A few days before the end of the year (2019) my friend A. sent me a message saying she wanted to search for rocks and shells at Ponce Inlet on New Year’s Day. The weather was expected to be good, so we made plans. I met her at the shop where she dropped off her car for some work and we drove the twenty minutes down to Ponce Inlet. We climbed on the boulders, A. looking for rocks and me taking photos.
This rock had flakes of silver color that shone in the sun, which A. liked.
I liked the lighthouse and worked to find the best angle to photograph it.
After a few hours we decided to hike a short bit of Ponce Preserve. I had already hiked the entire park for one of my 50 hikes, but A. had not been there before.
We worked up an appetite, we put the top down and headed to Mellow Mushroom in Port Orange. Both of us really enjoyed our lunch. On the way home, A. got a message that her car was ready so I returned her to the shop. The day out was a relaxing, low-key way to start the new year.
Due to the hotter Florida Summer weather, I had not hiked in three months. But I had a day off and this park was nearby and sounded promising. I didn’t get a really early start, arriving to the park around 11:40 am after a 20-minute drive.
The book lists two hikes in the preserve. The first is Spruce Creek Bluffs, a 5.6-mile loop trail, which is what I did. The second is Spruce Creek Park / Rose Bay, a short out-and-back plus a loop, for another 2.6 miles. The total hiking distance is 8.2 miles.
The Spruce Creek Bluffs area has trails for hikers, bikers, and equestrians. The beginning of the trail from the West Trailhead was used by hikers and bikers. After just a few minutes on the trail, I decided I would have to come back in the Fall with my mountainbike. Although there were lots of bike tracks, I could tell by the number of spiderwebs that no bikes had been there in the recent past.
The first ten or 15 minutes were pleasant enough. But soon I was swatting at the occasional horsefly. As I kept walking along the winding perimeter trail, the frequency of the horseflies increased. I soon reached Bailout A, the first of three connecting trails to the main Bluff Trail, used to quickly return to the trailhead.
I continued north along the very winding perimeter trail. The amount of horseflies steadily increased to the point where I was exercising my arms nearly as much as my legs. I passed Bailout B with the brief thought of taking it. I optimistically trudged on. The conditions got worse so that when I reached Bailout C, I seriously considered abandoning the hike and returning to my car.
I hadn’t quite reached the scenic bluffs, the main attraction of this hike, so I kept going. I was walking quickly, just trying to get trough this section. The view at Sunset Point was nice, but I wasn’t able to enjoy it. When I stopped walking for any length of time, the horseflies really swarmed. I had a quick look and snapped a few photos.
At Sunset Point the perimeter trail meets the main Bluff Trail that goes back south. I headed down it hoping the conditions here would improve. They didn’t, at first. I don’t normally carry the 50 Hikes in Central Florida book with me, but on this day I was glad I did. I knew there were lots of crossing trails and there was the potential to take a wrong turn; I nearly did two or three times. The written directions in the book helped a lot.
The second half of the Bluff Trail got better. It was mostly shaded and the horseflies nearly stopped buzzing my head. After about 3.5 miles, I reached 6 Corners. As its name suggests, it was the juncture of six trails. I turned left and began the well-marked Overlook Trail. The horseflies returned and I actually jogged a portion of this trail to lessen the annoyance and complete it quicker. This trail reached Spruce Creek and provided two good overlooks of the river and marsh (see photo, at top).
After quickly enjoying the views, I continued on, wanting to finish this hike as soon as possible. The time was after 1:00 pm and the day was beginning to get warm. However, the most miserable part of the hike was still to come. The next segment was a trail along powerlines, which meant a straight trail in thick sand, in the hot sunshine, and still swarming with horseflies. Breathing harder here, I actually inhaled and swallowed a couple horseflies. Yuck.
Here was another place I nearly missed my turn. There were two service/equestrian trails that went off to the right that I was not supposed to take. I passed them. But the second also included my needed perimeter trail which I passed. After checking the book and my hiking app, I turned around and found the correct trail. I was hot and exhausted at this point. Fortunately the final 3/4 mile was shaded and the horseflies abated. At the end, I had never been more happy to be finished with a day-hike.
Sitting in my MINI, I cooled down and changed shoes and shirt. I looked in the rearview mirror, startled to see seven bloody dots on my forehead and cheek. Horsefly bites. I could only guess the number on my back. I did my best to wash off the blood. I also decided I was done hiking for the day, the second hike would have to wait until tomorrow.
