Get outdoors in Florida with your guide to Florida's trails by Sandra Friend, Florida's hiking expert, and her co-author John Keatley, covering outdoor recreation throughout Florida, including the statewide Florida Trail.
For a hike filled with the flutter and squawk and flash of birds busy about their daily routines, Orlando Wetlands Park is one of the best birding spots in the state. The first of its kind in Florida, it is a purpose-built park that dates back to the late 1980s. The City of Orlando was looking for a way to use wetlands to filter their wastewater, and did so by purchasing a ranch and converting the open pastures into a series of wetland “cells” of varying depths. Across more than 1,600 acres, this experiment in natural treatment succeeded so well that it’s become a world-class birding destination while fulfilling its purpose of slowly and gently treating wastewater to where it can be released into the St. Johns River floodplain.
With nearly 20 miles of levees and trails, there are many hiking routes possible within the park. In fact, on our very first visit here in 1999, we followed the Florida Trail through the park; it’s since moved into adjoining Bronson State Forest and Seminole Ranch. We share our favorite loop below, but will add some more routes as we explore them.
[50cfl] [5or] [hg]
Length: 5 miles
Lat-Lon: 28.569815, -80.996697
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At trailhead
Land manager: City of Orlando, 407-568-1706
Dogs are not permitted, for their safety and yours.
Open sunrise to sunset. Trail maps and a water bottle filling station are by the restrooms. Fridays and Saturdays from 9-3, the Education Center is open and offers tram tours of the park. Large picnic pavilions are available to groups by reservation. Bicycles and equestrians are welcome. Cyclists are not allowed to ride the natural footpaths in the park (North Woods Branch and South Woods Branch Trails) but otherwise have miles to roam.
Be cautious of alligators on the trails. The sunny expanses attract them to the warm surfaces (most of the trails are limerock). If you make a lot of noise, they should slip away into the nearest body of water. If they don’t, alter your route.
From where SR 408 ends at SR 50 near Waterford Lakes, follow SR 50 east towards Titusville for 11 miles. At Christmas, turn left on Fort Christmas Road (watch for the Christmas trees on the corner). Alternatively, you can follow SR 50 west for 11 miles from Interstate 95 in Titusville. No matter the direction you’re coming from, turn north on Fort Christmas Rd. Continue 2.3 miles, passing Fort Christmas Park, to the turnoff straight ahead where the road otherwise makes a sharp left curve. Turn right on Wheeler Road and continue 1.5 miles down to the trailhead parking area on your left.
0.0 > After you stop at the main pavilion by the restrooms to sign in, continue up past the picnic pavilion to join the main levee leading into the park. It comes to a Y intersection at the first stretch of open water.
First trail junction
Signs indicate the two major loops that start here, the 3.7-mile Lake Searcy Loop to the right and the 2-mile Birding Loop to the left. Our route – which is one of dozens you can create here – follows portions of both. Turn left onto Wetlands Blvd. As you come up to a bench, note the map outlining all of the possible routes in the park. You’ll find many of these maps throughout the trail system, a genuine help to keep you on the right route.
0.2 > At the next junction, turn left on Night Heron Lane. The levee sweeps around in a curve, offering views across the far marshes before it comes up to a little cove surrounded by cabbage palms. There is a bench near the water, but there is also evidence of alligator activity in the open spot near it. Their foot and tail prints sink into the mud. One thing for sure on a hike here: you will see alligators. Never get within 20 feet of one.
Marsh view from bench
0.4 > Reaching Otter Blvd, turn right. This rambles along a sweep of marsh with cattails and only the occasional open water near where culverts drain the marsh. On your right, willows crowd against the levee. Coreopsis grows in clusters along the levee.
0.9 > Turn off Otter Blvd onto Alligator Alley. This is one of the more scenic trails in the park, as it leads you out into the middle of the largest open marshes. A thin line of cabbage palms frames the far horizon of the marsh.
Sweep of the wetlands from a scenic spot on Alligator Alley
As the trail curves right past islands of cabbage palms, the wetlands to the left with the big stretches of open water are Wading Bird Marsh. It’s here you’ll see green herons and tricolor herons along with the more common moorhens. We spotted a purple gallinule near one of the culvert openings, being watched by a nearby alligator. Our bet is you’ll linger the longest along this portion of the trail, as there is so much wildlife to see.
1.5 > Open pools with American lotus adjoin the trail as you reach a T intersection with Wetlands Blvd. Turn left to head north on this central trail (turning right is a shortcut back to the trailhead). Red-winged blackbirds cling to the cattails, kicking up a fuss when the wind blows. You may spot a limpkin amid the shallows.
Picnic spot in the shade
1.7 > At a T intersection at treeline with Bald Eagle Blvd, a covered picnic bench sits in the shade. Turn right at this corner to start following the perimeter levee (not to be confused with the Perimeter Trail) east. Clusters of purple hyacinths rise from patches of open water, and a strand of cypress trees is filling in nicely. In the oak trees to the left, wood storks gather during late winter, nabbing sticks with which to build their nests.
