Named for the river which defines its northern boundary, the 11,000-acre Weekiwachee Preserve protects a mosasic of habitats which, along with adjoining public lands, form the largest remaining Florida black bear habitat along the peninsular Gulf Coast. The preserve is centered around a mine reclamation area, where limestone was once quarried from deep pits. Now filled with water, these pits form a chain of lakes within a rocky, alkaline landscape surrounded by native habitats.
Location: Hernando Beach
Length: 5 to 14.2 miles
Type: loop and round trip
Fees / Permits: free
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Restroom: portable toilet
Open daily, sunrise to sunset. Bicycles are welcome. Use sun protection, as the loop around the former pits has no shade. There is no access by trail to the Weeki Wachee River within this preserve.
NOTE: This is an active bird roosting and nesting area, so pets are discouraged. Please use caution when approaching flocks of birds so as not to scare them away.
There are two public access points to the preserve. The trailhead on Shoal Line Road has limited parking but is open daily. The main entrance is only open to vehicles on the 2nd and 4th Saturdays of the month, but may be entered on foot or by bike during daylight hours.
From the intersection US 19 and CR 595 in Spring Hill, turn west. The main entrance to the preserve, 2345 Osowaw Boulevard, is a right-hand turn within the first half-mile. Continue on to the intersection with CR 597 (Shoal Line Road), and turn right. Drive another 3 miles north to Hernando Beach, and watch for the preserve sign on the right.
Start your hike through the gate from the Shoal Line Road trailhead into the preserve. This hike merges two distinct trails within the park: the 5.9-mile interpretive loop trail around the lakes, and a 4.1-mile dead-end spur trail leading out into bear habitat (an 8.3-mile round trip). The loop trail can be shortened by at least a mile by using the Shortcut Trail, and the distance you hike out on the spur (if any) is entirely up to your interest in the forest. At a minimum, you’ll walk a five-mile loop from your car and back.
An open jeep track leads away from the gate. Diamond-shaped hiker signs indicate the trail as the sharp tang of the surrounding salt marsh reminds you how close you are to the Gulf of Mexico. Shrubby junipers rise on the right. After passing a grassy track to the right, the elevation rises slightly, leaving the marshes behind. A slough parallels the trail on the right, with a dense cabbage palm hammock behind it.
After 0.4 mile, you’ll see the first big bright blue lake off to the right. Turn right and follow the track towards the kiosk, where you might find a copy of the interpretive trail guide. The loop trail around the lakes is blazed with black bear markings on fence posts. The kiosk displays the trail map. You’ll make a counter-clockwise loop around the lakes.
Cattails fringe the edge of the brilliant blue water. Because the lake is within a limestone pit, the refractive quality of suspended limestone particles in the water creates this stunning blue color. Passing by the opposite side of the cabbage palm hammock, the trail continues along the edge of the lake, veering left to keep to the lakeshore. The first of many vegetation-covered rock mounds parallels the trail on the right. You see the backs of commercial buildings on Shoal Line Road.
After a mile, the first lake ends and the second lake begins. A side trail leads out on the causeway between the two. It’s your first opportunity to see the lake up close, where the clear blue water laps up against white limestone. A young cabbage palm emerges from a pink fog along the lakeshore, where pinkish-purple wisps of muhly grass wave in the near-constant coastal breeze. The shape of the quarry pit provides the opportunity for shallow mud flats to take form along the edge of the lake. A canal on the right side separates the park from commercial establishments along Shoal Road.
After 1.3 miles, the second lake ends. A bear blaze indicates the trail continues straight, paralleling the canal. The trail turns sharply left, passing next to a thirty-foot-tall waste rock pile covered with lantana. An outcrop of dark black limestone provides a ledge from which to peer into the lake on the right. The trail swings to the left, through a broad meadow separating two lakes. Another large tree-covered rock mound sits off to the right. Coming up and over a slight rise, the trail curves off to the right through a dry prairie.
A jeep trail joins in from the left. The sand underfoot becomes blindingly white, and the trail approaches the south side of the first lake while still edging the lake on the left. On the right, you can see a parking area and restroom on the far shore of the lake. There are numerous spots where you can stop and look into the crystalline waters. A canal choked with cattails joins the two lakes. After 2 miles, the trail reaches a shaded picnic bench. Stop and enjoy the shade while taking in the view. Veering off to the right around a mound of limestone, the trail continues on to the limerock boulder area.
At 2.1 miles, the Shortcut Trail takes off to the left on a causeway between two lakes. Use it if you need to return to your car more quickly (for an overall hike of 5 miles) or if you simply prefer to stay along the lakeshore, as the main trail will soon leave the lakes to meander into other habitats. The main trail veers right, hugging the lake, soon passing the “Least Terns” sign on the left.
By 2.5 miles, keep alert for where the trail veers to the left towards the canopied bench, away from the jeep track it has been following around the lake. Another map of the loop trail is displayed under the canopy, helping you to get your bearings. You are approaching the southernmost end of the lakes. A grassy track joins the trail from the right. As the trail becomes grassy, it heads towards the distant tree line. When the trail reaches the trees, it turns sharply left along the forested wetlands, a floodplain forest of red maple, sweet gum, and slash pine.
