The granddaddy of wetlands parks, Orlando Wetlands Park is a City of Orlando wastewater reclamation project that’s become a world-class haven for waterfowl. The project began in the mid-1980s with the acquisition of a dairy farm. Converted to a series of wetland “cells” of varying depths, open pastureland became marsh in which treated wastewater would filter naturally through native aquatic plants before being returned to the St. Johns River watershed. Covering more than 1,600 acres, the complex offers hiking on the dikes between the impoundments and in surrounding forests. This route provides a sampler of both, but there are many different approaches to exploring this park: grab a map, bring a GPS, and enjoy the wildlife!
Length: 4.8 miles
Lat-Long: 28.569815, -80.996697
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: At trailhead
Open sunrise to sunset. Now open year round.
Be cautious of alligators on the trails. The sunny expanses attract them to the warm surfaces (most of the trails are limerock). If you make a lot of noise, they should slip away into the nearest body of water. If they don’t, alter your route.
For more information: City of Orlando, Orlando Wetlands Park
From SR 408, follow SR 50 east towards Titusville for 11 miles. At Christmas, turn left on Fort Christmas Road (watch for the Christmas trees on the corner). Continue 2.3 miles, passing Fort Christmas Park, to the turnoff straight ahead where the road otherwise makes a sharp left curve. Turn right on Wheeler Road and continue 1.7 miles down to the trailhead parking area on your left.
For a hike filled with the flutter and squawk and flash of birds busy about their daily routines, Orlando Wetlands Park is one of the best birding spots in the state. Starting off from the parking area, walk up to the pavilion and kiosk area near the restrooms. You’ll find trail maps here as well as information about the birds that frequent this park. Pass the restrooms and a picnic shelter, and you’re on the “Birding Loop,” which immediately comes to a Y intersection. Turn left.
As you come up to a bench, note the map outlining all of the possible routes in the park. You’ll find many of these maps throughout the trail system, a genuine help to keep you on the right route. To your left, the impoundment has open water in the foreground and aquatic plants in the background, a place where mergansers, teals, ducks, and geese tend to gather. Today, there’s a massive flock of black bellied whistling ducks, all staring in one direction, as we approach. A gradient of aquatic plants works its way across the water, from pennywort to pickerelweed to cattails and alligator flag in the deeper spots. The open wetlands provide vast panoramas, edged with planted cabbage palms in the distance.
After a quarter mile, you reach a T intersection with another dike. Keep right to loop around the large open wetland on the left. The wetland pool on the right is deeply covered in vegetation so you can’t see across it. Now, for those of you expect narrow paths between these vast waters, no worries – the trails also serve as service roads for the folks tending this unique reclamation area, so the paths on the dikes are as wide as a road and generally hard-packed with limestone. Here, the width is a plus, since you can better spot alligators lounging along the shorelines ahead.
Passing another bench – you’ll pass many on this walk – note the marsh on the right. It’s a cattail marsh with incursions of wax myrtle and palm hammock islands. You can hear leopard frogs croaking in the shallows. The next bench overlooks a pond where an alligator makes itself known as it goes after its breakfast. Notice the footprints of raccoons and the tracks of deer in the soft sand along the water’s edge. At half a mile, a path heads off to the right. Skip it and keep going. Don’t be surprised if you see earthmoving machines in one portion of the park or another. As these impoundments silt up, they’re excavated again to the depth needed for water reclamation, and that happens on a rotating basis. Skip the next path to the right, too. Continue past another bench with a map confirming your location, and enjoy the views across the impoundment on the left, watching for Louisana herons near shore and coots skittering between patches of pickerelweed. See the pines in the far distance? They mark the perimeter of the park.
Coming up to the next dike on the right at 0.8 mile, turn right. The impoundment on the left was being rebuilt during my visit, and will likely be flooded with water now, new growth of aquatic plants returning. On the right, it’s a cattail marsh with a thin skin of water spangles on the top. At the next junction of dikes, watch for sandhill cranes browsing atop these taller dikes. Cattle egrets fly past with bits of reeds in their beaks to build nests on an island of cabbage palms off to your left, where they have a nesting colony. The pickerelweed grows in beautiful clusters throughout this area, adjacent to the dike. Straight ahead, you can see a patch of tall pines, so you know you’re drawing close to the northern edge of the park.
The frogs are an amusement as they hop, hop, hop as you approach, trying to get away from the large figures on the dike (no doubt they’re escaping sandhill cranes in their minds). Your eye is drawn to both the minute details of the swamp and the vast landscapes surrounding you. The trail comes up to a large mound along the edge of an impoundment. There is a cypress dome well off in the distance as the trail comes up to a major intersection at 1.5 miles. This is where you leave the impoundments to head for the forest on the north edge of the park. Turn left. After you cross the culvert, turn right to head towards a rain shelter. You can see gator trails all through the ivegetation on your right. This vast body of open water is Lake Searcy, and the dike trail follows it to meet the North Woods Hiking Trail. Turn left to start down this trail.