Wood storks in the trees along Bald Eagle Blvd
2.2 > As you near the junction with Vulture View, it’s obvious how it got its name, with all the vultures hanging out in the dead trees. This is where the outflow of the wetlands is processed, running under the levee in culverts and being shunted into a canal. A bridge to the left links to the Perimeter Trail. Continue straight ahead into a tunnel of vegetation to join the Wilderness Trail.
2.4 > The Wilderness Trail ends in a small clearing adjoining the outflow canal. A white-blazed bridge sits to the left. It leads to a back way to connect to the Florida Trail in Seminole Ranch by using the Perimeter Trail. Turn right to enter the forest on the North Woods Branch Trail, following the nicest piece of the original Florida Trail route through Orlando Wetlands Park. It quickly enters a majestic palm hammock where ancient live oaks break up the symmetry of the cabbage palm trunks.
This bridge in the NE corner of the park leads to the Florida Trail
2.6 > Crossing a grassy old forest road at the Orange Mound sign, the trail continues across a wooden bridge and into another beautiful oak and palm hammock. Dwarf palmetto crowd the understory. Look up, and you’ll notice both resurrection fern and greenfly orchids along the trunks of the live oaks.
Palm and oak hammock on the North Woods Branch Trail
2.8 > Crossing a wooden bridge over an ephemeral waterway, the trail leaves the palm hammocks behind and makes a right onto an old forest road. The surrounding oaks are densely covered in bromeliads. The footpath curves around a marshy area with wax myrtle and red maples, and can get muddy at certain times of year. A little rise in elevation makes for a spot covered in puffs of deer moss.
Rain shelter chickee that marks one end of the North Woods Branch Trail
3.2 > Leaving the woods along a series of bog bridges, the trail emerges behind a chickee, another one of the rain shelters built around the park and a good spot for a break before you head back out into the full sun on the levee. Climb up the berm and make a left to start walking around Lake Searcy on Osprey Blvd.
View across Lake Searcy
3.7 > At this eastern end of Lake Searcy – a manmade lake which provided fill for the levee system – the views are outstanding looking back west across the open water. Moorhens tend to cluster in the reeds near the shore. In late winter, blue flag iris blooms along the shoreline.
4.2 > Lake Searcy grows more marshy as you approach an observation platform at the entrance to the South Woods Branch Trail. Take a moment to climb the platform and survey the views, as the remainder of the hike will be in the woods. A sign you passed notes that the lake was named for the ranchers who’d worked this land. Vultures tend to hang out around this platform but will leave when you approach. Cross the bridge to enter the forest on the South Woods Branch Trail.
Entry to South Woods Branch Trail
4.5 > The trail parallels a swamp to the right, and the footpath is squishy underfoot. Passing a bench in the deep shade, you’ll see royal ferns and marsh ferns. The numbers correspond to an interpretive brochure available online or at the visitor center, and mostly point out the plants along this trail. You pass a side trail to the right that leads back out to Osprey Blvd on Lake Searcy after it goes through the location of an old campsite from when this footpath was the Florida Trail.
4.8 > Emerging from the shady hardwood hammock at the South Woods Branch Trail trailhead, you can see the parking area across the grassy expanse. You can make a beeline for it, or turn right and walk up to Osprey Blvd. Turn left and you might see what we saw along this one corner of the wetlands park.
A flock of roseate spoonbills along Osprey Blvd
5.0 > Following the curve of the levee around to the picnic pavilion and restrooms, you return back to the visitor center and parking area.
The Limpkin Trail no longer exists at Spring Hammock Preserve
For nearly 20 years, Spring Hammock Preserve has been one of our favorite hiking destinations in the Orlando metro. When we revisited the trails in December 2017 to research for our third edition of 50 Hikes in Central Florida, we discovered radical changes since 2013 that needed answers. The fine folks at Seminole County Natural Lands responded and let us know what’s in store for this popular preserve.
As mentioned above, the trail system has changed quite a bit at Spring Hammock Preserve since we first hiked here. From 1999 through 2013, the compelling reason to hike here was to visit the ancient cypresses found throughout the floodplain. The trail system at that time guided you to them.
2010 trail map showing location of landmark cypress trees
But as the extensive boardwalks through the swamp aged and disintegrated, instead of being repaired, we increasingly found them blocked off or abandoned. The Loop Boardwalk by the Robin Trail was one of the first to vanish. We were last able to access the Cypress Tree Boardwalk in 2013, but it was full of holes and in need of repair.
Soldier Creek overlook at junction of Limpkin Trail and Cypress Boardwalk, 2013
We made a loop down the Limpkin Trail past the hollow cypress and found the Lake Jesup Boardwalk boarded over and inaccessible. The last time we’d walked out along it was 2011, when it was flooded and was missing many boards. In 2013, we could no longer access it.
