It’s an unexpected find, this quiet preserve down a dirt road not far from the waves of suburban sprawl pushing south from the Polk Parkway, letting Lakeland flow towards Bartow. One of the first acquisitions for Polk County’s Environmental Lands Program and undoubtedly one of the more heavily used, the Lakeland Highlands Scrub protects 160 acres of untouched habitats along the Lakeland Ridge. The Lakeland Ridge covers roughly 300 square miles along the west side of Polk County, forming a natural watershed divide between the Hillsborough and Alafia Rivers and the Peace River, which all start in the Green Swamp north of Lakeland.
Length: 0.6 mile
Lat-Long: 27.936233, -81.923800
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: Low to moderate
Restroom: Portable toilet at trailhead
To ride the multi-use trail, equestrians must obtain a permit in advance. Dogs are welcome on both trails. Maps should be available at the trailhead, but you can also print one from the Environmental Lands website
From Polk Pkwy (SR 570) Exit 9, take Lakeland Highlands Blvd (CR 37B) south. Reach CR 540 at 1.8 miles, and continue south another mile, crossing CR 540A. Alternatively, take US 98 south from Lakeland or north from Bartow to Crews Lake Road, and head west. After crossing Crews Lake Road, Lakeland Highlands Blvd becomes a dead-end dirt road. Keep going to where the road ends at the trailhead.
Higher elevations support scrub – which in turn supports the threatened Florida scrub-jay and the endangered gopher tortoise – while a gradient of elevations host sandhills, pine flatwoods, prairies, marshes, and basin swamp. I’ve been told, but haven’t been able to verify, that the preserve contains the southernmost natural waterfall in Florida, hidden off-trail somewhere near the northern boundary of the property. There are two trails to choose from—a 2.2-mile multi-use loop, open to equestrians, bikers, and hikers, and an easy 0.6 mile walking loop. After finding the multi-use loop (which follows old roads) mostly a swamp after a heavy rain, I suggest the hiking-only trail as your best introduction to the preserve. Walk past the picnic bench in the oak hammock to start your hike, following the orange blazes (and occasional orange signs with black arrows). Watch the blazes carefully, as unmarked cross-trails can make the path confusing in a few places. Sand pines and sand live oaks provide shade, and if you’re fortunate, you’ll see a family of Florida scrub-jays. Notice the numerous gopher tortoise burrows along the trail. Each gopher tortoise digs more than one (and sometimes as many as nine!) burrow, but only occupies one at a time. The remainder provide a virtual apartment complex for other sandhill and scrub species such as indigo snakes, oak toads, and eastern fence lizards. Not quite halfway through the hike, the trail curves past a crowded forest of young longleaf pines. A bench at the halfway point provides a place to rest, and marks the transition between scrub and sandhill, as sand pines yield to turkey oak and muscadine grapevines. The loop trail ends just before the picnic bench.