A wildlife-rich hike through the floodplain of the St. Johns River, this 2-mile walk introduces you to the beauty of Black Bear Wilderness Area, a 1,600-acre Seminole County Natural Area in Sanford. While the trail system was expanded to a 7.1-mile loop, this hike follows the original route out of the St. Johns River and back for an easy sampler of the preserve.
Length: 2 miles
Fees / Permits: free
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to high
Dogs are welcome, but you probably won’t see wildlife if you bring them along. 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. Sign in and out at the trail register at the kiosk in the parking lot.
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.
Following a gravel path to a newly opened boardwalk that spans a low-lying drainage area in the pine flatwoods, the trail system at Black Bear Wilderness Area starts off with a bang. It’s a beautiful setting under the swaying cabbage palms and ancient oaks, where resurrection fern swarms up their massive limbs.
Passing the turnoff for the Black Bear Wilderness Loop Trail, the boardwalk ends on 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 berm, 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.
This is your turnaround point for this hike. If you decide to continue farther, keep in mind that the next series of levees are narrow, slippery, and rooty, not at all like what you just traversed. Our GPS route continues to what used to be the end of the trail and is now bridged by Boardwalk 3. There is a spot where you must swing around a tree, and another point where part of the berm has fallen in the river. But there are also great views of the river if you add this 0.8-mile out-and-back segment.
From the observation deck, make your way across 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.
|0.9||cross gravel road|
|1.1||cross gravel road|
|1.9||boardwalk and loop junction|