Ocala National Forest
Hopkins Prairie Escape to Florida’s finest gator-free swimming holes.
The Florida Trail Association calls Ocala National Forest “the heart and soul” of its 1,400-mile namesake. Which, if you like your metaphors extended, would make Juniper Prairie Wilderness the trail’s left ventricle. A combination of prairie, pine islands, crystalline ponds, and—believe it or not—rolling sand hills with actual views, make it a favorite among local backpackers. Johnny Molloy, author of Hiking Trails of Florida’s National Forests, Parks, and Preserves, suggests setting up on any suitable pullout or spur road near the intersection of the Florida Trail and Forest Road 65 at the north end of Hopkins Prairie, an enormous seasonal marsh bounded by pines. From camp, the FT edges around Hopkins for four miles on its way south to Juniper Spring. Make the 18-mile round-trip to spring-fed Hidden Pond, take a cool (gator-free) swim, and be back by dinner; minimal elevation gain makes the big day doable.
Get there From the FL 19-FL 40 junction, head 9.2 miles north on FL 19 to a left at the Hopkins Prairie sign. Go two miles to a right at the next Hopkins Prairie sign and begin scouting for camping. UTM 17R 0429400E 3240940N Map Ocala North and South ($6, floridatrail.org) Contactfs.usda.gov/ocala; (352) 236-0288