Protecting the original floodplain of the once-mazy Ocklawaha River, Sunnyhill Restoration Area hugs the river’s eastern shoreline.
Following the river’s edge, the Levee Trail is one of the preserve’s more compelling hiking destinations. Most routes here are on forest roads, but the Levee Trail is grassy.
It provides scenic views of the channelized waterway as well as of restored marshes that stretch to the east. A popular round-trip destination is a bird blind along this linear route.
That option is described below, as well as the full 7.5 mile linear hike between trailheads.
Resources for exploring the area
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Location: Weirsdale to Moss Bluff
Length: 7.5 miles linear
Trailhead: 28.993687,-81.834440 (SOUTH/Blue House) or 29.08140, -81.88330 (NORTH/Moss Bluff)
Address: 19561-B SE Hwy 42, Umatilla (SOUTH) 16298 SE 95th PL, Ocklawaha (NORTH)
Fees: Only if parking at Moss Bluff Recreation Area
Restroom: At Moss Bluff Recreation Area
Land manager: St. Johns Water Management District
Open sunrise to sunset. Leashed dogs permitted but not advised.
Be cautious of sunning alligators. Shade is limited. Bring plenty of water, wear sunscreen and a hat.
Boat traffic can be heavy on Saturday mornings. Considering visiting on a weekday for a quieter trek, or show up at sunrise.
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.
At the trailhead, the enticing oak-shaded kiosk for the White Trail will catch your eye near the Blue House.
The Levee Trail starts at the opposite end of the large parking area, at the gate leading towards the river.
Passing through the gate, 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 – before the Ocklawaha River shimmers ahead.
Ascend 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.
To the right are the vast marshes of the original floodplain – before the river was carved into a “navigational channel” by the Army Corps of Engineers.
At a Y in the levee, a side trail leads downhill to the marsh edge on the right. That trail (blue on the map below) connects to the Observation Tower hike.
Expecting alligators? Snakes? Deer? In the morning, the levee is abuzz with all sorts of wildlife. We saw all these and more. Friends have spotted a bear.
A red-winged blackbird hops from lilypad to lilypad, and a white egret picks through the shallows in front of the purple pickerelweed.
A breeze off the water helps keep things cool. The willow marsh on the river’s far shore ends after 0.4 mile, and is supplanted by a boathouse.
As the far shore segues into bits of floodplain forest, private properties with lawns reach to the river. None are especially obtrusive and all have tree cover for wildlife.
To the east, a constant chorus of crickets rises from the marshes. Its treed edge draws close, eventually blocking the expansive view.
After being a straight line, the levee curves into the distance. Floodplain forest crowds up to the levee, red maples and sweetgum dominating.
By 1.5 miles, the levee broadens to almost triple its original width and lowers to river level, making it easy for alligators to climb up and sun.
The broad dike curves right, then left. Open prairie is visible in the distance, where sandhill cranes gather en masse in winter. Longleaf pines rise behind the floodplain forest beyond the river.
This bend in the river, with cabbage palms leaning out over the water and lilies on both shores, feels more like a real, non-engineered, river.
A dike takes off unexpectedly to the right, into the marsh. It is low and mushy and vanishes into the marshes. It does not connect to the Observation Tower hike.
Birdsong fills the air around the bird blind at 2.4 miles. It’s an unexpected observation deck, like a shelter 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.
For a day hike, particularly for birding, this bird blind makes an ideal turnaround point on the Levee Trail.
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 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.
Walk down the slope and through the old pasture, where gopher tortoises may be browsing tasty plants.
Returning to the gate, cross the parking area to your car, completing a 4.8 mile hike.
Hiking to Moss Bluff
With two cars, or plenty of time, its possible to continue on to Moss Bluff beyond the bird blind for a 7.5 mile linear trek.
Biking this levee to its north end, however, we discovered it’s tricky. It’s grassy, so there is no traction and it can be difficult to maneuver.
Additionally, for both hikers and cyclists, there is no “out” when bad weather creeps up, as it did on us.
The trail continues as a broad grassy ribbon adjoining the river. Older growth cypresses appear on the opposite shore.
Marshes persist to the east, but you cannot always see them. The trail is adjoined by bayhead and hardwood forest, blocking the view.
North of a curve at 3.7 miles, expansive natural marshes are edged by pine forest on their eastern rim.
On the opposite side of the Ocklawaha River, marshy, natural coves off the river become more prominent.
Pass beneath a high-tension powerline at 5.5 miles, where the levee jogs northeast for the final run up to Moss Bluff.
Cypresses line the opposite shore of the river as it narrows, and aquatic plants edge the levee.
As the levee makes an arc towards the approach to the natural bluff, boathouses and docks extend to the water from residences.
The closer you draw to Moss Bluff, a dense forest of hardwoods and loblolly bay adjoins the levee to the east.
A worn-two track makes an appearance as the fishing pier on the river’s opposite shore and the lock and dam swing into view.
Exit around a locked gate to the parking area at Moss Bluff Recreation Area to end the walk after 7.5 miles.
In addition to parking, the recreation area has scattered picnic tables, shaded pavilions, and a restroom.
Learn more about Sunnyhill Restoration Area
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.
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 the Sunnyhill Levee Trail
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
A 2 mile hike to a humble climb up a small observation tower leads to an incredible panorama of marsh at Sunnyhill Restoration Area.
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.
Surrounding one of Florida’s most picturesque first magnitude springs, Alexander Springs is a prime destination for a summer swim or snorkel