Since I was done hiking for the day, it was time to get my reward. I planned my return drive to pass by downtown New Smyrna Beach and a stop at New Smyrna Brewing. It was nearing 3:00 pm and I worried they might not yet be open. A quick search on my phone told me they opened at 3:00 pm. Perfect! I found the men’s room, washed my face and arms, found a corner bar seat, and ordered a flight of beers (numbered right-to-left).
The next day I motored down to Spruce Creek Park to complete part two of the hike. I was hopeful that conditions would be better closer to the coast. I was wrong. I found the trailhead and walked the long wooden boardwalk to the start of the trail to Rose Bay. However, as soon as I started down the sandy trail the horseflies swarmed again. Quickly deciding that I wasn’t putting myself through more torture, I turned around and returned to my car. I will return sometime in the Fall to complete this short hike.
I arrived at De Leon Springs State Park just before one o’clock to find the park was full, so I had to join the queue of cars waiting to get in. As cars left, the seven or eight cars ahead of me were let in. After waiting for about fifteen minutes I paid my $4 entrance fee and alerted the ranger that I would be hiking the Wild Persimmon Loop trail.
To reach the trailhead for the Wild Persimmon Trail you first have to walk up a short paved trail. From this trail, the book recommended taking a quick side boardwalk trail to see Old Methuselah, a bald cypress tree that’s more than 500 years old. So I did.
I rejoined the paved trail, took a left and continued to the loop at the end where the proper trailhead stood. The sign warned of “BEARS in Area” and to beware of venomous snakes, so I was half hoping and half worried I’d run into a bear and wholely worried I’d step on a snake.
The trail description didn’t mention any exceptional spots, so I decided I’d walk this trail at a bit of a faster pace than normal. So off I went to follow the blue blazes. Although not shown on the map in the book, there were markers mentioned in the text to note your progress.
Less than ten minutes in, I reached the first of several wood plank walkways. Although the trail was mostly dry, these raised boards were useful to keep above the grass and out of the few muddy spots.
The first marker I noticed was Marker 5 about a mile into the hike. I came to a clearing with a grassy trail going off to the right, but the book said to stay to the left and reenter the woods. I passed a couple of benches, Marker 6 and 7, followed by more wood walkways. Soon I reached the Wild Persimmon Loop trail next to a rustic bench.
Again, I stayed to the left and hiked into the woods, soon reaching Marker 8. I hiked on nearly walking into a large spider web. Ducking under that one, I soon came across another to the right of the trail. In the center of this web was the empty husk of a large spider, still hanging where it died.
The rest of this section was uneventful as I passed Marker 9 and 10. The trail briefly became a grassy double-track before entering the woods again before Marker 11. Soon the trail emerged back into a sunlit grass trail (see photo, at top) where it continued for some time. This section was hot and I was followed for a bit by a horsefly or small wasp or something. I had slowed my earlier quick pace but here I picked it up again. I passed Marker 12 and then the first “EXIT” marker. A bit farther in the sun and I reached the end of the Wild Persimmon Loop at Marker 13 and the rustic bench from earlier. Another “EXIT” marker pointed to the trailhead.
I quickly retraced the trail back to the beginning, crossing again all of the wooden plank walkways. Shortly before the end, I passed one older hiking couple then a group of kids. I emerged back onto the paved trail around three o’clock, completing the recommended hike.
I wasn’t yet tired, so I chose to walk one of the short “other hiking options” for this hike in the book. Just a few yards down the paved trail was the trailhead for the Monkey Island Trail
This turned out to be a busy half-mile total out-and-back walk that ended at bench sitting a muddy patch. I circled the bench and headed back.
I still had one last section to hike just before reaching the trailhead. So at the fork I turned right to follow the trail a short way before it ended again. This is where you can see the remains of the original Monkey Island which was home to monkeys and part of a jungle cruise in the 1950s and ’60s.
Leaving the Monkey Island Trail I turned right and followed the paved trail down to De Leon Springs. The swimming area was crowded and loud so I just took a quick walk around the springs, across the bridge, and behind the Old Spanish Sugar Mill. Since I hadn’t carried any water, I bought lemonade and a bottle of water and headed to my car.
