Salt marsh, salt marsh, and more salt marsh: the sweep of a grand estuary surrounds you on a walk through the trail system at Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve, a 413-acre preserve managed by the city of Yankeetown. With interpretive plant identification, an accessible boardwalk, picnic area, canoe launch, and a 30-foot observation tower, this is a scenic destination you won’t want to miss.
Length: 2.5 miles
Lat-Lon: 29.028244, -82.726545 (Salt Pond trailhead) or 29.027804, -82.732519 (Environmental Center)
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: two privies along the trail system. Flush toilets when unlocked at the environmental center.
Dogs are permitted on the trails. Bicycles are not permitted on the boardwalk. Open sunrise to sunset, with the front gate locked at sunset.
From US 19 just north of the Withlacoochee River, turn west on CR 40 – aka “Follow That Dream Parkway” – at the light in Inglis. Follow the highway through Inglis, Crackertown, and Yankeetown. You’ll see the sign for the preserve on the right soon after the intersection with CR 40A. Follow Old Rock Rd, the unpaved (but hard-packed limerock) one-lane road, into the preserve.
The Salt Pond Trailhead is the first trailhead you’ll encounter along Old Rock Rd. It’s a small parking area with a composting privy, kiosk with map, and the boardwalk that makes up the Salt Pond Trail. Our hike begins here, following the boardwalk as it lifts you a foot or two above the forest floor of the pine flatwoods. It takes a hard right where a set of stairs leads to a footpath, the Marsh Trail. You’ll intersect that trail later. Turn right.
Shortly after the turn, an observation platform is on your left, tucked between the cedars. It provides a panorama of Salt Pond, a tidal pond. Wait a few minutes and you may see a mullet jump, or a raccoon sneak through the black needlerush over to the muddy edge of the pond. In the distance, you can see a bridge in the salt marsh.
Passing the next set of stairs – leading off the boardwalk to your right onto an unmarked trail – the boardwalk makes a hard left and brings you up to the next observation deck at a quarter mile. It’s here we stood and watched for ten minutes as a young bald eagle circled Salt Pond, occasionally alighting on the top of a snag to stare down into the water. Perhaps the flash of a mullet caught the eagle’s attention. It was not about to leave its patrol of the pond.
Tunneling beneath cedars and cabbage palms, the boardwalk continues to curve with the edge of the pond until it becomes a bridge, bridging the gap between the pond and a vast salt marsh to the north. Two benches provide a place to sit and watch for birds in this panoramic landscape. The boardwalk continues through more vegetation, with interpretive markers beneath many of the plants and trees.
Passing another set of stairs, you come to the end of the boardwalk as it spirals in to face the pond from another observation platform. Step off this platform and you can sit on a bench near the water on a peninsula of limestone. Be cautious of lingering too long on a warm day: there are sand fleas, and they do bite.
Back on the boardwalk, take the first staircase to your left. The footpath leads to a T intersection where you can return to your car for a 0.7 mile walk by turning left and traversing that first short stretch of boardwalk through the pines. Or let the adventure continue: turning right after this first half mile, follow the green blazed posts down the Marsh Trail. You won’t get wet feet on this hike: the name is for the scenic views of the marshes from the little hills that the footpath goes up and down in the pine flatwoods, where live oaks cast a little shade and saw palmetto grows sparsely under the trees. To your right you can see the expanse of needlerush to the horizon, just beyond a screen of cedar trees.
Climbing up and over a sand ridge, the footpath passes through a small patch of scrub forest. As the trail turns to face Rock Rd, there is an obvious trailhead kiosk on the other side of the road, complete with a railroad crossing sign: the trailhead for the yellow-blazed Oak Hammock Trail. For now, stay on the Marsh Trail. It hugs close to the edge of the salt marsh, providing more sweeping panoramas and an unusally high concentration of surface limestone. Small ropes mark off solution holes in the limestone bedrock of this dry island in the marsh.
Needlerush intrudes into the footpath just before it rises up into an area of human activity. There are sheds, maintenance equipment, and a very large building that looks like an upscale home. It was, once. But it is now being renovated into an Educational Center by the volunteers who look after this preserve, the Friends of Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve. Follow the faint trace of a footpath along the marsh edge as it loops around the buildings, passes a picnic table, and ends up at a kiosk at the main parking area for the preserve, adjoining the Educational Center, 1.1 miles into this hike.
The yellow-blazed Oak Hammock Trail starts just past the kiosk. Walk out along the causeway to get to the observation tower, which you chould see from the last portion of the Marsh Trail. The top deck is 30 feet high and provides a panorama of the surrounding marshes and Withlacoochee Bay, as well as the distant Gulf of Mexico.
That puff of steam to the south is rising from the Crystal River Nuclear Power Plant, in case you were wondering about those big sirens along the highway in Yankeetown. The sirens are tested on Fridays at noon.
The Oak Hammock Trail continues out the causeway to an island with large live oak trees. Keep to the right at the trail junction to clamber up to the high point of the island, which may have once been a homestead: there is a spray of ginger in bloom, not native but certainly pretty, under one of the oaks as if someone planted it there a long time ago. Picnic benches sit in the shade.
A narrow path continues to draw you farther out onto the island, beneath a bower of ball moss caught in the limbs of cedar trees to a rocky point. The trail narrows even more, slipping between rocks and native coontie until it reaches a prominatory overlooking a tidal creek. Oysters grow atop the rocks. It’s a very pretty view, but the end of the line for the trail, at 1.4 miles.
Return the way you came to get back to the clearing with the picnic tables, and keep to the right this time. The trail passes a composting privy and emerges within view of a dock and a stack of rental kayaks, perhaps available when the Environmental Center is open for events. The dock, on Helverson Creek, is the launch point for the Withlacoochee Gulf Preserve Paddling Trail and other adventures on the water.
Keep to the right to pass the privy and watch for the yellow posts that mark the trail. They lead you back out to the causeway, which you’ll cross to return to the main parking area. You have several ways you can hike back to the Salt Pond trailhead. Follow the yellow-blazed Oak Hammock Trail as it stays south of Rock Rd, then cross Rock Rd at its kiosk with the railroad sign to backtrack on the Marsh Trail to where it joins the first bit of the Salt Pond boardwalk. Or, walk back via the Marsh Trail. Or, walk back on Rock Rd. A full circuit of the trail system takes 2.5 miles.