Boarded over Lake Jesup Boardwalk access, 2013
Hiking to the Lake Jesup Boardwalk through floodwaters on the Osprey Trail, 2011
Ancient cypress along the Lake Jesup Boardwalk, 2011
View of Lake Jesup from the fishing pier, 2006
Access to the Cypress Tree Boardwalk was boarded over at the Osprey Trail on our December 2017 visit.
Boarded-over access to Cypress Tree Boardwalk, December 2017
Cypress Tree Boardwalk, 2009
Our friend Paul along the Cypress Tree Boardwalk in 2011
The biggest surprise during our December 2017 hike was the total elimination of the Limpkin Trail, which followed the edge of Soldier Creek into beautiful cypress swamps with towering bald cypress, including a hollow one that made for good photos.
John in the hollow tree, December 2013
The hollow tree along the Limpkin Trail, 2006 and 2009
We reached out to Seminole County to find out what happened to it. Division Manager Richard Durr at the Leisure Services Department shared that the county had restored a portion of the trail in 2014, only to have it swept away by the next two seasonal floods. Soldier Creek was channelized the first time we visited the preserve. As it reclaims its original floodplain, it is taking a more meandering route, which overflowed and erased enough of the Limpkin Trail that it was not worth restoring again.
Floodplain of Soldier Creek east of the hollow cypress, 2006
Our hikes on the Magnolia Trail loop and the Hydric Hammock Loop were in December 2013. During our December 2017 visit, we found the Hydric Hammock Loop blocked off, and the Magnolia Trail impossible to follow, except for the first tenth of a mile.
Boardwalk on the Hydric Hammock Loop, 2009
Boardwalk on the Magnolia Trail, 2011
Both had previously had gorgeous boardwalks through the hydric hammock. We asked Mr. Durr about what happened to these trails. He said that the boardwalks had been built by the School Board for use by the Environmental Studies Center. They were in need of repair, and the School Board decided they no longer needed the trails. So they removed the entries to the Magnolia Trail and and the Hydric Hammock Loop as a safety measure. However, as part of their analysis for trail restoration, the Natural Lands Program will look into whether it’s worth re-establishing these trails.
Mr. Durr also shared an update on upcoming improvements planned at Spring Hammock Preserve, which we’ve incorporated into the updated hike description on our Spring Hammock Preserve page. You can take a look at their Fact Sheet below.
More than $745,000 dollars has been budgeted for improvements and repairs in 2018, with a new boardwalk to Lake Jesup planned in a location farther away from Soldier Creek. A portion of the Cypress Boardwalk will be rebuilt to showcase the old growth cypress along it. A new rain shelter and replacement of a pavilion are also in the works, as well as wayfinding signage.
One final note: Spring Hammock Preserve has always needed a “Friends of” citizen group of volunteers to work with the county to look after its extensive trails. It would be nice to see someone from the local area get involved with the Seminole County Adopt A Park program to put such a support crew together.
Fed by a trickle of hidden springs through lush hammocks of cabbage palms, Spring Hammock Preserve in Winter Springs is a natural gem along the shoreline of Lake Jesup. While two-thirds of its 1,500 acres are swamp, its trails guide you into its depths to view botanical wonders like record-setting ancient bald cypress trees, rare cuplet fern, and the largest stand of tulip poplars we know of in Florida.
While we’ve written about this preserve in many of our books, the trails have radically changed in recent years. Only our newest guidebook presents an accurate picture of the preserve right now. For details on what has changed since 2013, see our article Changes at Spring Hammock Preserve.
Location: Winter Springs
Length: 3 miles
Lat-Lon: 29.271983, -82.056583
Type: loop on a network of trails
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: on weekdays
Land Manager: Seminole County Natural Lands, 407-349-0769
Open sunrise to sunset. The park gates close at dusk. Restrooms adjoining the Environmental Studies Center are closed on weekends. Restrooms are also available across the street at the ballfields of Soldier Creek Park.
From Interstate 4 exit 98, Lake Mary/Heathrow, drive east on Lake Mary Boulevard for 1.6 miles to Longwood–Lake Mary Road. Turn right and continue 2.5 miles to where it ends at Ronald Reagan Boulevard. Turn left at the light and make the first right onto General Hutchinson Parkway. The entrance to Big Tree Park – which is also part of Spring Hammock Preserve – is on your right.
Continue down General Hutchinson Parkway through Spring Hammock Preserve to the traffic light at US 17-92. Turn left. After 0.8 mile, make a right at the light onto FL 419. Drive 0.6 miles to the preserve entrance at Osprey Trail, on the left across from the ball fields at Soldier Creek Park. Enter the gates and park in the lot along the road just past the Environmental Studies Center parking area.
0.0 > Leaving the parking area, follow the trail into the woods at the Pine Pavillion sign to dig into a corner of the trail network of twisty windy little trails near the Environmental Studies Center. When you get to the pavilion, loop around it past the Azalea Trail sign.
