Sunnyhill Restoration Area hides a surprisingly massive marsh that was once part of the Ocklawaha River behind its scrim of forest seen from encircling roads.
The Ocklawaha is fed by waters that first rise in the massive Green Swamp north of Tampa as the Palatakatala River, which flows through Clermont and Leesburg.
Those waters feed the massive interconnected basins of Lake Harris, Lake Eustis, Lake Dora, Lake Yale, and Lake Griffin, which empties to form the north-flowing Ocklawaha.
Sunnyhill Restoration Area encompasses uplands that recharge the river system as well as lowlands once part of the historic river channel.
Resources for exploring the area
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Location: Weirsdale, Moss Bluff
Trailhead: 28.993687,-81.834440 (Headquarters/Blue House)
Address: 19561-B SE Hwy 42, Umatilla
Fees: Only if parking at Moss Bluff Recreation Area
Restroom: Only at Moss Bluff Recreation Area
Land manager: St. Johns Water Management District
Open sunrise to sunset. Leashed dogs permitted but not advised on the levees due to the alligators. Shade is limited on most trails.
From the Belleview exit on Interstate 75 south of Ocala, follow CR 484 east for 8.1 miles. Turn right on US 441 at the traffic light in Belleview. Drive south for 4 miles to SR 42. Turn left at the light. Continue for 9.7 miles through Weirsdale on SR 42 to cross over the Ocklawaha River Bridge. Watch for the low sign on the left for the entrance to Sunnyhill, across from Nelson’s Fish Camp. Turn left on the first road to the parking area at the Blue House.
The South and North trailheads are along SE 182nd Ave Rd, which heads north at the blinker another 1.8 miles east of Blue House along SR 42 in South Forest, where you’ll also find the South Tract trailhead on the right. The other North Tract trailheads are at 15110 SE 182nd Ave Rd and 11548 SE 182nd Ave Rd. For Moss Bluff, continue past North Trailhead to a T intersection at Meadors Corner and make a left. Drive west to the next blinker, at a Dollar General, and make a left. The entrance to Moss Bluff Recreation Area will be on the left immediately before the bridge.
About the Preserve
During the 1800s in Florida, travel and commerce was by river. The Ocklawaha was a mazy waterway for commercial traffic to follow.
Emptying into the St. Johns River near Palatka, its floodplain forests crowded close to steamboat passengers.
An 1890s riverboat stuck in floating masses of vegetation (Florida State Archives)
In the open marshes south of Moss Bluff, boats taking passengers upriver and vegetables downriver could easily get lost amid massive floating islands of vegetation.
So by 1924, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged a commercial channel and built a lock and dam at Moss Bluff.
The first Moss Bluff Dam (Florida State Archives)
After World War II, the lock and dam were replaced again, commerce giving way to recreational use of the waterway.
A toxic build-up grew in Lake Griffin from runoff off farms surrounding the lake, which took extensive measures, including the creation of man-made filtration marshes.
The extensive marshes protected at Sunnyhill, once within the river’s historic meanders, serve part of that role.
Upland recharge areas, formerly ranchland and pine plantation and farms, are also under restoration to natural habitats bordering the river basin.
In 2016, the preserve more than doubled in size when the majority of the former Flyin’ J Ranch south of SR 42 became a part of it.
This younger South Tract has expansive prairies where sandhill cranes gather between islands of live oaks.
About the Trails
Between the original tract north of SR 42 and the new South Tract, there are more than 25 miles of multiuse trails within Sunnyhill Restoration Area.
These are optimized for equestrian use and marked with equestrian trail diamond markers. Most are grassy or a combination of grassy and two-track.
As shown on the Directions map, there is a walk-in access point and five trailheads. All have ample space for horse trailers.
Not within the preserve but providing a north trailhead for the Levee Trail, Moss Bluff Recreation Area is a Marion County Park with an entrance fee.
Trailheads in the preserve offer free access. The primary trailhead is at Blue House, a restored 1930s farmhouse.
It is the easiest to find entrance, immediately east of the SR 42 bridge over the Ocklawaha River on the same entrance road for preserve headquarters.
Blue House provides access to the 7.5-mile linear Levee Trail which parallels the Ocklawaha River north to Moss Bluff.
It also provides a 2-mile round-trip via the White Trail to the observation tower that offers a birds-eye view of the surprisingly expansive marshes at Sunnyhill.
Being along the forested rim of the property, the two trailheads off SE 182nd Ave Rd offer different perspectives on the marshes and uplands.
The east end of the White Trail at South Trailhead begins on a high, pine-topped bluff with a deep sinkhole, dropping to marsh level.
It’s a 4.4 mile round-trip from this trailhead to the observation tower. With two cars, you can do a 2.2 mile linear hike to Blue House trailhead, or a 6.5 to 7 mile hike to North Trailhead.
North Trailhead provides access to the Red and Yellow Trail Loops. A half-mile linear connector leads to the 3.6 mile Red Loop, which can also be directly accessed from a walk-through stile.
The stile is in place across from SE 127 St Rd (Ocala National Forest FR 14) to enable easy access by equestrians camped at Doe Lake.
A 0.2 connector enables access to the 3.3-mile Yellow Loop, which in turn is connected to the Yellow/White Trail (blazed road) through the marshes to the observation tower.
That road effectively ties together all three trailheads inside the north portion of the preserve. There are times, seasonally, when it may be inaccessible due to flooding.
All South Tract trails are accessed from the large trailhead south of the blinker along SR 42 at SE 182 Ave Rd.
The linear White Trail, a 4.6 mile round-trip in itself, provides access to two possible loops (a Red outer loop with a cross trail to shorten it) for a maximum trek of 6.6 miles.
Requiem for a much-loved bicycle: in November, my vintage Cannondale Super V 1000 mountain bike made its final ride while we were doing trail research in Marion County.
Raise a Slush Puppie to toast one of Florida’s newest public lands, 3,100 acre Fly’n R Ranch along the Ocklawaha River, thanks to conservationist Will Radcliff
Birding at Sunnyhill Restoration is best along the Levee Trail adjoining the Ocklawaha River and in the marshes beyond it. A round-trip walk leads to a purpose-built bird blind in a hot spot.
See our photos from Sunnyhill Restoration Area
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Established in 1908 as the first National Forest east of the Mississippi, the Ocala National Forest is a mecca for hikers and campers, and the birthplace of the Florida Trail.
At Ocklawaha Prairie, east of Lake Weir and south of Marshall Swamp, trails lead to some of the best birding in the region from levees along the extensive marshes of the river basin.
With a campground and lakeside day use area at the southeast corner of the Ocala National Forest, Clearwater Lake Recreation Area offers an easy loop hike and access to the Florida Trail.