Hopkins Prairie Campground is located in the Ocala National Forest off SR19 and FR50 (about 9 miles north of SR40. There are about 25 sites nestled between nice oak trees. There is an enclosed privy and several bear-proof trash bins.
The weather was cool when I woke up for the day’s hike with temperatures having dropped to about 46 overnight. We were treated to a large, beautiful moon the night before as it was the closest it’s been to the earth in almost two decades.
A cool fog hovered over the prairie and surrounding water as the sun rose steadily over the trees. It was a nice start to a pretty good day.
There are two trailheads for the Florida Trail located on either end of the campground. The eastern one on the access road has a small parking area. I assume this is for hikers that aren’t occupying a site so they don’t have to pay the $10/site usage fee. I opted for the western trailhead near the bathouse. Crossing through the posts just before the trailhead the prairie opened up far and wide.
Immediately visible was the reminder of past wildfires. The area has been repeatedly ravaged by massive fires and the signs are everywhere. Burned out pines stand in stark contrast to the vibrant scrub brush in the dense forest to your right. The trail clings to the line of demarcation between the prairie and forest.
The sun began beating down shortly after starting the hike. I knew I should’ve started earlier. It was barely 10 o’clock and I was already starting to sweat. The trail’s trickery of alternating between hot, open terrain and somewhat shaded cover kept taunting me with the hope of relief from the sun’s rays. As my hopes would soar they’d soon be dashed as I entered yet another open stretch with nothing to protect me. Passing an old, weathered trail marker I wondered what I was doing.
As I rounded a small bend something ahead caught my eye. I slowed my pace and waited for it to move again. Out for its morning breakfast was a young deer. I watched for a few moments and neared closer trying to capture the creature with my video camera. We locked eyes for several moments until in a flash it was gone. Continuing on I found abundant life in the form of various water birds.
Poking through the tall prairie grass the red caps of the sandhill cranes caught my attention. They didn’t pay me much attention and continued on their way in search of a tasty meal.
About three miles in the trail finally turned in towards the forest and I jumped for joy.
My joy was short-lived, however, and it was back to the openness of the sun beat trail. Buddy Buffalo felt right at home, though. It had been a long time since he’d been able to romp and play on the prairie so I stopped and let him take a quick break.
The trail did finally enter the forest and headed away from the prairie. The cover provided by the pines and scrub oaks was welcome though it only tempered the heat a little. At just over 4.5 miles I hit FR33 (FR90 on the FTA map) and decided to take a break for a snack. It felt good to take the shoes off and let them air out. I’m not a fan by any means of sugar sand and it seems that most of Ocala is comprised of it. When you’re hiking this area take that into consideration and be prepared to deal with blisters.
I heard a horrible grumbling that scared me to death! Turns out it was just Buddy’s tummy growling. I couldn’t let him just munch on prairie grass so I shared my bar. It seems that buffalo like chocolate. Go figure.
Here’s a word of caution for you. Up to this point I’d been hiking in my pants. I usually do this and just unzip them a bit to get some air flow into the legs. It was hot, though, so I decided to remove the legs and just hike in shorts. Unfortunately, as I crossed FR54 I headed into a good bit more scrub, palmetto, and tall grass than I’d been in before. I was also kicking up a lot of dry ground. By the time I got to my destination my legs were filthy and covered in grime and I’m sure I picked up a lot more ticks from the grass. If I do this section again I’ll definitely keep the legs on.
One thing I wasn’t expecting to see was cactus. In this section I saw a number of areas with some nice looking cactus which isn’t something I normally stumble across. I think the only other time I’ve run into it was along the Suwanee section and it was just small Christmas cactus.
Shortly after passing the cactus the pine trees gave way to more open terrain, plenty of palmettos, and more of that blasted sugar sand. I felt like I was hiking on the beach.
At about the 8-mile mark I exited the blue trail on the southbound side of SR19 just south of the 314 junction. I wasn’t expecting to come out there but honestly had no idea where the trailhead was when I started. I tried in vain to find it the day before. I suppose the other trailhead was across the highway but for some reason I didn’t even think to look for it.
After cursing a little for the distance I still had to cover to reach the Recreation Area I started road walking. It was hot. I was tired. As I rounded the bend and passed the small grocery store on the right I was wishing I’d told my friends to meet me there. I continued on until I passed the entrance to the Salt Springs Marina. I think this is where the FT actually comes out had I continued on. I kept walking. Eventually, at about the 9.5-mile mark, I dragged myself into the Salt Springs Recreation Area. I pulled my shoes off, wiped my legs clean, and started picking ticks. I had a nice, cool breeze while I waited for my pickup and about 30 min later I was back on the road headed to get my truck at Hopkins Prairie.
Overall I had a good hike and I don’t regret it a bit. I’d certainly recommend that you visit this section of the trail but do it when it’s cool. You’ll enjoy it a lot more.