Meeting Grandma Gatewood Author, Ben Montgomery @gangrey
Visiting the Laura Quinn Wild Bird Sanctuary near Key Largo

Hiking the Florida Trail Starting at the Clearwater Lake Recreation Area


Around 4.5 years ago, when I was in the Florida Master Naturalist program, our class spent the day at Clearwater Lake Recreation Area. It is a beautiful place, where people can go camping (although there are no hook ups, there is potable water and restrooms), hiking, kayaking, and more. I fell in love with the place! Today, we went there to do some hiking on the Florida Trail.

Clearwater Lake Recreation Area is located in Paisley, Florida. From where I live in Port Orange, it's around a 50 minute drive. It's in the Ocala National Forest and offers an awesome place to go hiking. If you go into the recreation center there is a $5.50 fee per person. They have restrooms, picnic tables, kayak rentals, and hiking. You can take a nice hike that goes all the way around the lake that is around 1.3 miles. You can also go to the back of the campground and pick up trails in the beautiful forest. There's even a huge ancient sink hole that you can check out. 

The Florida Trail was started at Clearwater Lake Recreation area in 1966, and it's located just outside of the park. When you first pull into the park entrance and before you get to the fee booth, there is a parking lot on the right hand side of the road. That's where the Florida Trail head begins at this leg of the trail. You will see the signs for it. That section is where the Florida Trail began so many years ago and today expands for over 1,000 miles. You could hike it from here straight up to Alexander Springs (or go south), or you can do what we did and just take a hike without a destination in mind, calculating your distance so you know when to turn around and head back to your car. You can hike the Florida Trail there, and there is also a separate trail for biking, called the Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail. Both trails are clearly marked at the entrance, so you will know which one is for foot traffic and which one is for biking.

We decided to do a four mile hike, so we turned the GPS on and knew we would turn back when it hit 2 miles. The trail is absolutely beautiful! It is well maintained, too. We didn't see one piece of trash on the entire walk, and it was well blazed throughout the entire thing (watch for the orange blazes to keep you on course). The trail takes you through the longleaf pine forest and sand pine scrub. There are some elevations, which changes up the terrain here and there. What you are walking through is "old Florida" and how our forests here used to always look. It's the kind of forest John Muir described walking through in his great book "A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf."

As you continue to meander on the trail, you will notice many sand mounds, which are created underground from pocket gophers. There are also a couple of benches along the way, so you can take a break and take in the view. This area is home to the red-cockaded woodpecker. If you listen, you can at times hear them pecking at the trees in the distance. We spotted a few of them on our walk, along with many warblers and butterflies. We even spotted the state butterfly, the zebra longwing, as well as numerous types of wildflowers, and a gopher tortoise burro. 

There are bears in the Ocala National Forest, so it's a good idea to periodically make a little noise and let them know you are in the area. Every once in a while, typically when we come up to areas that are thicker and not as easy to see around, we do a few claps to let them know. As always, it's a good idea to keep in eye on the trail in case you come across snakes. If you spot one, calmly move around it and keep going. The trail is mostly shaded, although there were a few patches that were briefly sunny.

The forest you see along this hike is absolutely gorgeous. I'm a forest lover, so this to me is pure love. We had a wonderful hike, only coming across one other group of hikers that we passed heading the other direction, and when we returned to the car we ate our picnic lunch. There are no picnic tables there, since we are outside of the park, but we put the windows down on the car and ate while we enjoyed the sounds of nature. 

Put this place on your list. You can make one long day out of going into the recreation area to hike and doing some of the Florida Trail, or you can go there twice, and spend hours inside, and then hours outside of it on the Florida Trail. Either way, it's a fantastic place to hike in Florida! You can get more information about Clearwater Lake Recreation Area here.

Here are pictures from our hike:












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