Hiking pristine ecosystems in Wekiwa Springs State Park and Seminole State Forest
Just a few miles away from downtown Orlando, there are outdoor recreation opportunities that will take you into the middle of a Florida wilderness that looks like it did 500 years ago. Carefully planned within Wekiwa Springs State Park and Seminole State Forest are hiking trails that allow a long, inspirational immersion into relatively pristine habitats within the Wekiva River basin.
Now somewhat renowned across the state for its relatively high black bear population, these two conservation lands are part of an ecological corridor that stretches to the Ocala National Forest. 75,000 acres of state lands and dozens of miles of trails provide an opportunity for all kinds of wilderness-oriented recreation experiences: equestrian, off road cycling, hiking, birdwatching, camping, canoeing and kayaking. I recently hiked two 10-mile loops in Wekiwa Springs State Park and Seminole State Forest and was really “away from it all”.
Both of these trips allow hikers to crisscross through exemplary, representative natural communities from unique Florida scrub to aquatic habitat associated with Rock Springs Run and the Wekiva River. These habitats are well managed by Park and Forest staff and are currently occupied by the historical biological diversity that occurred in central Florida.
At Wekiwa Springs State Park, I hiked a 10-mile loop from the parking lot at Sand Lake, crossed Mill Creek, followed Rock Springs Run for a couple of miles, and circled back through the restored sandhills in the middle of the Park. Initially I traversed through mature longleaf and pond pine flatwoods habitat with dense woody midstory vegetation from waist to chest high. This midstory is dominated by a sea of saw palmetto, with other plants such as fetterbush, gallberry, huckleberry and blueberry scattered within. Eastern bluebirds have returned to this area in the last 20 years as a result of prescribed fire, and a few strategically-located nesting boxes.
Once through the flatwoods, the trail passes through hydric hammocks associated with the floodplain of Rock Springs Run. For several miles, I was shaded by a mature forested canopy of live oak, southern magnolia, cabbage palm, sweetbay, and, closer to the creek, huge loblolly pine, blackgum and bald cypress. I flushed a flock of wild turkeys that had been scratching their way through the edge of the hydric hammock, probably gorging on laurel oak acorns that were still abundant in patches throughout the floodplain.
There is a beautiful vista to Rock Springs Run near Big Buck Camp, and most weekend days your presence will surprise canoers that don’t realize there are hiking trails at this remote point along the popular paddling route.
The white-blazed trail that I followed passes through a broad expanse of restored longleaf pine sandhills for miles. The park has done a fantastic job of restoring the physical structure and vegetative diversity under the mature longleaf pine canopy. Scattered turkey oak, Chapman’s oak and live oak occur below the canopy, but the systems are famously characterized by longleaf pine with a carpet of wiregrass underneath in a relatively parklike condition. This lush growth represents an idyllic vestige of what the Southeastern Coastal Plain must have looked like 400 years ago. Imagine hundreds of thousands of acres of longleaf pine and wiregrass across the Florida landscape that “a horse could gallop across”.
In Seminole State Forest, I began another 10-mile loop at the Bear Pond trailhead and hiked along the Lower Wekiva River Trail to Pine Lily Camp. I circled back across the Blueberry Trail, transitioned to the Florida Trail that runs through this portion of the forest, and returned to Bear Pond. My only complaint about this loop is that it does not allow a vista to the Wekiva River. (A short jaunt down a perpendicular path about a mile into the hike provides exposure to this Wild and Scenic River.)
Like the trail at Wekiwa Springs State Park, this loop includes a variety of habitats characteristic of historical central Florida. It begins at the southern edge of a large tract of Florida scrub habitat and then moves “downhill” into hydric hammocks and river floodplains associated with the Wekiva River. Temperatures can drop 10° or so in the summer from scrub habitats into this cool, shaded ecosystem. I particularly appreciate the near year-round lush growth of vegetation at various levels within and beneath the canopy.
Turning back from Pine Lily camp, the trail passes through pine flatwoods, and wetland habitat such as hydric pine savannah and herbaceous marsh. Scattered live oak hammocks with lush growths of resurrection fern, bromeliads and Florida butterfly orchid surround the trail at various locations between the forested wetlands and pine flatwoods.
The last few miles of the trail cut through an approximately 500 hundred-acre block of Florida scrub habitat – one of several large tracts in the Seminole State Forest. This habitat is managed by the State Forest and occasionally requires fairly dramatic management through roller chopping and burning. One section of this block of scrub had been recently chopped and burned and it is a little devastating to see the short-term impacts of this management. Long-term, this management mimics the historic patterns of irregular, but intense fires and will be beneficial for the substantial population of Florida scrub-jays, along with many other species of wildlife present in the Forest such as eastern towhee, gopher tortoise, pygmy rattlesnake, gopher frog and Florida mouse.
Both of the trails I hiked in the Wekiwa Springs State Park and Seminole State Forest have the potential for an overnight stay at a camp near the river. Or, the 10 miles can be trekked during a single day trip without too much effort. Though the distance is a little long, each of these trails is an easy hike through well-maintained trails and beautiful Florida habitat. Take some time this winter and schedule a day to take them on.
As always, I appreciate your interest in the ecology of the Wekiva basin. Hike through, dive in or paddle along, and let me know what you find.
Jay H. Exum, Ph.D.