As one of several “Sandhills Trails” throughout Florida, the Sandhills Nature Trail at Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park lives up to its name. It’s a 2.2-mile loop through longleaf pine and wiregrass, an ecosystem that once covered the uplands of Central Florida. While the scrub along the Wekiva River basin attempts to seep into the sandhills, the sandhills win. Enjoy a refreshing walk in the woods with brilliant wildflowers and bursts of birdsong along this easy, family-friendly trail.
Length: 2.2 miles
Lat-Long: 28.815005, -81.405699
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
For more information: Lower Wekiva River Preserve State Park
From Interstate 4 exit 101, Sanford, follow SR 46 west for 4.2 miles to the trailhead on the right.
The Sandhills Nature Trail starts at a kiosk immediately adjacent to the trailhead. Grab a map for the two stacked loops that make up this trail, named “Loop 1” and “Loop 2.” Using these loops, you can hike a figure-8 on the trail system. The kiosk draws your attention to bear activity in the area. As part of more than part of more than 70,000 acres of public lands protected in the Wekiva River Basin, these are the stomping grounds of the endangered Florida black bear.
Starting down the trail, you see saw palmettos with trunks lifted well up in the air. Walking beneath a stand of oaks, you emerge into a classic sandhill habitat, with towering longleaf pines, young turkey oaks, an open understory with plenty of saw palmetto, and a forest floor carpeted in wiregrass. Blazed in both orange and white – the orange blazes indicating a segment of our statewide National Scenic Trail, the Florida Trail through this preserve – the trail passes interpretive markers keyed to the “Loop 1” brochure at the kiosk. It’s a comfortable walk down a corridor of pine duff. At 0.1 mile you reach the top of the loop. Keep left.
Sandhill wireweed, spiderwort and greeneyes lend color to the understory. Grass-stage longleaf pine blends in nicely with the surrounding tufts of wiregrass, forming a nursery of young pines. Passing a sinkhole on the left, a depression filled with saw palmetto, the trail continues through open flatwoods. All times of year, wildflowers bloom in profusion throughout this forest, among them dayflower, tickseed, and paw-paw. Amid another stretch of “longleaf pine nursery,” you see the scratch marks of a bear having torn open a fallen log in search of insects. No matter the time of year, you may encounter signs of bear—Florida black bears don’t hibernate, although they can go into a state of torpor during chilly weather. Your chances of seeing a bear increase in the morning, as they lope through the flatwoods feeding on berries, insects, and the hearts of saw palmettos. They wade the Wekiva River, roaming from adjacent Seminole State Forest into this preserve, which touches more closely to suburbia.
A substantial-sized snag has massive woodpecker holes near the top of it, likely created by the pilated woodpecker. The habitat transitions into young sand pines and gatherings of sand live oaks, the scrub and sandhills seeping into each other as the elevation drops slightly. Low-bush blueberry grows along the footpath in large patches, another reason the bears love this habitat. You reach the blue-blazed connector trail. Turn right. Where the blue-blazed trail meets the white-blazed trail again at 0.5 mile, a thicket of blueberries crowds the junction. Butterfly weed raises colorful orange blooms well above the blueberry bushes, attracting a zebra swallowtail and many smaller insects seeking nectar.
Follow the white blazes to start Loop 2. Longleaf pine surrounds you in every stage of its life cycle, from grass to candle to tall trees old enough to attract red-cockaded woodpeckers, who require longleaf pines 70 years old or more in which to drill their nest holes. There is a meadow amid the longleaf pine forest, a perfect place to spot white-tailed deer. Morning glory spills over the underbrush; above, sand pine and longleaf pine co-exist on these well-drained sandhills.
Passing through a series of very large blueberry patches, the trail continues to wind through the open understory, offering fabulous views in every direction. This is an ideal trail for wildlife watching. Over the years, I’ve seen quail, gopher tortoises, deer, and fox squirrels as well as a variety of snakes and lizards.
As the trail closes in on the far western end of the loop, there are older sand pines overhead. The understory oaks are crowding in, narrowing the pathway so as to herd you along—myrtle oaks with rounded leaves, Chapman oaks with points along the edges on the leaves, and sand live oaks with leaves that look like a little canoe if you flip it over. The trail continues to drop noticeably downhill towards the Wekiva River as it passes under a canopy of sand live oaks. You never see the river from this trail, however; you’ll have to visit the northern trailhead and canoe launch for a glimpse.
Several species of lichen rise from the leaf litter along the trail, including puffs of deer moss, as the trail loses more elevation and ends up at a roughed-up firebreak. A wall of saw palmetto with a bayhead behind it is straight ahead. There are no blazes to guide you here, but look to the left and you’ll see a well-beaten path paralleling the firebreak. Follow it, walking through large bracken ferns, and in a few moments you find a white blaze on a pine. In early summer, you’ll catch both tarflower and loblolly bay with white blooms, an unusual juxtaposition of the dry scrub and wet bayhead habitats. The trail dumps down onto the firebreak. Be cautious of the broad sunny spots where pygmy rattlers may be sunning.
Leaving the firebreak after a prominent double-blaze, the trail heads back into the forest, now on the return loop. It’s a narrow corridor, nicely shaded as you return back through oak scrub. The trail twists and winds as it heads uphill, transitioning back into the sandhill habitat. Cicadas kick up a persistent chorus. Grand longleaf pines tower over the soft-needled young sand pines and canopies of sand live oak decorated with ball moss. Passing through a large opening in the forest, you return to more sandhill habitat with young longleaf pines, bottlebrush-shaped, standing sentinel along the footpath. As you walk around the loop, you see some of the features along the trail from a slightly different angle, including the masses of blueberry bushes, as you approach the end of Loop 2 at the blue blazes after 1.7 miles.
Walk the brief connector between loops, and you see the colorful butterfly weed again. At the white-blazed junction, turn right to head back along the opposite side of Loop 1. The longleaf pines here are of moderate age, with a nice understory of blueberry bushes on the forest floor. You pass through another thicket of scrub oaks. A splash of orange sand indicates the presence of southeastern pocket gophers, which have been studied extensively in this preserve. These small rodents spend virtually all of their lives underground, building networks of tunnels up to 500 feet long. Living off of tubers and roots it finds as it digs, the pocket gopher lives alone, meeting up with others of its kind only to breed.
Orange blazes join the white blazes as the Florida Trail enters in from the right at 1.9 miles. The habitats are truly intermingled throughout this stretch of trail, with both the oaks of the scrub and turkey oaks amid longleaf pine and sand pine. The footpath is a comfortable pine duff, transitioning to hard-packed sand through each sandhill patch. Look for the draping ivory blooms of paw-paw in spring. Entering a thicker and more mature forest, you reach the end of Loop 1 at 2.1 miles. Continue straight ahead to emerge at the trailhead after 2.2 miles.
0.0 trailhead / kiosk
0.1 upper junction Loop 1
0.3 big snag
0.4 junction blue blaze
0.5 upper junction Loop 2
0.6 series of blueberry patches
0.8 deer moss patches
0.9 forest road / firebreak
1.0 double blaze
1.7 junction blue blaze
1.9 junction Florida Trail
2.1 upper junction Loop 1