Length: 6.8 miles
Fees / Permits: none
Good for: birding, wildlife
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to high
Open dawn to dusk.
The Levy Prairie trailhead area is noisy because of the Interstate just over the fence. As we discovered during a Saturday afternoon walk, even though the preserve is new, it’s very popular for families, small groups, and lone birders. Bicycles are permitted, but dogs and horses aren’t – for your safety and theirs. Bring binoculars for wildlife sightings. Keep track of small children, as the sides of the levee drop off steeply, and yes, there are alligators.
From Interstate 75 exit 374, Micanopy, drive east on CR 234 towards US 441. Turn north on US 441 and continue 1 mile to Wacahoota Road. Turn left and drive 0.6 mile, crossing over I-75 on an overpass. Take the first left – a sharp, doubling-back left – after the overpass onto SE 11 Drive. Continue down this sometimes-bumpy dirt road for 0.6 mile. It ends at the trailhead.
Walk through the pass-through stile and stay to the right at the trail junction to walk counterclockwise around the loop. The south levee has no shade, so it’s best to tackle that earliest. To your right, floodplain forest with a natural marsh. To the left, a wet prairie encircled by this levee. The sounds of frogs and birds are everywhere. It is a delight to hear this quantity of frogs on a sunny day. In this broad open space, the wind rushes across the water, generating a nice swamp cooler effect off the marsh. You can look across and see mostly open wet prairie with scattered cypresses and young floodplain trees. To the right, the marsh is covered in water spangles, with Virginia willow, red maple, elderberry.
When you see the first warning sign, it will make you laugh. The preserve managers don’t want you to step off this levee, and they tell you why (with some comical drawings): alligators, the threat of being arrested for trespassing, and “deep mud like pudding.” The threat of alligators and deep mud are enough to say “stay on the dike!”
After a quarter-mile the trail – which is a broad enough levee for trucks to drive on – turns a corner to the right, revealing the vastness of the Levy Prairie, which stretches far into the distance to the other shore. That is why this is a 6.8 mile loop with no shorter options. The wetlands are full of micro animal life, with evidence of gator slides, if you look close enough, and lots of bird chatter in the wetlands. At a half mile you see something really strange looking on the right like a giant rock; it turns out to be gigantic sculpture in front of an even bigger home, with palmetto just beyond the boundary of the wetlands. There are a handful of homesteads hidden behind the trees to the right.
Passing a pasture on the right – which may or may not have cows browsing across it, as they once did across this prairie when it was drained – the trail makes a sharp left, heading away from the shoreline and out into the Prairie on the levee. You see what looks like a line running across the prairie, perhaps a canal cut into at one point. Just beyond there is a little bit of open water and it becomes obvious that there is a canal next to you on the left, which is where the fill for this levee came from.
By 1.1 miles there is a pretty prairie on the right, healthy and lush, and you can see its shoreline, a bluff densely shaded by live oaks with an understory of saw palmetto. In winter, there’s only a touch of green throughout the levee system. The prairie on the right is definitely at a lower elevation than the one on the left. Pass Marker 2, where it says its 1.5 miles back to the trailhead, and the levee hugs close to the rim of the prairie, with just a small wetland between you and the treeline. Dog fennel, with an intermingling of sea myrtle, starts growing tall on the left so you don’t have the views that you had before.
Cypresses crowd the prairie rim near a yard with a deer feeder and deer stand, just outside the boundary of this preserve. As the trail curves away from the rim, there are larger trees on the right, obscuring the view. The trail draws close to the rim of the prairie again. There are signs that say “conservation easement” down at the base of the dike, an easement that might cover the wetlands over to the prairie rim. You can smell the deep, thick mud.
Sand cordgrass grows in clumps in the shallow wetlands. Watch out for the occasional divot in the levee as well as fire ant nest mounds. The prairie rim is a pretty mix of live oaks and cabbage palms, makes me think of what William Bartram probably saw as he was riding through this area, crossing Florida, riding along prairie rims, looking out at prairies. In fact, it’s highly likely that Bartram meandered along the original prairie rim here during his travels in 1774.
Past another mileage marker, the trail comes to a junction with a sign that says “Trail Closed” at 2.7 miles. Turn left to continue around the Levy Prairie. After you turn left, the dike is a straightaway cutting through the heart of the prairie. Keep alert very quickly after the turn, as there is a gator slide across the trail, which means that alligators may come up here and sun themselves during warmer weather. Mounds of elderberry are in bloom on the right. On the left is a Southern red cedar, a spindly thing flanked by cabbage palms. Up ahead is a forest, with the promise of hiking in shade. But before you reach it, the trail crosses culverts with manual valves enabling the movement of water from the prairie into the lower prairie on the right. There is an island in the prairie on the left, topped with cabbage palms and a handful of oaks hanging on, but most of the oaks are dead and strung with Spanish Moss, very ghostly looking. On the right is now a very shallow canal and floodplain forest just beyond, dominated by sweetgum. The trail curves to the right. Flanked by canals on both sides, it begins to enter the forest. Up to this point there’s been what seemed like old pavement underfoot since making the sharp turn off the North Levee.
