The Florida scrub-jay, one of Florida’s most colorful native birds, is the star of the show at Lyonia Preserve in Deltona, a precious slice of ancient scrub habitat remaining on a high ridge now otherwise topped with housing developments. With an interactive nature center and gift shop, the entrance has developed into quite a complex, still adjacent to the Deltona Public Library.
If you want to see one of Florida’s rarest birds – and climb to the highest summit in Volusia County – this is one hike you won’t want to miss. The trail system has changed since the preserve first opened in the late 1990s, and is now a clearly marked set of stacked loops, the easiest of which is suitable for small children. Walking the perimeter, you’ll summit the high point and walk a full 2.1 mile circuit
Length: 2.1 miles
Lat-Long: 28.930217, -81.225438
Type: stacked loops
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: moderate, with steep slopes on the far loop
Bug factor: low
Restroom: at the nature center
The preserve is open dawn to dusk, but the nature center and adjacent library have more limited hours. The scrub-jays are active all times of day, but especially early in the morning. Bring your binoculars and camera! The birds are very curious and may land on your head, which is a good reason – in addition to being in open scrub habitat with minimal shade – to wear a hat. Don’t, however, feed the scrub-jays. Dogs are not permitted.
For more information: Lyonia Preserve
Take I-4 east from Orlando to exit 114. Head southwest on SR 472 for 2.5 miles. Turn right on Providence Boulevard. After 0.7 mile, turn right on Eustace Avenue. The entrance is immediately on the left, adjoining the library. Park on the right side of the complex near the trailhead kiosk.
Set aside to protect critical scrub habitat in the center of Deltona, Lyonia Preserve has been actively managed to encourage the growth of the scrub-jay population. When I spoke with the Habitat Management Supervisor Randall Sleister during my first visit in 2001 for the first edition of “50 Hikes in Central Florida,” he told me “when we started the restoration, there was a single scrub-jay family living on a nearby golf course just north of the site. The scrub-jays have been breeding here for six years now. During our last survey in 1998, we counted 88 birds. We now estimate the population to be over 100.”
With construction of the new nature center – which you should visit before your hike if possible, to ground you in understanding the habitats along the trail system, the scrub jays, and the unique karst aquifer beneath all this white sand – the trailhead has shifted to the southwest edge of the preserve. It’s well marked, with an entrance fence and kiosk, and scrub plants identified beside the short walk along the fenceline to a covered picnic shelter. When you reach the picnic shelter, turn left and follow the broad firebreak behind the nature center and amphitheater to the original entrance to the loop trail system. Turn right to start the Rusty Lyonia Trail, blazed orange. Take an immediate left at the T intersection. The trail rises through a young scrub forest dense with myrtle oak, Chapman oak, and rusty Lyonia, the perfect height for scrub jays to forage for acorns in the low brush. You hear the calls of many birds. If you see a flash of brown and black, it’s likely a rufous-sided towhee, which also prefers this high, dry habitat.
After 0.2 mile, you reach the upper end of the Rusty Lyonia loop. Continue straight ahead. You’ll continue down the scrub-flanked corridor to the intersection with the Red Root Trail, which you now join. Continue straight to keep on the perimeter loop. After you cross a couple of old jeep trails, used for access to maintain the preserve, you reach a lovely wetland cradled in the scrub and mostly hidden behind a screen of tall bluestem grass, its orange stalks waving in the wind. The trail jogs left around the wetland and heads up a noticeable rise. Young rosemary shrubs grow along both sides of the path in the bright white sand. Dark-leaved silk bay begins to appear along the trail.
At the next trail junction, 0.5 miles into the hike, continue straight to walk the perimeter of the Blueberry Trail. Here, the elevation becomes especially pronounced, and with the cleared understory, you can see quite a distance. Keep alert for the shrill “shreep” of the scrub-jays.
Rounding a small wetland in a sinkhole surrounded by trees, the trail continues to wind its way upward to its summit, which you reach after a mile. At 50 feet above sea level, it’s the highest point along the hike, and offers a sweeping view across the preserve, especially of the large wetland below. Scan the horizon for sandhill cranes, as they often browse the edges of this fragile wetland in the scrub. It’s a steep downhill to the marsh, where a handful of tall slash pines grow, and the trail skirts the wetland along a fenced barrier before crossing another jeep road.
If you haven’t seen a scrub-jay yet, you will as soon as you re-enter the corridor of young oaks that provide a stretch of shade along the trail beyond the wetland. Florida scrub jays are curious birds, larger than robins and bright blue in color. They travel in family units which typically span two generations, so when one appears, you can expect to see several more in short order. When they begin checking you out, it’s like having a flock of parrots circling, and they tend to hone in on people who have baseball caps with buttons atop them—it looks like an acorn cap, after all! Once they figure out you’re not a food source, they’ll get back to their shuffling under leaves, looking for and hiding acorns, and hopping between the low branches in the dense scrub forest.
Crossing several more unmarked jeep trails, the trail rises up out of dense sand pines into taller oaks, with more patches of Florida rosemary on bright white sand. You reach the junction of the Blueberry Trail and the Red Root Trail at 1.6 miles. Turn left at the intersection to continue on the perimeter walk. Scrub jay sightings are especially common along this stretch of the Red Root Trail, since it’s presently still an ideal height for the scrub-jays to browse.
You head steeply downhill to reach a trail junction at a T intersection after 1.8 miles. Turn left. You’re now back on the entrance trail into the loop system. Make a left at the next trail junction to walk the last perimeter trail, the other half of the Rusty Lyonia Trail. It scrambles uphill through a thick scrub of myrtle oak, rusty lyonia, and wax myrtle with scattered blueberries.
As the trail swings around to complete the loop, it passes through a thicker stand of oaks before reaching the end of the loop at 2 miles. Turn left, facing the back of the nature center, and walk down to the fence line. Turn left and follow your footprints in the soft, beach-like sand back to the picnic pavilion, and through a tiny stretch of scrub to exit at the trailhead. Don’t be surprised, like we were, if some scrub-jays greet you at the trailhead, too! Where they show up is unpredictable, but you will see them. If you haven’t checked out the nature center yet, do it now—it has fun interactive exhibits for the kids. There is a small admission fee except on Sundays.
0.1 lower jct Rusty Lyonia loop
0.2 jct upper Rusty Lyonia loop
0.3 jct lower Red Root Trail
0.3 cross jeep trail
0.3 cross jeep trail
0.5 jct Blueberry Trail
0.5 cross jeep trail
1.0 climbing steep hill to 50′
1.1 western edge of marsh
1.2 cross jeep trail
1.3 cross jeep trail
1.4 cross jeep trail
1.5 cross jeep trail
1.6 cross jeep trail
1.6 jct Red Root Trail, left
1.6 cross jeep trail
1.8 end loop Red Root Trail
1.8 left on Rusty Lyonia Trail
2.0 end loop Rusty Lyonia
2.1 end at trailhead kiosk