Where a track comes in from the right, the trail veers off to the left. When you reach a fork in the trail, a double-blaze at 3.2 miles indicates the trail turns right, following the tree line. A broad meadow stretches off to the left, creating a taupe fog underneath scattered slash pines. The forest on the right is a mix of slash pines, sand pines, and live oaks, with splashes of red and purple from sweetgum. The trail curves slightly left as it enters a sand pine scrub forest, with scrub live oaks and saw palmettos. Turkey oaks and water oaks supply a small stretch of shade. Pass the sign for a coyote den (interpretive station 11) on the left. The gopher tortoise burrow behind the sign is a little more obvious than the den.
After 3.5 miles, the bear blazes end at a paved road. This is the main road into the preserve. Turn left and follow the road along a disturbed sand pine forest with borrow pits, where sand was removed for use in other places. As you approach the lake, the Shortcut Trail joins in from the left, at 4.3 miles. Once again, you can see the island of boulders in the lake.
Diamond markers indicate another hiking trail follows a soft sand jeep track off to the right into the scrub. Skip that trek and continue to the parking lot, swing right past the portable toilet, and through the gate. Where the trail comes to a T at a lake, turn left. More large cliff-like exposures of waste rock rise tall to the left as the trail threads its way between two lakes. At the five-mile mark, the trail forks again. Veer to the left.
Where the trail curves to the left around the lake, there is a beautiful spot to stop and contemplate the shimmering water. This is your decision point for the remainder of your hike. If you stick to the loop trail, you’ll be back to the beginning of the loop in 0.3 mile, and back to your car within 0.7 mile. But if you want a walk through shady pine flatwoods and floodplain forests, head off to the spur trail.
Total distance on this trail is 8.3 miles (round-trip), but you can go out as far as you please and turn around at any point. You can also access the spur trail more directly by following the path around the lake clockwise for 0.7 mile to reach this trail junction.
The spur trail starts off the fork to the right, passing through a fence. Diamond-shaped markers with a hiker blaze this trail. As you skirt around the edge of the lake, take a close look at the small caves eroded along the shoreline, formed as the water level in the quarry dropped. Tall limestone mounds on the left support holly, cabbage palms, and small shrubs. The trail veers right, following the edge of the lake. After the trail turns left, you come to an intersection of jeep roads, 0.5 mile along the spur trail. The trail takes a sharp turn left into the pine flatwoods.
Tall slash pines rise over a tangled understory of dense saw palmetto on the left, draped with greenbrier and grapevines. The floodplain forest on the right is a mix of red maple, sweetgum, and dahoon holly. As the trail follows an old forest road, the footpath becomes a rough limestone washboard for a brief period, leading up to a dense hydric hammock where water flows under the road. The trail continues through alternating stretches of pine flatwoods, floodplain forest, and hydric hammock. Beneath the pines, dense patches of ferns fill the gaps between the saw palmettos. In the floodplain forest, arrowroot protrudes from a small marshy pond on the left. Bay magnolia and loblolly bay crowd the small hydric hammocks. A slough parallels the trail to the left, its surface choked with duckweed.
At 1.9 miles, you’ll reach a fork in the road. Turn right. As the trail gains a slight bit of elevation, the surrounding habitat becomes a sand pine scrub. The footpath becomes soft sugar sand in places, slowing down your hiking pace. But the bright white sand captures footprints perfectly. Don’t be surprised to see the broad pads of bear tracks on this section of the trail.
At 2.2 miles, the trail comes to a T intersection. Turn right. The sand underfoot turns to grass as the forest becomes denser. Slash pines drop their needles on the trail. As the trail turns west, it enters a hydric hammock. The road underfoot becomes hard limerock. After briefly emerging into a sand pine forest, the trail returns to hydric hammock. Cypress knees rise from the forest floor. You’ll pass an old gate on the left, attached to a cypress tree. Use this landmark as a turn-around point unless you are interested in forging forward to explore the sandhill and scrub habitats where the trail abruptly ends.
After leaving the hydric hammock, the trail rises into open sandhills and edges along the eastern boundary of the park. Houses appear off to the left. The road becomes extremely soft sand underfoot, making progress difficult. Raccoon and deer tracks crisscross the trail. The forest is sparse and open, mostly turkey oak, sand pine, and live oaks. Look down to marvel at the small details, such as yellow buttons and sandhill wireweed.
At 4.1 miles, the trail ends without warning in the cleared area; neither fork leads to trail markers. Turn around and retrace your steps back to the loop trail, taking care to follow each turn of the trail markers back to your starting point.
The home stretch of the loop trail crosses over a spillway before reaching a fork where the trail continues its loop to the left. To return to the parking lot, keep to the right. You’ll soon pass the spot where you started the loop. Head straight on down the jeep track to the parking lot.