With a big, beautiful nature center and trails that are well-groomed, Tibet-Butler Preserve offers a spot of wilderness in the dense urban mass to the west of Orlando.The trail system loops through many of the major habitats found in this region, including longleaf pine forest and scrub, bayhead swamp and cypress-lined lakeshore. These are gentle interpretive walks, perfect for families to get their kids outdoors and listen to the hoot of a barred owl or the cry of an osprey within earshot of the train at the Magic Kingdom.
Length: 3.6 miles
Lat-Long: 28.442688, -81.541774
Type: Loop and round-trip
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
Since I first visited Tibet-Butler more than a decade ago, the flow of water has changed across the landscape due to development crowding in from all sides. The Palmetto Passage, the wildest trail in the complex, often closes due to flooding.
The preserve includes a picnic area, butterfly garden, and wheelchair-accessible sandbox, all at the nature center. Open daily 8-6.
From I-4 exit 68, drive north on SR 535, passing the entrance to Walt Disney World at the first light before you turn left at the second light onto CR 535. Drive 5.3 miles to the park entrance on the right. The entrance road loops around to parking in front of the environmental center.
Leaving the parking area, take a wander through the environmental center for a quick lesson on habitats and wildlife, and to find out what’s new along the trail system. On the opposite side of the building, stop in and sign in at the trail register. Descend down to Pine Circle and turn right, snaking through the narrow passage between the saw palmetto. This uplands loop circles the parking area. After passing the Screech Owl Trail, you skirt a damp area off to the left, alive with swamp lilies growing under dahoon holly and red bay. Deerberry jingles its dark black berries in the breeze. The trail rises and becomes sandy underfoot as you approach the intersection with the Palmetto Passage Trail, at 0.2 mile. Turn right to stay on Pine Circle.
As the trail continues to rise, the habitat becomes scrubby flatwoods, where the pine canopy thins out. Gallberry, winged sumac, and grasses compete for the understory; deer moss grows on decomposing pine needles. Small stands of scrub live oak provide cover. You start to see the roof of the environmental center through the trees to the right as you wind down the sandy narrow passage. Cross the entry road on the crosswalk, making sure to check for cars. The trail enters an oak hammock of large gnarled scrub live oaks draped in moss. Like Christmas tinsel, fallen pine needles decorate the branches of sand live oaks. As the trail circles around, you pass an opening filled with royal ferns. The forest opens up as you enter the ecotone between the pine flatwoods and bayheads, where the slash pines are scattered amid an unbroken understory of saw palmetto. Dense loblolly bay off to the left indicates the dampness of the area. A tall, thick clump of blueberry bushes – tempting you with their juicy fruits in April – sits off to the right. You see the roof of the environmental center again, this time off to the right.
At 0.8 mile, Pine Circle intersects with the Fallen Log Crossing. If you turn right, you’ll end up back at the environmental center within a few moments. To enjoy the rest of the preserve, turn left, following the Fallen Log Crossing into a bayhead. As you walk along the boardwalk, look down and notice the tannic water collecting in the bottom of the bayhead. You’ll pass the Screech Owl Trail again, a hummocky shady connector trail through the bayhead, which gets inundated with water after a heavy rain. Use it only if you want to return to the environmental center; otherwise, continue along the boardwalk.
Crossing water-filled hollows, the boardwalk heads into a thicket of loblolly bay and pines, zigzagging until it deposits you on a narrow footpath into the pine flatwoods. Blueberries form a natural hedge along the trail as the footpath turns grassy. Passing a bench, you reach the junction with the Palmetto Passage after 1.2 miles. Continue straight ahead. The forest closes in on the trail. Reaching a rain shelter, the trail meets the junction for the Osprey Overlook. Turn right.
This short spur trail follows the edge of the pine flatwoods along the oak scrub, entering a dense, shadowy forest of oaks and pines. As you walk up the boardwalk to the observation deck, notice the marsh ferns and small pond cypresses with their fern-like needle clusters. The covered deck provides a sweeping view of the marsh along the edge of Lake Tibet, a slim blue ribbon of water beyond the distant cypresses.
Turn around and return to the trail junction, turning right. You are now on the Tarflower Loop, a walk through the preserve’s small forest of oak scrub; head straight at the loop junction. The footpath becomes sugar-white sand, blindingly bright. Sand live oaks cast puddles of shade, while rusty lyonia show off their crooked stems. The trail narrows tightly, the diminutive trees covered in lichens. You reach a bench and a fence at the edge of the preserve. Turn left to tunnel into the scrub forest. As the loop continues around, you face the tall pines again. The trail narrows, and after 2.1 miles, completes the loop. Turn right.
Passing the Osprey Overlook junction and rain shelter, continue through the pine flatwoods to the junction with the Palmetto Passage. If it is not flooded, it’s a lot of fun to hike. It’s not like the other trails you’ve traversed so far on this hike – it’s rough and a bit wild, boggy and squishy, with plenty of trees to duck beneath. If you’re up for the challenge – I recommend it! – turn right.
At the start, the trail is nicely groomed, with patches of deer moss and blueberries around the ever-present saw palmetto and loblolly bay. Then, the trail narrows and starts winding around beneath the low forest canopy, with a steady downhill trend towards the bayhead swamp. Since there are no blazes, just the faint impression of a path, it can be tricky to follow. Markers may be set in the ground at some of the points where you might otherwise lose your way. Crossing a log bridge, you can see where channels form as the bayhead spills over this rise and flows into the pine flatwoods. Logs and loose timbers serve as bog bridges in the low spots, although they may shift out of place when the water rises. Footing can be tricky. You cross what looks like a trail junction. Keep going straight ahead, reaching a patch of very old saw palmetto.
Winding through the woods, with lots of roots and some stumps underfoot, the trail continues under the low canopy of loblolly, which you must duck under in places. Passing an arrow sign, the trail crosses a forest road and continues straight ahead. A patch of spongy lichens are squishy underfoot in a low spot. As the canopy opens, the trail gains elevation and you can see some houses off to the left and hear the slight buzz of traffic on the main road. Tacking through another part of the bayhead, the trail narrows tightly into a tunnel edged with loblolly bay. Tall slash pines and cypress trees grow along the swamp’s edge. Gaining a little elevation, the footpath gets crunchy with the crackle of oak leaves underfoot. The trail is more deeply worn into the forest floor through the next section as it gets close to the road, twisting and turning before passing through a bog of ferns and spaghnum moss.
After 3.4 miles, the Palmetto Passage ends at a T intersection with the Pine Circle. Turn right. Repeating this short segment of the Pine Circle in the opposite direction, passing the Screech Owl Trail on the right, you return to the Vera Carter Environmental Center. Sign out at the trail register and walk out to the parking area, completing a 3.6 mile hike.
0.0 Vera Carter Environmental Center
0.1 junction Screech Owl Trail
0.2 junction Palmetto Passage
0.4 cross entrance road
0.8 junction Fallen Log Crossing
1.2 junction Palmetto Passage
1.3 rain shelter / junction Osprey Overlook
1.6 junction Tarflower Loop
2.1 complete Tarflower Loop
2.2 rain shelter / junction Osprey Overlook
2.3 junction Palmetto Passage
3.4 junction Pine Circle
3.6 Vera Carter Environmental Center