The Ocala National Forest is one of my favorite places to hike, and Florida’s desert-like scrub is one of my favorite habitats along the Florida Trail in the forest. Coupled with a real need to get out and hike AND get some research done for my next book, this convergence led me to take a journey on the newest section of the Florida Trail’s Western Connector this past weekend with two friends and colleagues.
The 23-mile Western Connector fills the missing link between the Cross Florida Greenway and the thru-trail in the Ocala National Forest. Roughly paralleling CR 314, it works its way north from the Ocklawaha River floodplain at Sharpes Ferry, passing through some large swamps before crossing CR 314A and Eaton Creek. My original plans were to start north from the new Eaton Creek trailhead off the road to the FWC Youth Camp, but my friends convinced me that a slightly shorter hike would be more sensible, since none of us had done a serious day on the trail in some time. Leaving two of our cars at The 88 Store near Lake Kerr, we drove down to the CR 314 road crossing south of the gas transmission station and hiked north.
From the map, I’d expected the trail to weave in and out of the Ocklawaha River floodplain and rise up to the sandhills of longleaf pine and wiregrass so common to the northern part of the forest, but instead, after a brief jaunt into a lush hammock near Mud Lake, our new trail stuck to the heart of what the Ocala National Forest protects — the Big Scrub. This unique ecosystem is the largest scrub forest in the world, and along our nearly 10 miles of hiking, we experienced scrub in every one of its stages, from young, fluffy sand pines and diminutive oaks ideal for scrub-jay families to occupy, to ancient ready-to-collapse stands of toothpick-thin trees with trunks that clanked against each other in the breeze like an eerie bamboo symphony. We saw patches of Florida rosemary clustered under the pines and delicate trailside gardens of deer moss and reindeer lichen. The constant immersion in pine forest reminded me of a hike years ago on the Continental Divide Trail in Colorado, where the spruce forest went on forever, it seemed. So it is with the Big Scrub and the Western Connector (the northern half, that is), the forest of sand pine a canvas of constant change and the trail a constant that links it all together.