Comprised of wet prairies, pine flatwoods, oak hammocks, and scrub, Buster Island in Lake Kissimmee State Park is indeed an island, surrounded by three lakes and waterways that flow into them. The trail loops through a succession of varied habitats along the Lake Wales Ridge, making this a particularly interesting hike. The beauty of Buster Island, however, lies in its old-growth live oak hammocks, where orchids and ferns peep from the thick branches above. The primitive campsite beneath the oaks is a favorite destination for backpackers in Central Florida.
Location: Lake Wales
Length: 6.9 miles
Lat-Long: 27.943847, -81.354761
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Restroom: Yes, near trailhead
If you want to backpack in to the campsite, be sure to first register at the ranger station. Nestled under live oaks, the campsite has two picnic tables and several fire rings, but no water. It’s a great place to stop and take a lunch break after 4 miles of hiking, and a good overnight destination for young children.
From US 27 in Lake Wales, drive east on SR 60 for 9.7 miles to Boy Scout Camp Rd. Turn left and continue 3.5 miles to Camp Mack Rd. Turn right and drive 5.4 miles to the park entrance, on the right. All trails can be accessed from the parking area adjacent to the marina. Please sign in at the kiosk before you hike. You must let the ranger at the front gate know if you plan to backpack to the campsite.
The loop starts near the 1876 Cow Camp, an interesting feature of this park. It provides a look at life on the Florida range for cow hunters, and is open on weekends. Turning away from the cow camp, follow blue blazes along a jeep road and into the forest. At 0.5 mile, the blue blazes end at the beginning of the white-blazed loop trail. Turn right into the pine flatwoods.
Look out into the open forest and start counting the deer. You’re sure to startle some as you cross their trails. After 2.2 miles of hiking, you see open scrub off to the left. On the right, thickets with loblolly bay and yaupon holly indicate that this area is usually damp. As the trail enters the scrubby flatwoods, it becomes a distinct pine-needle footpath edged by grass.
At 3.5 miles, the trail turns left at a double-blaze and enters the oak hammock. Butterfly orchids dangle overhead, catching your eye in summer with their long, grass-like leaves and tall yellow-green flowers with white lips striped purple. The trail skirts around a large flatwoods pond and meets the sign for the primitive campsite.
At 4.4 miles, the trail passes through a massive divided oak, where each trunk is at least ten feet around. It’s a portal into a new array of habitats. The prairie becomes more visible, until finally, the trail leaves the shade of the live oaks and heads straight into a patch of scrub, part of the Lake Wales Ridge. Short scrub live oak and myrtle oak trees characterize this scrub habitat, with only scattered lonely slash pines. Florida rosemary grows in small clearings between the saw palmettos. Dark earth gives way to white sand as the elevation increases slightly, bringing you into a sand pine scrub.
After 6.1 miles, the trail enters the vast prairie at the heart of Buster Island. Looking off to the left, you can see the sweep of treeline in the distance, your route through the oak hammock and pine flatwoods. You reach the beginning of the white trail loop at 6.5 miles. Turn right, retracing your steps back to the parking area along the blue-blazed trail.
cow camp road, trail jct 0.1
cross bridge on road 0.2
fork in road, keep right (left cow camp) 0.2
right onto mowed path into forest 0.4
junction w/white loop, turn right 0.5
cross jeep trail 1.2
cross deer trail 1.2
trail veers right, away from deer trail 1.4
habitat change, scrub on left 2.2
into scrub 2.4
cross jeep trail 2.5
edge of pine scrub again 3.2
veer right along flatwood pond 3.4
veer left away from pond 0.0
dbl-blz, cross jeep road, left 3.5
turn left into pine flatwoods 3.6
primitive campsite jct side trail 3.9
return to main loop, right 4.0
dbl-blz left 4.1
turn left off of jeep trail at dbl-blz 4.2
1st split oak, small one 4.2
huge split oak 4.4
cross horse trail, continue straight 4.5
jeep road, dbl-blz left 4.5
dbl-blz left into woods 4.6
left onto jeep road 4.7
left into scrub 4.9
right onto jeep road 5.5
pine flatwood habitat start 5.7
leave jeep track, turn right 5.8
start pine scrub again 6.0
enter prairie 6.1
cross jeep trail 6.1
cross jeep trail 6.4
cross jeep trail at treeline 6.4
jct, beginning of white loop 6.5
return to parking lot 6.9