Florida Trail, Ocala National Forest, Florida

See life-list wildlife in a subtropical forest.
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Resident sandhill cranes also section-hike the Florida Trail.

Resident sandhill cranes also section-hike the Florida Trail.

The 1,110-mile Florida Trail, which connects flower-filled prairies with pine forests and alligator-rich swamps, has a reputation for pavement. True, many sections rely on road walking, but not the 115.6-mile point-to-point through Ocala National Forest. This weeklong section rarely leaves singletrack as it tours one of the most biodiverse regions in the country.

This piece of the Florida Trail is best during the relatively dry months of January and February—but, if you go now, you just have more reason to take a refreshing dip. Countless springs line the trail, and the water is 72°F year-round. Spring also brings an explosion of prairie wildflowers like the lavender-petaled prairie iris, as well as more active wildlife. Keep a lookout for black bears, threatened gopher tortoises, and carnivorous pitcher plants.

Turn-by-turn From the Rice Creek Conservation Area, take the Florida Trail south, passing one of the state’s largest cypress trees at mile 2.3. The next 30 miles roll through stands of shortleaf and sand pines, home to armadillos and the rare Florida scrub jay. Find established campsites and shelters along the way before diving into the wetlands of Juniper Prairie Wilderness (mile 48.8 to 56.5). Spend a night at the backcountry site (first-come, first-serve) along spring-fed Hidden Pond at mile 52.3. Alexander Springs, which churns out enough water to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every 14 minutes, is well worth the .5-mile detour near mile 75.4. Next, enter the wetlands of Seminole State Forest (mile 94.5), prime habitat for birds like sandhill cranes (pictured) and federally protected wood storks. Finish at Lake Mary Boulevard (mile 115.6), then take
the #45 bus to the Lake Mary rail station ($1, 15 mins) to catch the SunRail back to Orlando ($3, 40 mins).

Get there From Orlando Station, take Amtrak to Palatka (starting at $21, 1 hr 50 mins; departures 1:35 to 7:32 p.m.). Walk or hitch (or arrange a taxi beforehand) the 6 miles to the trailhead at Rice Creek Conservation Area. A first-come, first-serve shelter (the “Rice Creek Hilton”) is just 1.2 miles down the Florida Trail.

Permits None

Trail Info