At Flat Island Preserve south of Leesburg, Dr. Rexford Daubenmire, a noted botanist, and his wife and fellow botanist Jean explored the lush hardwood hammocks and uplands on this island surrounded by the Okahumpa Marsh. A significant expert in plant ecology, Dr. Daubenmire was a professor of botany at both the University of Idaho and Washington State University, and wrote two notable books: Plants and Environment (1947) and Plant Communities (1968). In their later years, the Daubenmires lived in Lake County and found this particular site fascinating for its botanical diversity. They successfully lobbied the county to create this 2,300-acre preserve. A memorial near the beginning of the loop gives thanks for their determination.
Although it’s quite a beautiful hike, this isn’t a one-note trip. In addition to enjoying an easy day hike, the preserve offers a primitive campsite along the loop—a great destination for families introducing their children to backpacking. If you love to canoe, check in with the caretaker and plunk down a security deposit to pick up paddles and safety gear, as there’s a canoe launch a mile down the trail—if you return the gear, your trip is free.
Length: 3.7 mile network of trails
Lat-Long: 28.778683, -81.902800
Type: Loops, connectors, and a spur
Fees / Permits: Free
Difficulty: low to moderate
Bug factor: extreme mosquitoes!
Scout groups can make use of the group campsite at the trailhead. Anyone camping overnight must first obtain a free permit from the Lake County Water Authority: contact 352.343.3777.
Except in winter, the mosquitoes can be fierce. Use adequate protection against them—long sleeves, long pants, and perhaps even a head net. However, this is a popular location for Florida Trail Association backpacking seminars. Check their activities calendar for details.
Follow US 27 southbound from Leesburg. Turn right onto CR 25A. Continue north 0.5 mile, then turn left onto Owens Road, a narrow dirt road. After 0.6 mile, you’ll reach the preserve entrance and parking area, with its large trail kiosk and Florida Trail sign.
Start your hike at the trail kiosk next to the group campsite. Sign in, and follow the orange blazes. The trail turns into a causeway, up above the lapping tannic waters of the surrounding hydric hammock. The Island Hammock Trail starts at Signpost A, where a memorial pays homage to the late John Weary, a tireless trail maintainer responsible for many of the Florida Trail Association’s best efforts in Central Florida. Veer right, away from the service road, following the well-established treadway into a forest of southern magnolia and young laurel oaks.
Look up and down—greenfly orchids cling to the trees, and collybia mushrooms grow in crowded groups, like miniature forests. Crossing the service road, the trail continues through an area of younger oaks along the edge of a palm hammock. Roots break through the hard-packed dirt of the trail. Monkeyflowers crowd the sides of the footpath.
At 0.5 mile, Signpost B marks the beginning of the outer loop. Continue straight, passing under lofty live oaks. At Signpost C, pass the junction with the cross trail and keep going straight as the oak forest yields to a hydric hammock. Needle palms rise where wetlands and uplands meet. After 1.1 miles, a canoe symbol sign points down a boardwalk to the left. Follow it through the cypress swamp to a floating landing on a canal on the edge of Flat Island. At 1.6 miles, Signpost E marks the second cross-trail. Continue straight on into a thicket of needle palms, royal ferns, and marsh ferns. The trail may be mushy here, as it is prone to flooding along the edges if the marsh waters are high. An old cockfight ring sits alongside the trail at 2.1 miles, just before the turnoff to the primitive campsite. Sheltered by a canopy of oaks and magnolias, the campsite provides benches and a pitcher pump.
At Signpost F, you pass the cross-trail from Signpost E. Continue straight ahead, entering an area of younger trees—live oaks, sweetgum, and southern magnolia. Their supple limbs braid into an arbor over the trail. When you reach Signpost D, you’ve hiked 2.9 miles. The cross-trail from Signpost C meets up with the main trail. Keep going straight ahead as the trail veers close to the edge of the island, skirting a broad expanse of swamp dense with bald cypress and cabbage palms. At Signpost B, you’ve completed the loop around Flat Island. Turn left to exit to the parking area. And sign the trail register! It always warms the heart of a trail maintainer to know that you enjoyed their trail.
|1.3||return to canoe sign|
|1.9||veer sharp right|
|3.2||cross service rd|
|3.2||Signpost B return end of loop|
|3.5||Signpost A return|