning uphill through sandhills with tall longleaf pines and into scrub. You can hear traffic on Baseline Road but you can’t see it as the trail turns sharply left at a sign and continues along a broad forest road beneath turkey oaks and longleaf pines. Butterflies flit between colorful wildflowers. The trail makes another sharp, where you can see traffic ahead through the screen of trees—but the sound of cicadas shouts out any road noise. This is a more mature forest with tall longleaf pines and a very open understory.
At 1 mile, you reach a bench and a sign for the Shortcut Trail. This is your second option to make a shorter-than-full loop. To keep on the Deer Track, continue straight. Turkey oaks provide shade as you walk down the corridor through the forest, coming to a sharp left turn at a “Service Road” sign. Here, it’s off the beaten path and down a narrow footpath in deep shade as you pass some very large puffs of deer moss. The air is filled with the scent of pine. Droplets roll off the needles of young sand pines, and vines curl through the understory.
The trail passes a service road coming in from the right and jogs to the left. There is an abrupt change of habitat in front of you to a very mature hardwood hammock with cabbage palms and terrain that simply drops off—indicators of a large sinkhole which the earth slopes down sharply to meet, just past a bench on the right. A tall oak and several cabbage palms grow out of the vegetation-obscured bottom of the sinkhole. Another, smaller, depression is on the left. After making a sharp left away from a service road, the trail narrows again. The other end of the Shortcut Trail appears at the next intersection – a four-way junction – with a bench at 1.7 miles. Continue straight.
As you walk through a mix of sand pines and longleaf pines, notice the many young longleaf in their candle stage, just two feet tall and furry like a stubby bottlebrush. The trail becomes a forest road again before making another left to slip down a narrow passage where lichens grow thickly on the young oaks and plum trees. At the 2 mile mark, you’ve completed the Deer Track Loop. Turn right at the “Trail HD” sign and bench, and keep right to explore the other half of Eagle Pass—more turkey oaks and laurel oaks, second or third growth forest. A sharp left away from a service road leads you back towards the end of this loop. Turn right to exit. The trail pops back out of the shade – and lovely shade it’s been, on a hot summer’s morning – after 2.3 miles.