Persimmon Hollow wasn’t directly on my drive home, but I was passing by downtown DeLand so I motored a few miles out of my way to enjoy my traditional post-hike beer(s). This was the hottest day of hiking so far, so the cold wheat beer was most welcome. The bartender there recognized me and my book from a previous trip and we got to chatting about hiking again. He was moving north soon and planned to do some hiking in his new place. I also started looking forward to my next hike.
This hike was supposed to happen on Easter Sunday but it was changed to the next day. The thought was the trail might not be as crowded on a Monday. This turned out not to be the case. The Black Bear Wilderness Area trail is a single loop trail of 7.1 miles near Sanford, Florida. It’s recommended to hike the loop clockwise, saving the best views for the last half.
All of my previous hikes from the book had been solo. My companions on this hike were A. and her dog Freida.
Soon after leaving the trailhead we came to the first boardwalk. This is where the loop began and we took the left-side trail. After a brief hike, we crossed a small bridge and then soon arrived at Boardwalk 14. (Because we were hiking the route “backward” the boardwalk numbers and mileage markers counted down.)
The trail took a slight right, then headed straight towards the western boundary of the park to where it meets the Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park. Veering right again, the double-track equestrian trail followed along a stream to the left side. After about a half-mile, the trail became narrower as we climbed up to hike on a small levee. Walking the trail here was tricky with slopes, ruts, and tree roots. We took a brief rest on the bank of the stream where we saw wading birds and examined many large snail shells. We continued along the western edge of the park, crossed Boardwalk 13, and reached the St. Johns River. At this northernmost point, we turned right again to hike beside the river.
Here we began to look for alligators along the bank of the river, which was separated from us by a small canal. Shortly after Boardwalk 12, I spotted a very large alligator partially hidden in the bushes about 30 yards away to our left. I backtracked a few feet up the trail to take a few photos and point it out to A.
Hearing our voices, the gator turned its head to look directly at me. Not knowing how deep the stream was between us and the gator, we moved quickly up the trail as to not provoke him to come after us or the dog. After putting a little distance between us and the gator, we stopped at a bench for lunch.
After lunch, we continued down the scenic trail between the river to our left and a cypress marsh to our right, crossing Boardwalks 12 through 10. I photographed several types of colorful wildflowers here.
Soon after, we spotted a less-intimidating animal sunning itself on a fallen palm tree.
This scenic part of the hike followed the bends of the St. Johns River with several boardwalk crossings affording clear views of the water (see photo, at top). We crossed Boardwalks 9 through 3.
We had one scare when Freida waded into the shallow canal and we had to chase and call her to come back to the trail, hoping she did not encounter a hidden alligator. Just when we thought we might have to go in after her, she bounded out covered in mud and debris.
Nearing the end of our walk along the St Johns River, we spotted our second alligator. This one was much smaller but also enjoying the sun on a grassy bank across a wider and deeper canal. A large wading bird (possibly a Limpkin?) was perched on a log nearby, unfazed by the small gator’s proximity.
At the northeast corner of the Wilderness Area, we turned right onto the Boardwalk 2 bridge which afforded a view straight down the canal. Here we did pass several other hikers enjoying the river views.
We left the river and hiked inland towards the trailhead. Shortly before reaching Boardwalk 1 we saw this bit of amusing nature graffiti. Can you spot the lizard in this photo?
(Hint: The figure’s left arm is reaching towards the lizard.)
We crossed Boardwalk 1 and walked the short entrance trail back to the trailhead, reaching the end of our 7.4-mile hike in exactly four hours.
This hike was, by far, my favorite of the six I have done from the book. The day provided sunny weather, interesting trails, scenic views, dangerous and harmless wildlife, colorful wildflowers, and excellent company. Although we didn’t encounter any black bears, I highly recommend Black Bear Wilderness Area.
Afterwards, A. had to take Freida home and run errands. But I didn’t, so after a quick shower I walked next door to McK’s Tavern for a couple of cold German wheat beers.
My wonky left knee was bothering me before this hike, so I chose to make a short one. The book said the suggested hike in Lyonia Preserve was only 2.1 miles. It is a home for the Florida scrub-jay, the only species of bird endemic to Florida, so my goal was to spot (and photograph one). Another bonus was that there was an Environmental Center and the Deltona Regional Library at the trailhead.
