Protecting more than 30,000 acres of wild space along the St. Johns River between Orlando and Titusville, Tosohatchee WMA is a grand expanse for hikers to play in. The Florida Trail runs through the preserve, as it has for many decades, beneath bowers of ancient live oaks, through mazes of cabbage palms, and among towering stands of slash pine. The creeks and streams are lined with old-growth cypress, including virgin cypress along Jim Creek. To enjoy a full day in Tosohatchee – a rugged place to hike – the White Loop provides almost 12 miles to explore, utilizing the Florida Trail as the eastern portion of the loop.
Length: 11.7 miles
Lat-Long: 28.503950, -80.950133
Fees / Permits: $3 per person
Difficulty: moderate to difficult
Bug factor: moderate to high
Restroom: privy at entrance station
Expect to wade if the St. Johns River is high. Prepare for heavy mosquito encounters.
See the official trail map from FWC (PDF)
Follow SR 50 east from Orlando to Christmas. Turn right on Taylor Creek Road. Continue 2.8 miles to the preserve entrance. Turn left. Follow Powerline Road. Drive to the parking area at the corner of Fishhole Road and Powerline Road. The trailhead parking is on the north side of Powerline Road.
From the parking area under the powerline, the blue-blazed trail slips northeast towards the line of cabbage palms and slash pines to start this loop hike. It takes but a moment, and you are enveloped in the beauty of the hammock. Tosohatchee is known for its spectacular palm hammocks in the St. Johns River floodplain. Only 257 feet and you reach the intersection with the Florida Trail. Make a right here and start following the orange blazes. Notable about this little segment of trail are the copious amounts of poison ivy on both sides of the trail and up above climbing the trees. This is somewhere you do not want to wear shorts! Walk cautiously.
Morning light filters through the palm fronds as you walk through a short stretch of sawgrass. Heading northwest, the footpath has a heavy carpet of pine duff but is torn up in places by armadillos. There are skinny short cabbage palms as well as tall ones, all with marsh fern at their feet, signifying the trail can get pretty moist in here– that’s part of the reality of walking in palm hammocks. Sometime during the year they’re going to be wet!
This is a trail with a true wilderness feel. Tiny cedars take root in the rich earth, and poison ivy crowds closer. Palm fronds slap you in the face, and already you can barely hear the hum of traffic in the distance. The deeper into the preserve you go, the quieter it gets. The habitat transitions – a little higher, a little drier, with big cedar trees intermingled among the oaks, and pines with grapevines snaking down their long trunks. By a half-mile, the trail narrows down and the palms it passes between have large mounds of moss on their rootballs, which rise up out of the forest floor enough to tell you it can flood deeply here. Lichens and spaghnum moss climb up the trunks of the cabbage palms. Sweetgum shades the upper canopy. In this humid environment, you plunge into another beautiful palm hammock with manu live oak trees arching their limbs between the palms adding diagonals forms to the vertical stands around you. The trail leaves the leafy thickness of the palm hammock. There are many aquatic plants underfoot, signifying that this area gets quite swampy at times. Flocks of robins, being the snowbirds they are, are rustling through the upper reaches of branches overhead.
At 0.8 mile, there is a junction with a blue-blazed trail to another parking area as well as an equestrian trail marked with red diamonds. The Florida Trail crosses it at a sign that says “Trail.” Continue straight ahead into more palm hammock with visions of the floodplain forest dancing off to the left, resplendent in its fall colors. By 1.2 miles, you pass through another spectacular palm hammock, this one very dry underfoot, with a lot of cedars giving it a coastal feel. Heading due east towards the St. Johns River, this is a spot you can get confused in due to the lack of blazes from a prescribed burn. Watch carefully for the indentation of the footpath and eventually you’ll find the next blaze. The cedars get thicker and thicker throughout the understory as the elevation drops a little, bringing dark earth underfoot and tunnels of wax myrtles, heavy with berries. The trail snakes through this tangled thicket. The distant buzz you hear is likely airboats on the St. Johns River.
Stepping out into the sun for the first time on this hike at 1.5 miles, you see a touch of color on the sweetgum trees as you glance over and see the power lines on the right-hand side and quickly dive back into wax myrtle, cedar, and another palm hammock. By 1.7 miles, the trail emerges along a marsh under the powerline. A bald eagle glides past in the early morning light. Cross Powerline Road at another trailhead, followed by a nice bridge over the canal on the south side of the road. On the other side, the next palm hammock with more ancient live oaks. A palm arcs over the trail at 1.9 miles. Look off to the left and you can see the floodplain of the St. Johns River crowding close, falls color making the floodplain trees obvious as you meander through the maze of cabbage palms. Where the trail gets mushy underfoot again, pay attention for the blazes up ahead, as the understory is very open.