0.1 > Follow the Azalea Trail to the next intersection and turn left. Pass the Cinnamon Fern Trail sign and keep going.
Sign beneath a tulip poplar
0.2 > You reach an old interpretive sign about Tulip Poplars. Look up. The tall tree behind the sign IS a tulip poplar, a species you are more likely to see along the Appalachian Trail than the Florida Trail. But as you pass the tree, you also pass a very old Florida Trail sign. The Florida Trail used to ramble through the woods here instead of following the paved Cross Seminole Trail. Look off to the right: the tall trees surrounding the trail are more tulip poplars. Turn left.
Tulip poplar leaves in April
0.3 > Passing the kiosk with map along the paved trail (map is not up-to-date and QR code doesn’t work), turn off the Cross Seminole Trail to head into the woods on the Osprey Trail. The width of a road, it’s beautifully canopied by a mature forest. Pass a blocked-off bridge to the Magnolia Trail.
Kiosk with map on Cross Seminole Trail
0.4 > The Robin Trail goes off to the right. Continue straight ahead. This used to be the location of a loop boardwalk around an ancient cypress tree.
0.6 > You can see the Mud Walk pavilion up ahead as you pass by a boardwalk on the other side of the ditch that parallels the Osprey Trail. The bridge leads to what remains of the Magnolia Trail. We followed it a little ways in to enjoy the short boardwalk and the lush surroundings, where needle palm thrives. Don’ t wander past your ability to backtrack, as the trail no longer goes through and isn’t blazed. We did find an old Magnolia Trail sign along the route.
0.8 > After a quarter-mile diversion on the Magnolia Trail, return to the Osprey Trail and ramble past the Mud Walk pavilion. A set of stairs leads to the water, the better for students to wash mud off their shoes. You pass the first bridge to the Hydric Hammock Trail, which has been abandoned. If you cross it, which we did, you come face to face with a TRAIL sign pointing right and left, and a lot of mud. Best to leave this unmarked area to the school groups.
Sign on other side of Hydric Hammock Loop bridge
0.9 > The second bridge to the Hydric Hammock Trail is to the left. To the right is the boarded-over entrance to the Cypress Tree Boardwalk, one of two boardwalks the county plans to restore.
Question Pond, when it looks like a spring
1.0 > If you’re lucky, Question Pond will be a shimmering blue spring. It’s a beauty spot surrounded by cabbage palms in this hydric hammock. But if the water levels in Lake Jesup – and this surrounding swamp on its shoreline – are high, the water in the pond will be brown. Continue down the Osprey Trail after a stop here. Vegetation starts crowding in from both sides.
Question Pond, when the swamp water suppresses the spring
1.2 > At a sharp curve in the Osprey Trail, the OT-01 sign marks the location of the new planned boardwalk out to the old fishing pier on Lake Jesup. You can use this as a turn-around point, or add on another 0.4 mile with a walk to the end of the Osprey Trail by the boarded-over boardwalk to Lake Jesup. Why bother? If the trail isn’t flooded, it’s worth the walk to see the ancient cypresses rising above the forest.
Intended location of new Lake Jesup Boardwalk
1.4 > The Osprey Trail ends near Soldier Creek and the end of the abandoned Lake Jesup boardwalk and the abandoned Limpkin Trail. Look left to see the cypresses towering over the rest of the floodplain forest. Return back the way you came.
Towering cypress near the end of the Osprey Trail
2.2 > After passing Question Pond, the bridges, and the Mud Walk pavilion, make a left on the Robin Trail. It’s a narrow tunnel through dense vegetation, rising up out of the floodplain area into upland forest.
The Limpkin Trail no longer exists at Spring Hammock Preserve
2.4 > Where this bench overlooks Soldier Creek, you can see why the Limpkin Trail was abandoned. It used to be behind the bench. The waters have reclaimed the shoreline. Scramble up the small embankment up ahead to cross the paved Cross Seminole Trail. Continue into the woods on the opposite side. The trail starts following the bluffs of Soldier Creek, offering one of the nicest pieces of footpath in the preserve for the next quarter mile.
View along Soldier Creek
2.6 > Enjoy views of Soldier Creek from atop the bluffs. You will encounter wooden structures placed here by mountain bikers. Back in the 90s, this was the Florida Trail route, which continued upstream along Soldier Creek all the way to US 17/92. When you see the railroad bridge in a clearing up ahead, make a right to join the Primary Trail, staying in the woods.
Stay with the Primary Trail as it curves right.
2.7 > At the four-way junction, the trail on the left leads to a water fountain at the Environmental Studies Center. Continue straight ahead, passing several more trail junctions with signs.
2.8 > At the Azalea Trail sign, turn right. Turn left onto the Cinnamon Fern Trail. It can be a little squishy underfoot but it does lead you past some tall cinnamon ferns. Turn right onto the Pinewoods Trail and follow it out to the park road.