I set off down the trail which passed behind the Environmental Center. At the first loop trail, I turned left onto the Rusty Lyonia Trail (orange blaze). Almost immediately I passed a den of Cub Scout Webelos coming the other direction. I worried there would be lots of others on this suburban trail, but they were the only people I passed.
After a short hike on a sandy trail in the scrub, I turned left again to continue on the Red Root Trail (red blaze). There were a few instances where I thought I should turn around because my knee might not handle the walk, but I pushed on. Quickly I reached the longest loop trail, the perimeter Blueberry Trail (blue blaze).
After a slight climb, I spotted my first Florida scrub-jay. Just to the right side of the trail about head-high I spotted a blue and grey bird in its nest. It didn’t move as I approached. I snapped a few photos and started to continue my walk when I spotted a second scrub-jay, apparently on the lookout. Again I was able to approach closely and get a few close-up photos (see photo, at top).
I continued up a slight slope and the scrub opened up where I could see across the preserve to the high point. The day (at this point) was mostly sunny, though not hot at this time of year.
I continued up, across the open preserve to reach the highest point and approximately the midpoint of the hike. Much of this section was spent observing small insects which would rest in the trail until I disturbed them and sent them leaping and sputtering to a point 15 to 20 feet further, only to repeat the process as I approached again.
At the “summit” there were only a few signs that I was in the middle of a residential area: such as power lines, one rooftop, and the sounds of airplanes and a melody playing from an ice cream truck. Soon I plunged down into thicker scrub and approached the prairie with a small pond in its center. On the way I saw several cactus plants with spines that looked like silver nails, much to my surprise.
I noticed the sky was getting cloudy when I reached the intersection of the Red Root Trail. However, my knee felt fine so decided to extend the hike a little by turning right and taking it across the middle of the preserve and back. I started down this cross-trail but only got a hundred feet before some light rain began to fall. I took a quick shot of the prairie to my left before turning around.
I continued on the Red Root Trail to complete its return. The rain stopped as quickly as it had started. Walking down this trail I saw several more scrub-jays, but this time they eluded my camera before I could get any closeups. At the bench I turned left onto the main trail.
Back at the Rusty Lyonia Trail, I turned left to complete that short loop back to the main trail and out to the trailhead. The rain began again just as I reached the shelter of the Environmental Center. My knee held out just fine.
I headed inside the Center where they had exhibits featuring manatees, birds, and native land animals. Glass aquariums contained live snakes, lizards, turtles, and fish.
I spent some time enjoying the up-close look at the animals. Then I walked next door to visit the library. I observed some of the bipedal creatures there before returning to my car for water and a snack.
Now becoming a tradition, I headed to downtown DeLand to Persimmon Hollow for a cold reward beer. Feeling good after my short hike, I searched the 50 Hikes book to find a longer route for my next hike.
I had already completed two hikes and arrived at my final park by 3:30pm. Hidden Waters Preserve is a small nature area surrounded by residential neighborhoods. The “hidden waters” is a marshy lake at the bottom of a huge sinkhole. The recommended hike was a 1-mile loop trail encircling the lake. More notable was the 105-foot elevation change from the trailhead down to the water’s edge.
After an accidental turn down a side trail which went out to the boundary of the preserve, I returned to the main trail that plummeted down to the loop trail. Here I turned left to follow the Ravine Trail, climbing up the bank clockwise around the lake.
At the top of the hill the trail approached the boundary of the preserve with houses visible across the street. The book suggested turning right to follow the cascading stream down to the lake. Along the way was a boardwalk overlook looking down into the ravine. At the bottom, the water tumbled and streamed into the lake.
The trail followed the perimeter of the lake with a short side trail that approached the water for some closer views.
After a short break, I continued around the lake. Just before rejoining the main trail to climb back out, there were more clear views of the lake. So I snapped one last photo (see photo, at top) before turning left to make the 105-foot climb up to the trailhead and parking lot.
After a short drive from Flat Island Preserve, I reached the Trout Lake Nature Center. I wanted to hike this park and still have time to visit the Environmental Education Center before it closed at 4:00pm. The recommended route was only 1.4 miles. I signed in at the Center.
Not long after setting off from the trailhead on Lazy Oak Trail, I arrived at the Bobcat Walk, the first of several wooden walkways during the day. This part can sometimes be flooded, but at the time I was there it was very dry.
