Hiking Withlacoochee’s Citrus Tract: Discovering the Remnants of Mannfield and Jeep Cave
One of the most popular hiking destinations listed in our 2016 guide “Treasures of the Trails – Hiking, Biking, Birding Citrus County” is Jeep Cave in the heart of the Citrus Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest (WSF-CT).
The Withlacoochee State Forest is 157,479 noncontiguous acres in the heart of Florida’s Nature Coast and the Citrus Tract can be accessed off Lecanto Highway (Hwy. 491).
In the book, there are few details – just a starting point on a good map and a destination we hiked to from that destination. “The intent was that hikers would use it as a Chinese Restaurant menu style of old with ‘one from column A and two from column B,’” I explain.
Since we started selling the book, I have enjoyed the fact that readers email, and even sometimes call, with questions and comments. I have been gratified when they let me know that they have chosen to use a different starting point to get to a location than the one listed in the book.
How to Hike to Mansfield through the Withlacoochee Citrus Tract
The most popular combination for this hike is to leave from a marked (but unpaved) parking area just off Lecanto Highway (Hwy 491) just north of Noble Rd – and the historic location of the “once upon a town” of Mansfield. (Sometimes the town is called Mannfield, which is a more correct spelling.)
Mannfield was the first Citrus County seat and there are colorful tales about how Inverness succeeded it in that role.
The story of Mannfield vs. Inverness for Citrus County Seat
Mannfield (aka Mansfield or Mannsfield) was created in 1884 by Austin Mann, who was the father-in-law of William Sherman Jennings, then Florida’s Governor who hailed from Brooksville. Mann was a State Senator who guided legislation to split Hernando County into three parts in 1887, thus creating Citrus and Pasco Counties.
That same bill named Mannfield as the acting Citrus County seat for two years, when a vote of the electors would determine its permanent site. After several elections (and purportedly many fistfights), Inverness was named to be the Citrus County seat, but Mannfield refused to give up its authority.
At the time, Mannfield had 250 residents, a general store, a sawmill, and a newspaper built around the Mannfield Pond. At that point, several folks from Inverness were reputed to have visited Mannfield in the middle of the night, retrieving court records, furniture, and the County Clerk by wagon, relocating them to Inverness!
A railroad was built through the area, bypassing Mannfield and stopping in Inverness. Thus began the decline to what it is today. Although it is called a ghost town, little evidence of its existence remains – just a beautiful little cemetery tucked in the forest and the memories of a very few families in the area.
How to Get to Mannfield
Of late, the most popular iteration of this hike starts out heading down the horse trail a short distance to the ephemeral Mansfield Pond. At that location, you can find some cement works that have been called a “tick dipping vat” for sheep or cattle, and others say it was a “hideout” below a bank or store where a safe was secured, and others say it led to a root cellar or artesian well. The jury is out on that, but I am used to vats having ramps, not stairs.
From there, I have always moved ever so slightly west to the well-marked WST- Florida Trail (marked with a yellow blaze) and taken the roughly two-mile trek northeast to Jeep Cave via the B-C Loop Connector Trail (marked with a LIGHT blue blaze) and the Florida National Scenic Trail (marked with an orange blaze). Jeep Cave alone is worth the walk, and the half-mile which precedes arrival is regularly described as “the most serene in the Citrus Tract”.
Discovering the Mansfield Cemetery
On the return route, we turned right at the end of the B-C Connector and headed NORTH up the well-marked WST- Florida Trail (still marked with a yellow blaze) less than a mile on a leg searching for the small (and well-hidden) Mansfield Cemetery. You must walk slowly and look hard to see it.
Folks have regularly been taken on a wild goose chase due to mild misinformation promulgated by the “I know something you don’t” crowd of video clipsters on the internet. Typically, these ‘experts’ search around the pond and along Fire Road 12. Not surprisingly, they never find the Mansfield cemetery. (Your first clue that they are looking in the wrong part of the Mansfield area is the logic that we bury in the high and dry when we can, not the low and sometimes swampy.)
Please use these Hiking directions with Reverence and Caution and Enjoy the Journey
Because we have received many emails and some calls on how to see all three locations on one hike, I have shared my personal route and directions. PLEASE use these directions at your own risk – and ONLY if you are fit enough to hike five mostly dry miles on uneven terrain that can include marsh, sand, and rocky areas, as well as lots of sun and deep shade provided by dense forest.
For a pictorial adventure along this hike, click here.
The Mannfield/Jeep Cave/Mansfield Cemetery hike’s best characteristics are the solitude it offers – and the solitude being punctuated by some great bird noises early in the morning and just before sunset.
Enjoy hiking the Withlacoochee Forest’s Citrus Tract safely and with proper respect for nature and those who once lived in Citrus County’s first county seat.