Ferns along the Cinnamon Fern Trail
3.0 > Return along the grassy shoulder of the paved road to reach the parking area.
Accurate as of December 2017, with future planned additions shown (Lake Jesup Boardwalk and Cypress Boardwalk restoration, in pink)
Bear bagging is a technique used by backpackers around the world so you can sleep easy knowing your breakfast will be there in the morning.
But what does it mean to bear bag?
Bear bagging is the art of hanging your food properly out of reach of bears. And the key word is “properly,” since bears climb trees.
While I was setting up our tent on our second night of hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I watched a young fellow hanging his bear bag for the first time. He had thrown his rope over a broken limb that only stretched out about 18″ from the trunk of the tree. Once the bag was added, the rope slid into the notch of the limb and trunk, making it completely worthless. A bear could easily scramble up the tree and grab the bag.
I walked over and asked if he would mind a little advice. Which he took. He completed his thru-hike, and I never heard that he lost any food to the bears.
Bear bags hung from a provided cable at an AT shelter, upper left
Others we met along the trail hadn’t been so lucky. Another fellow had lost all his food, except for a couple of protein bars, to a bear. “It ate all the good stuff, but didn’t touch the Powerbars!” he said. He was lucky that several of us sharing the camp all chipped in enough food to get him to the next resupply.
Bear Bagging in Florida
I’m telling this story because bear bagging is smart in some places, and mandatory in others along the Florida Trail. Since 2009, it’s been REQUIRED that you bear bag or carry a bear canister in the Apalachicola, Osceola, and Ocala National Forests. And it seems the message hasn’t gotten out there clearly enough, since the U.S. Forest Service closed the Florida Trail in Juniper Prairie Wilderness this past month in response to a bear raiding tents at Hidden Pond.
The trail has been opened again, but that doesn’t mean hungry bears – who learn to raid garbage cans and developed camping areas where food is left out – aren’t a problem. If you’re hiking the Florida Trail and you’re hiking alone, losing your food to a bear may mean going hungry for a few days. You are very unlikely to run across another hiker, especially with spare food!
Bears are smarter than you might think. While hiking in New Mexico at Philmont, I was advised not to use white cord. The bears along the trail had learned that at the end of a white rope there was always food. We swapped our rope for a green one, and avoided sharing our food.
So in case you’re a backpacker who doesn’t know how to keep your food secure from bears, here’s how.
Bear bag hung away from tents on a hillside on the AT in Georgia
Bear bagging is pretty easy, in theory. Find a tree with a good limb, throw the rope over the limb, and pull up your food bag. At least that’s how they told me to do it in the early ’70s, when I first tried it.
Finding the right tree with the right limb could require a little searching. You want a tree substantial enough that the bear can’t push it over, or that will break as it climbs up it. The limb needs to be long enough that you can hang the rope far enough from the tree trunk that it can’t be reached. The bag needs to hang low enough that it can’t be reached from the limb, and high enough from the ground that the bear can’t use it as a piñata.
Sounds easy, right. But how are you going to get your rope up and over that limb, way up there?
Unless you were a big baseball or softball hero, it will probably take a few attempts. Find the right size stick (or, in other states, a rock) and tie one end of your rope to it, and over the tree it goes. Go ahead and sit back with the knowledge that you’ve mastered yet another outdoor skill.
A bit of fine print: finding the correct size rock or stick is crucial. These are different for everyone. If it’s too small or too light, it will never make it over the limb pulling your rope. And if it does but isn’t heavy enough, you may not be able to pull your rope within reach. If it’s too big or too heavy, how are you going to throw it that high? Most people I met preferred using a piece of wood. It’s easy to tie a knot around it that will hold. I prefer a baseball sized rock. Being an old Eagle Scout, I combine a timber hitch and clove hitch around the rock. But keep in mind that a poorly thrown rock could make for an injury. It’s all about finesse.
Bear Bagging Basics
Let’s go over the short course again:
1. Find a tree with a good limb.
2. Find a good rock or stick.
3. Attach rope.
4. Throw rope over tree limb (multiple tries are okay).
5. Attach your food bag, pull it up in the air out of reach from all directions.
6. Tie the loose end of the rope to another tree.
Bear bags hanging at sunset on the AT in Georgia
What goes in your food bag? Not just your food, but also your trash and anything with a scent, like toothpaste and toothbrushes. So you can’t hang the bag until you’re done with your meal and evening preparations. You can, however, have the rope set up and waiting for you to hang the bag later.
On our AT hike, we quickly discovered that it was crucial to use a dry bag as your bear bag. Otherwise, your food and trash gets soaked in the rain. Within our first week on the AT, we switched from food bags we’d bought at Walmart to lightweight Sea to Summit dry sacks, and we’ve been using them ever since (purchase here on Amazon.com).