Like the earlier hike, this loop trail had a side trail, a large boardwalk that ended at Trout Lake. From the boardwalk you could observe bees pollinating colorful flowers in purple (see photo, at top), yellow, and white cotton-like shoots. The end of the boardwalk had a covered deck extending over the lake. From the lakeside deck I watched a cormorant swallow a fish, then dive underwater several times in search for more.
From the boardwalk I turned right to continue the loop on Armadillo Trail which passed behind the Environmental Education Center. At the Adventure Trail there was another walkway, this one with a swinging bridge over a muddy stream. After a few up-and-down jumps I continued on.
The trail continued on the ground until I reach the final landmark, the Grandfather Oak. The tree was a huge live oak with hanging wind-chimes and a picnic table sitting in its shade.
From the tree I walked to the main road and followed it a short distance before taking one last side trail (Gunkel Trail) off to the right to complete the recommended route.
After my hike I visited the Environmental Education Center. There were a few outdoor and indoor exhibits showing examples of natural wildlife. The building also contained a small library of nature books. After a short visit I made a nice donation and headed out to drive the short distance to my next hike.
My second hiking trip from the book was actually three hikes of three parks in Lake County, near Leesburg and Eustis. I began with the longest and farthest hike from home at Flat Island Preserve, arriving just before noon. The recommended route was 3.7 miles along an entry trail and a perimeter loop trail. The morning was cool and sunny.
The hike began on a winding, wooded trail which soon reached the beginning of the loop (marked with an B sign). I turned left to walk the loop clockwise.
About a quarter of the way around the loop was a side trail which went through a marsh (on a boardwalk) to a river with a canoe launch. This was the most scenic section of the hike. The end of the boardwalk overlooked stands of cypress trees (see photo, at top) and and an open, slowly flowing river.
After a short rest to enjoy the quiet and views, I returned up the boardwalk to rejoin the loop trail. I turned left to continue a pleasant hike clockwise, passing a campsite and signposts E, F, and D. Between F and D the trail was littered with hickory nuts.
From point D it was a short 0.8-mile hike around the rest of the loop and back out the main trail. At the trailhead I ate a quick lunch before motoring to the next park.
This was my first hike from the book. Ponce Preserve is in Ponce Inlet, a short 20-minute drive from my place. I set off on a late Sunday afternoon knowing that the suggested trail was only 1.6 miles long. The site lies on a strip of land between the Halifax River and the Atlantic Ocean so the trail was sandy with broken shells. The perimeter loop trail circles the historic Green Mound with extensions over boardwalks to the ocean and river.
Leaving the parking lot, I hiked across the peninsula then turned north walking parallel to Atlantic Avenue past the observation tower. After crossing the road for a quick look at the beach, I continued counter-clockwise around the Green Mound, stopping to read the historical marker. Although the book showed only one, there were two designated historic trees.
I finished the perimeter loop and returned to the parking lot before crossing Peninsula Drive for the boardwalk trail to the river. Walking across the salt prairie, I observed sea birds flying over black and red mangrove. The boardwalk trail ended at a covered observation deck in the Halifax River where boats, Jet Skis, kayaks, and paddleboarders passed by at different speeds.
After enjoying the river view, I returned to the parking lot by the entrance. Because the suggested hike was so short I hiked a few extra sections of trail which made my distance a bit more than the recommended 1.6-mile route.
After my hike I stopped in McK’s Tavern for a cold pint of hefeweizen and fish & chips dinner.
For years I have wanted to hike more of Florida trails, either by day-hikes or by taking longer multi-day hikes. While I don’t intend to through-hike the Florida Trail, I have thought of hiking much of the Florida Trail in sections.
So in mid-January 2019 I bought the book 50 Hikes in Central Florida by Sandra Friend and John Keatley. This practical guide gave me information on the best places within driving-distance and the numbered hikes will serve as a checklist while I systematically work my way through the list. I am not going in order and I have not set any time limit to complete all of the hikes. But I will try to hike one or two of them each month.
The area of Florida covered by the book stretches from Daytona Beach (where I live) in the northeast, down to Palm Bay on the east coast, over to Tampa Bay in the southwest of the area, and up to Ocala as the northwest corner.
The links below go to the article from my hike of that place, updated as I complete them.
Table of Contents
Rainbow Springs State Park, Dunnellon
Holly Hammock Hiking Trail, Ross Prairie State Forest