You encounter another “Trail Closed” sign as the trail comes up to a T intersection at 3.2 miles, adjoining an outflow culvert that releases water out of the prairie and into the floodplain forest. Down in the culvert, butterworts are growing in the outflow. Turn left to start your walk down the South Levee. A shady corridor stretches ahead as you walk along the remains of an old fenceline with weathered wooden posts. The canal on the left is covered in water spangles, obscuring the water, and down on the right is a tannic stream flowing away from the prairie into a gum swamp. Passing occasional big breaks through the trees on the left, you can look out across the sweep of the prairie. On the right, the blooms of American lotus may catch your eye at one spot along the waterway.
By 3.5 miles, the trail makes a slight jog to head down a long straightway, mostly in the shade. A towering loblolly pine on the left has three trunks, each topped with its own distinct crown the size of most large pine trees. You pass a trail marker soon after. At 4 miles, the trail jogs to the left and faces another long straightaway. You’ll find this pattern repeated for most of the remainder of the hike, with the trail on the South Levee mainly in the shade of older trees. Many of the loblolly pines along this part of the trail are of significant size, along with a mammoth-sized sugar hackberry and some monstrous poison ivy vines in proportion to these big trees.
Down to the right, the habitat transitions to a blackwater swamp, where royal ferns cast reflections against the dark, sluggish water. Passing through the location of an old gate – this was most recently a cattle ranch, with fenceline dropping down into the soggy prairie grasses – the trail continues along with views across the prairie, all the way back to that house with the rock sculpture that you passed at the beginning of the hike. Another slight jog to the left and you’re facing another long straightaway. The trail gets a little crunchy underfoot with pea gravel laid down to fix a washout. The panorama of the prairie is at its best along this section of trail, all the way back to the island near the levee you crossed between the two “Trail Closed” signs, and the sweep of most of the hike you’ve completed thus far.
At 4.5 miles, the trail makes another curve, this one softly to the right, where clusters of netted chain fern appear on the bluff above the water spangle-covered canal on the right, surrounded by marshy, with ferns marching through the deeply shaded understory beyond it. The trail has turned away from the vast panoramic views; the vegetation begins to close in. An old levee goes off to the left into a weedy area just as the trail curves to the right down another long straightaway. You start to see American lotus in patches of open water. Although there are many trees atop the levee, shade is at more of a premium. Wading birds congregate in shallow pools along the prairie’s edge. Through the leafy floodplain forest to the right, you start to see a flash of speeding cars in the distance as the trail draws closer to Interstate 75. Crossing another very obvious gator slide, the trail passes through another old gate and fence at 5.4 miles. Look at the barbed wire fence on the right: it’s been consumed by the ever-growth girth of a large oak tree.
After it passes through the gate, the trail loses elevation as the levee drops down to meet the level of the prairie wetlands on the left and the swamp on the right, making this an easy place for alligators to scramble between them or sun on the trail. The path curves to the right to a shadier straightaway. The sound of peeping frogs fills the air. Several species are known to frequent the preserve, including spring peepers and Florida cricket frogs. Passing the next mileage marker at 5.7 miles, the trail remains down low to the water for another brief stretch, and then the levee rises up, leaving the open marsh behind for a canal created by the digging of the levee. The canal on the right is filled with shallow, tannic but clear flowing water.
As the trail curves gently to the left, slash pines tower overhead on the right, the habitat transitioning from gum swamp an island of pine flatwoods. Crossing an outflow culvert, where cattails rise out of the pool of water above the floodgates, the outflow from Levy Prairie feeds the next gum swamp. The trail jogs to the left down another straightaway, providing another view of the open prairie at 6.4 miles. You watch through another crunchy spot of pea gravel. Royal fern clusters along the right edge of the levee. You know you’re getting close to the end of the loop as the traffic noise from Interstate 75 keeps growing louder. Reaching the T intersection with the beginning of the loop, turn right to exit to the trailhead, completing a 6.8 mile hike.
|0.5||home with large "rock" sculpture|
|0.9||old canal bisects prairie|
|1.6||Marker "1.5 miles"|
|2.2||conservation easement signs to right|
|2.7||trail junction / marker "2.5 miles"|
|3.0||island in prairie|
|3.2||trail junction / ouflow culvert|
|3.5||triple-trunk loblolly / Marker "3.5 miles"|
|4.9||old levee to left|
|5.7||Marker "5.5 miles"|