A 4,405-acre swath of public land in the Ocklawaha River floodplain, Sunnyhill Conservation Area offers five different trailheads for hikers, bicyclists, and equestrians to roam its vast network of forest roads and levees. I’ve ducked into several of them over the years, but found the trail surface a bit too soft for my taste until I did this hike. As its name insinuates, the Levee Trail follows a levee, and it’s out in the open. However, the tradeoff is excellent views of the Ocklawaha River, carved into a channel by the Army Corps of Engineers, on one side, and the marshes of the Ocklawaha River on the opposite side, stretching off as far as the eye can see. The trail extends between trailheads off SR 42 and at Moss Bluff. Unless you have two cars to go the distance (and want to pay the parking fee at Moss Bluff), the best way to experience this trail is a walk north to a covered observation deck along the river and marshes.
Length: 4.8 miles
Fees / Permits: none
Good for: birding, kids, wildlife
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: portable toilet at the trailhead
Park in the shade by the fence at the Blue House, a historic home in the oak hammock. I’ve not yet found the Blue House, which is purported to hold interpretive information about the area, to be open to the public.
Boat traffic can be heavy on Saturday mornings. Considering visiting on a weekday for a quieter trek, or show up especially early. This Restoration Area opens at sunrise.
There is very little shade along this hike. Bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen and a hat.
From the Belleview exit on I-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.
From your parking spot, don’t get confused by the enticing oak-shaded trail heading to the left from the Blue House— I’ll cover that route at a later date. Your objective is the Levee Trail, which starts on the far, far side of the horse-trailer-friendly parking area across from the Blue House. Passing through the gate, you’ll find the well-hidden portable toilet on the left. Follow the worn path through an old open pasture with scattered copses of oaks and clumps of prickly pear cactus. It only takes a minute or two to cross this space – unless you pause to watch the red-shoulder hawk diving from above, guarding this bit of territory – and you catch a glimpse of the Ocklawaha River up ahead.
Walk up onto the levee, passing a water monitoring station. You might see an angler or two hanging out in a shady spot just behind it. This will be a morning for birds and boats, since the Ocklawaha is a popular passageway in and out of Lake Griffin, which lies upstream. The Ocklawaha flows north to the St. Johns River, and is the defining western boundary of much of the Ocala National Forest – except here, where Sunnyhill is the buffer between National Forest and river. Off to your right are the vast marshes of the original Ocklawaha River floodplain – before it was placed in a “navigational channel” by the Army Corps of Engineers – which you can see across for a mile or more. A side trail leads down to the marsh edge on the right. Save that for another visit.
Expecting to see alligators? Snakes? Maybe even some deer? In the mornings, the levee is abuzz with all sorts of wildlife. We saw all these and more. A red-winged blackbird hops from lilypad to lilypad, and a white egret picks through the shallows in front of the purple pickerelweed. The willow marsh on the river’s far shore ends about 0.4 mile in, and is supplanted by a boathouse. As the far shore segues into bits of floodplain forest, there are numerous private properties reaching to the river with grassy lawns, but none are especially obtrusive and all have plenty of tree cover for wildlife. A constant chorus of crickets rises from the marshes to your right. A breeze off the water helps keep things cool.
The trees on the right draw closer to the levee, blocking your view of the marsh. The far shore has its share of large trees in the floodplain forest, some which appear from a distance to be tupelo. So far, the Levee Trail has been a straight line with no shade. That changes now as you reach the first big curve – the levee curving off into the distance so you can’t tell where it’s going. A floodplain forest now crowds up against the levee on the right, red maples and sweetgum taking root and providing a spot of shade in the early morning hours before the sun rises too high.
By 1.5 miles, the levee broadens tremendously, to almost triple its original width. You feel like you’re standing lower to the river, and indeed, it’s easier for alligators to climb out of the river to sun along this section. Dots of lilies crowd both shores. Longleaf pines rise behind the floodplain forest on the far shore. The broad dike makes a curve to the right, and then to the left. You can see open prairie ahead in the distance, the marshes where sandhill cranes gather en masse during the winter months.
This bend in the river, with cabbage palms leaning out over the water, feels more like a real, non-engineered, river. Watch the activity atop the lilies on both shores—I spotted a purple gallinule feeding in this area. A dike takes off unexpectedly to the right, into the marsh. It is low and mushy and not on the map, so we didn’t explore it on this trek.
Birdsong fills the air as you reach your destination at 2.4 miles. It’s an unexpected sort of observation deck—more like a shelter you think you’d find along the Appalachian Trail. Facing away from the river, it offers a commanding view of the marshes while keeping you dry and out of the sun. In the far distance, you can make out a ribbon of water that is the original channel of the river. This is a gathering place for red-winged blackbirds, their calls echoing off the walls of the shelter. Bring your binoculars or spotting scope, as this is a fabulous spot for morning birdwatching.
After your rest break at the shelter, it’s time to return back to the trailhead. On the return trip, you pass the low levee again on the left at 2.7 miles, just before the Levee Trail starts to curve along the major bend in the river. Duck potato and pickerelweed grow close to the shore, along with many American lotuses. Morning glory vines tangle themselves atop the grasses along the shoreline.
Reaching the end of the levee at 4.7 miles, notice a bench hiding in the shade by the trees next to the cove in the river by the sluice gates—you couldn’t see it from the other angle. Walk down the slope and back through the old pasture, where a gopher tortoise is picking its way across the sand. Retuning to the gate, you pass by the portable toilet once more before crossing the parking area to your car, completing a 4.8 mile hike.
0.0 parking area
0.1 trailhead gate / toilet
0.4 boathouse on far side of river
0.6 picnic bench on platform far side of river
1.0 start of big curve
1.3 signpost facing river
1.5 levee broadens
2.2 levee to right
2.4 observation deck
2.7 levee to right
4.7 trailhead gate / toilet
4.8 return to parking area