One of Seminole County’s newest natural lands, the Black Bear Wilderness Area offers some of the best birding and wildlife watching in the region. True to its name, it was a place to find bear scratches on trees, bear prints, bear scat … and Florida black bears themselves. We saw a mother and two large cubs as we were leaving. It’s a 2-mile round-trip to an overlook on the St. Johns River, or up to 2.8 miles if you wish to walk above the river looking for birds and watching boaters. With a trail that’s mostly shaded and extensive views of marshlands, it’s a very enjoyable hike.
Length: 2.8 miles
Fees / Permits: free
Bug factor: moderate to high
Dogs are welcome, but you probably won’t see wildlife if you bring them along. The trail is extremely rooty in some places and the berm narrows and drops off steeply into the swamp or river in other places, making it not the best choice for small children or people with balance issues. Do not attempt to hike this trail if the bog bridges are under water – it is prone to river floodplain flooding, as evidenced by water marks on the trees.
Spray yourself liberally with bug spray before setting out on this trail. Walk softly, as wildlife is everywhere. Be very cautious of getting off the high ground of the berm, since snakes and alligators do sun themselves along these slopes.
From Interstate 4 exit 101C at Sanford, take SR 46 west for 1.5 miles to Orange Blvd. Turn right. Continue 1.3 miles to New York Street on your left. Turn left. Drive 0.5 mile to where New York Street and Michigan Avenue meet. The trailhead is straight ahead of you.
Starting off just beyond the trailhead with 250 feet of bog bridges over a low-lying drainage area in the pine flatwoods, the trail system at Black Bear Wilderness Area is a simple out-and-back to the St. Johns River. By the looks of the map, I expected it to be unexciting; it was anything but. Beyond the boggy area, the trail clambers up a berm where an old drainage canal sits off to the left. Agriculture shaped this forest along the St. Johns, a second or third growth forest restoring nature where logging and farming changed the landscape forever.
Atop the berm, you start seeing a series of very nice benches set about a tenth of a mile apart, an Eagle Scout project by a local scout. These provide places for birders, and there are plenty of birds to watch. We heard and saw pilated and downy woodpeckers, and songbirds were everywhere. As you walk atop the bird, be cautious of the fire ant nests hiding in the grasses. Fungi swarms across decaying logs, and wild citrus trees add a sweet fragrance to the air in the winter. The berm is deeply shaded by tall oak trees, hickories, and cabbage palms. Goldfoot fern sways in the breeze from the tops of the palms.
You’ll see few large cypresses, but there is an impressive-sized one with a split trunk – not useful to loggers, since it couldn’t go through the sawmill. After the bench at 0.4 mile, there are canals on both sides of the berm. Cedars show up in the mix of trees atop this high spot between the marshes, some of significant size. Notice the water marks on the cypress trees? When the St. Johns River is high, this trail is under water. To the right and left, you begin to see more open landscape beyond the thin screen of trees separating the berm from the marshes. There are spots where you can peek out between the trees, and see willow marshes and open marshes extending off to a distant cypress-lined shore. Overhead, the shade is mostly provided by cedars. A few have ribbons of bark missing where bears have clawed the bark as they’ve climbed.
As the berm narrows, it gets taller. You start seeing aquatic plants down to the right and power lines in the distance, leading to the power plant on the opposite side of the river. A lone hiker marker confirms the otherwise obvious route. There are more fire ant nests to worry about. The birds are especially active here as the marshes open up more. Alligator flag rims the canal, these tall plants a frequent sight along the St. Johns River basin. The farther you hike, the more crooked and rooty the berm gets. Fossil snail shells tumble out of the berm, hinting at ancient middens. You start to hear boat traffic on the river.
The trail emerges at an unexpected sight: a water treatment plant off to the right, fenced and secured, and a white gravel road leading to it. Except the white gravel road disappears into the water of the marsh to the left. Perhaps it was built when the water was lower. A construction crew was adding more gravel to it as we passed. Crossing the gravel, the trail continues as a very well-built boardwalk through an alligator flag marsh where red-winged blackbirds flit and chatter. The boardwalk continues through a cypress swamp edging another canal and berm before rising up to an observation platform overlooking the St. Johns River. Birds like to roost here, as evidenced from the pattern of splatter on the plastic wood. You’ve hiked a mile.
To continue following the trail along the St. Johns River, turn left. It isn’t well-defined, other than being the high point atop the berm, which drops off steeply both to a slough along the river and the cypress swamp. This is an excellent stretch for birding, and we saw evidence of bears tearing apart logs and rolling in the dirt. Cabbage palms crowd in closely. There are a couple of spots where you must swing around a tree to stay on the berm, and one place where the berm has fallen into the river – a plastic fence guides you away from the divot. Trail’s end is at an obvious spot: the berm ends, dropping into a marsh. There is an “End of Trail” sign here, in case you were wondering. We wondered, since we saw more flagging tape on the far side of the marsh where the berm begins again. Perhaps the trail will be extended with another boardwalk someday, but not today.
Turn around and make your way carefully back to the observation deck on the St. Johns River, turning right to follow the boardwalk back through the swamp and marsh to the gravel road. Cross the road and continue along the top of the berm, retracing your route back to the trailhead. One spot is a little tricky: where you leave the berm. Look for the more obvious of the paths, and the bog bridge. If you don’t see the bog bridge, you’ve taken the wrong path. You return to the trailhead after 2.8 miles.
|0.9||cross gravel road|
|1.4||End of Trail sign|
|1.9||cross gravel road|