The North Woods Hiking Trail is a true footpath, meandering through hammocks of oaks and palms in a boggy, soggy meld of habitats where the mosquitoes can be quite fierce. Bog bridges get you across the wettest spots. As is typical of floodplain forests in the St. Johns watershed, there is lots of sweetgum, red maple, oaks, and wax myrtle edging the trail. After you cross a series of bog bridges, the trail makes a jog to the right. Walking along a grassy corridor edged by forest, you can see the hoofprints of deer. A barred owl calls from a high branch in a live oaks. There’s a broad spot in the trail with many deer tracks – they likely browse here. Deer moss edges the footpath.
By 2.1 miles, you’re walking along a beautiful palm hammock with an ephermal waterway on your left. Star rush and lilies peep up from the forest floor, blooming in early summer. Step quickly, as the mosquitoes are especially fierce under the palms. The trail hops up onto a levee covered in oak trees. Look up, and you’ll see bromeliads all throughout the forest canopy. There’s a double blaze where the trail crosses a small balance-beam style bridge – watch your footing! – and you enter another palm hammock on the other side. Ancient oaks swaddled in ressurection fern are a focal point along this section of the trail. Leaves crunch underfoot. There’s a scattering of grapevines and young cabbage palms in the understory, but it’s easy to see far through the canopy. Clumps of spagnum moss indicate that this part of the trail can get pretty soggy at times.
You reach the Orange Mound Campsite, a quiet primitive site for hikers slipping off the nearby Florida Trail, at 2.5 miles, near another bridge in shaky shape. The trail enters a cathedral of cabbage palms, a very dense palm hammock with only the occassional large old oak appearing in the forest. It’s a very different feel than the hammocks you’ve already walked through, a feel of antiquity.
Emerging from the palms, you reach a bridge over a small canal. Cross the bridge to meet a trail at a fenceline – the fomer Florida Trail, now white-blazed. A recent relocation lets hikers on the Florida Trail slip out of Orlando Wetlands Park into adjacent Bronson State Forest, on the other side of the fence, before they reach the North Woods Trail. Turn left to continue creating a large loop, walking west with the fenceline to your right and the stream to your left and plenty of shade overhead. At the next bridge, turn left at a sluiceway, the primary outfall for the wetlands at a pumping station, and start down this dike. We spotted a limpkin here, and it’s also the spot where vultures tend on congregate en masse.
After 3.3 miles, you reach a rain shelter at the upper end of the Birding Trail Loop. It’s just above the newly restored impoundments. As you come up to the shelter, turn left, heading down that levee to pass a bench on the right hand side. At the next levee, you rejoin the Birding Loop. Turn right to head into the middle of the marshes. A flotilla of American lotus is in bloom during the summer months near the outflow at 3.7 miles, where a bench faces off into the cattail marsh, busy with moorhens. A juvenile green heron flies off from a stand of pickerelweed. You pass a little green bench on the left overlooking a patch of open water. It’s amazing how expansive the view is. You hear moorhens and frogs, and see another alligator cruising along the edge of the waterway.
Red-winged blackbirds perch on woody stems, quickly hiding their showy wings. A crowd of starlings rushes through the pennywort. This extremely shallow marsh adjoins a palm hammock, which the trail is weaving its way between the waterways to meet. Walking along, we herd an ibis who keeps just a little ahead of us. At 4.1 miles, you reach a T intersection with the next dike. Turn left for the return loop of the Birding Loop. At 4.3 miles, the hammock on the left ends and the wetlands open up again; on the right, a dike leads off into the distance for exploration of the farther reaches of the park. Pass by it and stay on the path you’re following, walking past a cattail marsh and a bench.
At 4.6 miles, you cross another outflow culvert, busy with activity. Coming to a T intersection, turn right and walk along the dike with the cattail marsh to your right and a willow marsh to your left, towards the exit. At the next T intersection, you face a wall of marsh vegetation. Turn left to leave the complex, emerging behind the restrooms and pavilion. Continue through to the parking area, wrapping up a 4.8 mile hike.
0.0 trailhead parking area
0.1 Y intersection
0.25 T intersection
0.5 path to right
0.6 path to right
0.8 path to right
1.1 dike junction
1.4 mound along impoundment
1.5 trail junction
x.x North Woods Hiking Trail
2.3 shaky balance beam bridge
2.5 Orange Mound Campsite
x.x bridge / Florida Trail intersection
2.8 bridge at sluiceway pumping station
3.4 rain shelter
3.6 Birding Loop levee
3.8 bench / outflow
3.9 green bench
4.2 T intersection
4.4 dike intersection
4.7 outflow / T intersection
4.7 T intersection
4.8 trailhead parking area
Explore the park
- Black-bellied whistling duck - As seen at Orlando Wetlands Park
- Florida Trail, Wheeler Road to Joshua Creek - Along its 9.4 mile route, the Florida Trail through Seminole Ranch and southern Bronson State Forest provides an unexpected array of botanical delights
- Hiking Orlando Wetlands Park and Fort Christmas - Finding Seminole Ranch far too wet for hiking, Andy switches to a fallback plan of exploring Orlando Wetlands Park and Fort Christmas Historical Park.
- Orlando Wetlands Festival - Andy and Tina visit the annual Orlando Wetlands Festival - which signals the opening of this popular birding spot to the public for the year - and enjoy photographing the wildlife.