Ocala SouthLength: 38.3 miles (linear)
Welcome to the Ocala National Forest, the heart and soul of the Florida Trail. In October 1966, Florida Trail Association founder Jim Kern and a handful of hardy hikers painted the trail’s first blaze at the beginning of this segment at Clearwater Lake. Offering a week’s worth of unbroken wilderness hiking through sandhills, prairies, pine flatwoods, and the beautiful Big Scrub, this is the prime destination for backpackers who want to spend a week out on the Florida Trail. The footpath is well maintained and well worn, and signage at road crossings helps you figure out exactly where you are.
Although there are a number of designated campsites, you may camp anywhere you wish—as long as it’s not hunting season. The Ocala National Forest draws a lot of deer and turkey hunters, so be cognizant of hunting season, when you must stay at designated campsites. Always wear blaze orange during hunting season.
This segment of the trail offers numerous don’t-miss stops, from the swimming holes at Alexander and Juniper Springs to the incredibly beautiful primitive hikers-only campsite at Hidden Pond. You’ll walk through hydric hammocks crowded with palms, through open prairies filled with wildflowers, and through the wild and wonderful Juniper Prairie Wilderness with its many pristine ponds. The north end of this segment is at Hopkins Prairie, a vast open wetland which the trail winds along for miles in the shade of the oak forest on its shoreline.
A side trip on the blue-blazed trail to beautiful, crystal clear Alexander Springs (78 million gallons per day) is highly recommended for those who would like to stop for a snack or swim in the cool spring water. Portions of the forest near Alexander Springs, Billies Bay and Juniper Prairie are designated wilderness areas. Trail work in the Juniper Prairie Wilderness must be done with hand tools only. FTA workers use two-man crosscut saws to remove blown down trees on this section of the trail. Juniper Springs is also good for swimming, and the Juniper Springs Run is a great short canoe trip. Canoe rental and canoe shuttle service are available at the park concession. This section of trail is maintained by the Black Bear Chapter north of Hwy 40 and Highlanders Chapter South of Hwy 40