Another important thing for those new to bear bagging. DO NOT set up your tent under the bear bag! Yes, we saw this more than once along the AT. In fact, someone set up their tent right under our bear bag on Wayah Bald. The temptation to drop the bag on them in the morning was almost overwhelming.
Some people swear by the “PCT Method,” popularized on the Pacific Crest Trail. We’ve watched friends do it, and it’s tricky. But the bears are bigger and meaner out on the West Coast. Here’s a how-to graphic PDF on the PCT method from the Georgia AT Club website.
Finally, if this all seems too complicated, use a bear canister instead. These are a heavy can with screw-top lid that the bear can’t open, but you can, using a coin. Now the bear may pick it up and bat it around – we met someone whose bear canister went sailing off the cliffs of Blood Mountain – but the bear won’t be able to get into your food. It’s doubtful that Florida bears have a clue that a bear canister has food in it, as the canister masks the aroma.
Bear canister (right corner of table) we used on our first overnighter together in Seminole State Forest
When you purchase a bear canister, make sure it fits in your backpack, or vice-versa! We have a BearVault (purchase here on Amazon.com) gifted to us by a friend that used it on the John Muir Trail, where canisters are required. We’ve used it a few times. Interestingly, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy is now recommending use of bear canisters instead of bear bagging along the AT, because yes, some bears along the trail have learned to associate ropes in trees with food.
Where should I bear bag in Florida?
In Florida, you MUST bear bag or use a bear canister in our National Forests. Given the bear population along the Wekiva River basin, it’s smart to protect your food from bears in Seminole State Forest, Wekiwa Springs State Park, and Black Bear Wilderness. We’ve seen bears in all three places, as well as the campground at Kelly Park / Rock Springs Run.
Bear bags hanging at the Kitching Creek campsite, Ocean to Lake Hiking Trail,
primarily to keep small creatures out of them.
Bears roam Eglin Air Force Base and Nokuse Plantation, and have been reported by backpackers crossing St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. Bears are also present in Big Cypress National Preserve. When in doubt, protect your food by bear bagging. Even if there are no bears around, it also keeps your food safe from smaller thieves like raccoons and mice.
Cradling a collection of spectacular springs in a forested glen along the Santa Fe River, Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park is Florida’s newest state park and one of the finest places to experience a spring up close.
Its namesake, Blue Spring, is the largest in the collection, a sizable second-magnitude spring with a flow of 44 million gallons per day, creating a shallow spring run. Swimming is permitted here and at nearby Naked Spring, a natural oval pool accessed by a floating dock. Several other springs are along the nature trails, which meander through the towering trees of a hardwood hammock along the edges of the floodplains formed by the spring runs.
Location: High Springs
Address: 7450 NE 60th St, High Springs, FL 32643
Lat-Lon: 29.829341, -82.683477
Fees: $4-6 per vehicle
Open: 8 AM until sunset daily
Leashed pets welcome but not permitted in swimming areas or springs.
On busy days – especially on weekends – arrive early or you will be turned away if the parking lot is full.
From US 27 south of High Springs, turn west on NW 182nd Ave (CR 340). Continue 4.5 miles west to the park entrance on the right. A mile-long divided dirt road, bumpy in places, leads to the ranger station, which adjoins the spring and parking area.
Gilchrist Blue Spring
There are five named springs at Gilchrist Blue Springs State Park, with its showy namesake Blue Spring being the main attraction and the main swimming area. A diving platform encourages a splashdown in the depths of the blue waters, with the spring vent more than 20 feet deep, surrounded by a shallower broad natural pool.
Walk down the boardwalk to access the colorful, clear, and shallow spring run for wading, swimming, and snorkeling. Prior to Hurricane Irma, the boardwalk extended all the way to the Santa Fe River; now there is just a short segment remaining, but enough to provide nice views across the run.
To the left of the diving platform, walk away from Blue Spring along the edge of the floodplain forest to find Little Blue Spring, a beauty spot surrounded by cypresses. Swimming is not permitted in this spring, but it’s lovely to see.
Little Blue Spring
The broad path to the right of the boardwalk leads through the forest to more springs. Surrounded by floodplain forest, Naked Spring is a jewel in its natural setting. From the floating dock and the one cleared area along its shore, you can see two spring vents. It’s at least a dozen feet deep, although the spring run out to Blue Springs Run is shallow.
We found more springs along the nature trail that starts near Naked Spring. The first was down a short side path to the left and was partially obscured by fallen trees. The next one was Johnson Spring, a large natural feature with a well-flowing spring run.
The last place we saw water flowing was from seepage springs from a karst bluff along the floodplain basin, about 0.75 mile down the nature trail.
Karst seeps along the Nature Trail
Explore the Park
Paddlers on Blue Spring Run
There are 25 campsites located near the main spring. Numbered sites (1-18) are primarily used by RVs and campers and are in the open. Choose the lettered sites (A-G) for a more relaxed setting for tenting or van camping beneath the canopy of oaks.
