While it’s not obvious from the roads that lead to the trailheads of Sunnyhill Restoration Area, at the preserve’s core is a massive marsh.
Diked, ditched, channeled, and water-managed, it’s not been quite the same since dredges mucked out a linear route through the Ocklawaha River marshes in the early 1900s.
The issue was simple: navigation. Steamboats ruled transportation in Florida in the 1800s, and getting through this mazy marsh was slowing down commerce.
By 1924, the effects of dredging and the lock and dam at Moss Bluff changed the Ocklawaha River forever.
Sunnyhill Restoration Area exists to protect and restore one of the the massive marshes that the river once meandered through in its northward path to the St. Johns River.
This particular hike route, using the White and Yellow Trails north of CR 42, leads to the sole point where visitors can marvel at the incredible span of the marsh.
Resources for exploring the area
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Length: 2 mile round trip
Address: 19561-B SE Hwy 42, Umatilla
Land manager: St. Johns Water Management District
Open sunrise to sunset. Leashed dogs permitted but be aware of alligators in marsh. Shade is limited in the marsh.
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.
Beneath the ancient live oaks shading the Blue House, look for the kiosk and trail map. It marks the western terminus for the White Trail.
While the White Trail extends 2.2 miles to the South Trailhead off SE 182 Ave Rd, it’s this end of it — and the observation tower as a destination — that makes the more compelling hike.
Why is immediately obvious: the live oak hammocks surrounding what was once a farmstead on the edge of the Ocklawaha River marsh.
White diamonds, sometimes on trees, sometimes on posts, mark the route, which starts out in deep shade under the oak canopy.
The trail skims to the edge of the hammock, following the rim of an open prairie with a pair of cabbage palms that serve as a visual reference.
Sandhill cranes often gather in this open area, and gopher tortoises may be seen here feeding on the grass of the former pasture.
The trail follows a well-defined ranch road dappled by the shade of the oaks as it rounds this prairie.
Once it passes the two cabbage palms, the trail enters a corridor flanked with oaks and hickories.
It turns to offer another perspective on the open grassland before coming within view of a fenceline adjoined by a power line.
This grassy tree-flanked corridor meets a gap in a fence at a half mile. A double white diamond marker adjoins the gap.
Step onto a two-track road to meet the first trail junction. The White Trail continues straight ahead on its route towards South Trailhead.
Turn left instead and follow the road, which continues to the horizon across a vast open space.
Passing old water control valves at a culvert, there is a second junction, this one with a beaten path to the left.
Shown on the trail map in blue, it’s a connector along a canal that joins up with the Levee Trail, providing an alternate route to the trailhead on your return trip.
Continue straight ahead on the two track road. A marsh stretches as far as you can see to the left. It does so to the right as well, but the height of the trees prevent that perspective.
Watch for birds and wildlife along this road, which sits above the water on both sides, a causeway through the vast Ocklawaha River marsh.
The textures of the marsh are varied and subtle, the herbaceous growth exceptionally thick, easily hiding its residents.
There isn’t much warning of the observation tower ahead before you come up on it at a mile. The road continues past it and on to connect to the Yellow and Red Loops out of the North Trailhead.
This destination, however, is worthwhile for its unique overview of the marsh. While the tower isn’t tall, the expanse around it is impressive.
Imagine, as a boat captain in 1890 complained, of being lost amid vast floating islands of vegetation in this expanse, not being able to find the river channel.
We found black vultures roosting on the tower because of its height, putting them above the breeze.
Enjoy the view. The river is not visible except, perhaps, through binoculars, but the pine forest atop bluffs on the eastern rim is obvious.
The return trip is the way you came, unless you want to take the side path to the Levee Trail. It simply follows the canal until it reaches an open area adjoining the river levee.
Walk straight ahead to intercept the Levee Trail on its return route through an oak hammock to the Blue House Trailhead. Either return route gives you a 2 mile round-trip hike.
Learn more about Sunnyhill Restoration Area
Sunnyhill Restoration Area
Edging the eastern shore of the Ocklawaha River north of Lake Griffin, Sunnyhill Restoration Area protects the channelized river’s historic floodplain.
See our photos from the Sunnyhill Observation Tower Hike
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Sunnyhill Levee Trail
A linear path along the channelized Ocklawaha River, the Levee Trail at Sunnyhill Restoration Area stretches 7.5 miles from SR 42 north to Moss Bluff.
Carney Island Conservation Area
As a peninsula in Lake Weir, parts of Carney Island Conservation Area are naturally air-conditioned. Walk 4 miles beneath ancient oaks and expect to see wildlife.
Surrounding one of Florida’s most picturesque first magnitude springs, Alexander Springs is a prime destination for a summer swim or snorkel
Clearwater Lake Recreation Area
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.