Rent canoes, kayaks, or paddleboards at the kiosk near the ranger station and pick them up near the boardwalk. You are also welcome to bring your own watercraft.
The unmarked Nature Trail begins just past Naked Spring. We explored a route that made a 1.5-mile balloon hike from the start of the path near Naked Spring, or 1.75 miles from the main parking area.
Explore the Florida Trail with friends on the annual I-Did-A-Hike, a day of hiking on two delightful uplands segments of our National Scenic Trail within an hour of the Jacksonville metro. This year’s event happens February 24 and will traverse both Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park and adjacent Camp Blanding.
Meet at the recreation building in the picnic area in Gold Head (near Moss Man) between 8 AM and 11 AM to register for the hike and to catch a shuttle to the starting point in Camp Blanding. The hike through Camp Blanding showcases several beautiful spring-fed lakes. We’ve seen fox squirrels along this section, and you might spy a rare indigo snake. Bring your camera, as there are many beautiful views, including the crossing of Alligator Creek. The hike continues into Gold Head Branch State Park through rolling sandhills topped with longleaf pine. It’s a good time of year to see lady lupine in bloom.
Map of the I-Did-A-Hike
The full hike is 10.8 miles, but the sag wagons will allow you to do 3.7, 5.9, or 7.8 miles if you prefer. Bring a friend, but no pets are allowed. Tickets are $20 per person, with all proceeds going to the Florida Trail Association. Be sure to bring water and a snack, and your Florida State Parks pass if you have one to cover the entrance fee to Gold Head. Sign in at registration and sign out again when you’re done to be registered for some nice door prizes.
After you return to the starting point, enjoy entertainment and browse tables set up by environmental and hiking groups. REI will be there, and there will be pizza for purchase (cash, please) and other snacks after the hike is done.
Accessed via a trailhead along SR 52 just west of the Suncoast Parkway, and by an extensive trail system spanning to JB Starkey Wilderness Park in New Port Richey, the 6,533-acre Serenova Tract of Starkey Wilderness Preserve is the “wild space” to the north of J.B. Starkey Wilderness Park. The land was once a cattle ranch and timber operation between the Anclote River and the Pithlachascotee River, established in 1937 by Jay B. Starkey.
Serenova Tract - YouTube
When we worked on the first edition of 50 Hikes in Central Florida nearly 18 years ago, the Serenova Tract had not yet been acquired. Starkey Wilderness Park did not persist into subsequent editions since the trails were multi-use and portions of them have been paved to connect to the Suncoast Trail. But as Pasco County has grown, this 18,000-acre preserve has become more popular than ever. It provides hikers, equestrians, and off-road cyclists more than 20 miles of trails with primitive campsites: reserve in advance with a free permit.
In response to outreach from impassioned citizens, we’re calling your attention to the Seranova Tract of Starkey Wilderness Park because, much like our own Split Oak Forest closer to home, it is at risk of being chopped apart by plans for a highway, despite being set aside as public land protecting sensitive environmental areas along the Pithlachascotee River basin.
Local authorities want to extend Ridge Road into the preserve to provide access to lands that could be developed. Pasco citizens are lobbying the Army Corps of Engineers and Southwest Florida Water Management District (the land manager) to deny any taking of land for road building within this preserve.
On February 17, 2018, join the Save Serenova community group for an educational hike. Meet at the entrance located at Hays Road and SR 52 at 8 AM for a nature talk.*
The Wilderness Hike starts at 8:30 AM inside the Serenova Preserve. Environment Resources teacher Josh Mc Cart and conservationist Ken Bolduc will be your guides on a moderate 5-mile roundtrip wilderness hike to Fishing Lake.
There will also be a leisurely 1.2-mile nature walk for families with children to explore this vibrant place.
• What to bring: Wear suitable footwear – sugar sand trail. Bring water – no water along the trails. Snacks to enjoy at the lake. Hat for sun coverage. Sunscreen.
• Important to know: Extra parking available at Publix Super Market at Hays Road Town Center.
With more than 80 different distinct natural communities between the Appalachian-like ridges of the far western Panhandle and the Caribbean-style tropical forests of the Florida Keys, Florida is one of the most compelling destinations for people who love botanical beauty. While we have dozens of botanical gardens, formal gardens, and public gardens throughout the state, exploring our wild spaces will immerse you in habitats that aren’t especially common elsewhere in the United States. Some, in fact, are only found here in Florida.
With more than 1,400 miles of hiking statewide, the Florida Trail, our National Scenic Trail, provides a gateway to grand landscapes for botanical beauty. Our digital guidebook, the Florida Trail App, enables you to quickly identify botanical wonders like big trees and unique habitats by looking for the “leaf” symbol on the maps.
Crossed palms, Little Big Econ State Forest
But some destinations on the Florida Trail are more than just a point: they’re a sweeping immersion in a particular habitat that boasts its own ever-changing accompaniment of spring, summer, and fall wildflowers. We developed the following list of destinations to share with the Florida Native Plant Society. Use this in conjunction with our website information or our app and guidebook to plan your own botanically rich hikes along the Florida Trail.
At the Ross Prairie Trailhead of the Cross Florida Greenway, there are two loop trails you can access – and this is the shorter of the two, taking you on a journey into the quiet woods of Ross Prairie State Forest, just south of the Greenway.
The grasslands of Ross Prairie sprawl in arms and coves on both sides of SR 200, and you’ll explore their edges while keeping cool in the shady embrace of dense upland hammocks. This easy day hike leads you through a variety of habitats, including longleaf pine forest, scrub, and oak hammocks. In the summer, orchids dance amid the resurrection fern, and in spring and fall, the sandhills come alive with colorful wildflowers. This 2.4 mile loop is part of the Florida State Forests Trailwalker program, and offers a primitive campsite perfect for introducing youngsters to backpacking.
Length: 2.4 miles
Lat-Lon: 29.037983, -82.295851
Fees / Permits: call 352-732-1201 for a free camping permit
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: at the trailhead. Flush toilets AND showers!
Follow SR 200 south from Ocala, crossing CR 484. Look for the Ross Prairie Trailhead at the green sign 1.5 miles past CR 484 on the left. Follow the road around to park near the restrooms. The trailhead offers an RV campground, access to equestrian trails, and another hiking trail, the 3.5-mile Ross Prairie Loop on the Cross Florida Greenway, which leads to the Florida Trail between Ross Prairie and SW 49th Ave.
0.0 > Start your hike at the Holly Hammock Hiking Trail sign near the parking area. It’s well marked, so you shouldn’t miss the gap in the fence. Walk along a narrow footpath through a deeply shaded oak hammock to the next fence, the boundary for Ross Prairie State Forest. The kiosk here shows the map of the trail. Cross the firebreak and follow the blue blazes into a forest of oaks, holly, and sparkleberry.
Sandhills along the Holly Hammock Hiking Trail
0.3 > As the trail rises up into the sandhills, longleaf pines tower over an open understory where colorful wildflowers peep out of the haze of wiregrass in spring and fall. Descending downhill, you’ll find a scrub understory has swarmed into the sandhills, with silk bay showing off glistening leaves and sand live oak forming a low canopy. Look in the crooks of the branches for greenfly orchids, which bloom in summer. They’re tucked in between the dense blanket of resurrection fern on the branches.
Greenfly orchid hidden among resurrection fern
0.6 > Emerging into the open, you reach an arm of Ross Prairie, the slope down into it the legacy of the cattle rancher who once owned this property. Turn right and follow this dike to the next “Hiking Trail” sign. Deer moss carpets the forest floor beneath the sand live oaks, and fingers of fungi rise through decaying leaves.
Arm of Ross Prairie
0.8 > Turning sharply left, the trail zigzags between ancient oaks to pop back out along the prairie. Turn right. This time, you walk past a sand pine that fell over and continues growing close to the ground. Turning right again, the trail enters the cool shade of the hardwood hammock.
0.9 > At the “Primitive Campsite” sign, lime green blazes lead down a side trail to an open spot beneath the cover of oaks. This is a simple camping spot, with a picnic table and fire ring and lots of flat places for pitching a tent.
Pond in Ross Prairie
1.0 > You start to see light through the trees as the footpath leads you out to a panorama along Ross Prairie, a treeline in the distance. Leave the marked trail to walk out into the prairie for the long view. A well-beaten path leads to a water hole where American lotuses float on the inky water. Be cautious of alligators if you approach the pond.
1.1 > Back on the footpath, the trail makes a sharp turn here to return to the shade of the hammock, meandering past more large oaks. It ducks beneath thickets of sparkleberry and passes by healthy dahoon and American holly, the namesakes of this trail.
Along the Holly Hammock Hiking Trail
1.6 > Winding through the woods beneath the sand live oaks, the trail leads you through a gateway formed by oak trunks before it emerges again at the end of an arm of Ross Prairie. Those pink splashes you see in the grasses are pale meadow beauty. Cross a firebreak to re-enter the dense holly hammock.
1.9 > As the trail continues uphill, you re-enter the forest of longleaf pines that tops it. Sprays of blazing star show off feathery pale purple blossoms in the fall. The trail quickly descends back into the hammock.
2.2 > A corridor of dense saw palmetto flanks the footpath. Off to the right, open prairie is visible beyond the screen of forest. The trail works its way out to the edge of that prairie and you see a fenceline. Turn left and you’ll see the kiosk at the beginning of the loop up ahead along the fence.
2.3 > At the kiosk, turn right to exit. When you get back to the parking area, you’ve walked 2.4 miles.
Alternating between moss-draped oak hammocks and the wide open prairies that characterize this part of the state, the Florida Trail loop at Prairie Lakes provides one of Central Florida’s oldest and most scenic hiking destinations.
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