At 2.3 miles, you reach the intersection of yellow, blue, and orange blazes with a sign for Tiger Branch 2.8 miles to the south. Turn left to follow the blue blazes and take a quick peek down the Swamp Spur. The trail narrows down quickly and starts slipping between stobby cypress knees. Look up, and you can see just how ancient these cypresses are in the floodplain of the creek. Be cautious of tripping over knees and roots as you notice the deeply fluted bases of the cypresses. It’s a wonderland of cypress knees in all sorts of fantastical shapes, including knotted balls, and big cypresses leading right up to the creek’s edge, where the spur trail ends. Beware of the deep mud holes close to the creek near the “Trail End” sign. Bromeliads are especially noticable high on the cypress limbs during the winter months when there are no cypress needles to hide them. Retrace your steps back to the trail junction and turn left, following the orange and yellow blazes towards Tiger Creek. After crossing an old forest road, the trail climbs up and over a small berm into a palm and oak hammock, where you’ll walk beneath an enormous cedar. Snaking its way to the edge of the palm hammock, close enough you can see the floodplain off to your left, the trail passes through a portal of palms before it swings to the right into another hammock, well-defined by the arching limbs of live oaks and a gateway of cedars ushering you into the maze of palms.
Passing beneath a towering slash pine, the trail gains a little elevation and rises into an upland of pines and oaks, where the pines are crowded closely as if there were a pine plantation. With the introduction of so many pines into the high canopy the footpath is now wonderfully carpeted with pine needles, as is every inch of the forest floor, burying the understory plants and grasses. At 3.1 miles, cross a narrow firebreak and come to a small creek crossed by a series of concrete steps. Blue flag iris blooms here in spring. After the next grassy forest road, the trail continues into a forest of pines, oaks, and palms. In a mature pine forest, jogging to the right, the trail passes some of the first blueberry bushes you’ve seen along the hike. Turning left, the trail heads down a straightaway wax myrtle and saw palmetto before it transitions into a corridor of young cabbage palms with mushy spagnum moss between them. An enormous cedar rises above the edge of this palm hammock, with goldfoot fern dangling from its trunk. Like thread through a needle, a cabbage palm threads itself through its surroundings. This is one of the most beautiful hammocks along the hike. Just off to the right, the pine forest persists, the trail grazing the edge of the ecotone. Crossing over a depression – perhaps an old path, or an ephemeral stream – the footpath rises out of the palm hammock and into pine/palm flatwoods with spongy pine duff underfoot, and crosses a grassy forest road.
The next trail junction, at 4.2 miles, is an important one. Here, the yellow trail turns north and leaves the hike route you’re following. If needed, you can use it to cut off some miles on this loop hike. A sign says “Ranch Road” in that direction, with a sign for “Tiger Branch” to the south. Turn left to follow the orange blazes of the Florida Trail south. The footpath emerges into an open pine flatwoods with a grassy understory, the perfect habitat for deer to browse. The pines are quite old, tall and spindly. A cypress swamp parallels off to the left. Crossing the next forest road, if you look out to the right, you can see a white streak, perhaps the limerock pavement of Fish Hole Road drawing close. The trail crosses the road at a double blaze, and you find a most unusual bridge made of a telephone pole with cross-pieces that look like ladder rungs.
Dropping down into a marshy area at 5 miles, with marsh ferns in every direction and aquatic plants underfoot, the trail zigzags through this wet environment down a narrow corridor edged with wax myrtle, leading into a forest of young longleaf pines. Not long after, the forest is chewed up and spit out, a mess of fallen trees and tire tracks where habitat restoration is going on. It can be difficult to follow the blazes, and impossible to find the footpath. Keep alert. By 5.5 miles you head down a grassy corridor between wax myrtles, coming to a sign for the Tiger Branch campsite (which points in the opposite direction) and a blue blaze heading left. This is a great place to stop for lunch. It’s a little tricky to follow the blazes, but a short distance to the campsite, where there are benches around a fire ring and a nice picnic table under the pines. The privy is not functional.
Return along the blue blaze to the main trail and turn left. You’ll head southwest briefly before crossing a forest road out of the restoration area and into an oak hammock before a drop down into a palm hammock. At 6 miles, this is the junction you’ve been heading towards. The Florida Trail goes west, with a small routed sign for “Jim Creek” pointing towards that virgin cypress swamp. To make it back to your car before dark, turn right to follow the white blazed trail. In the open area between the pines, look for the blazes on trees with burned bark. The trail crosses a parking area along Fish Hole Road, where there is a sign for primitive camping, and goes over another telephone pole bridge to enter the pine woods on the other side.
As you walk along the white trail through the pines, there are swales filled with saw palmetto, and small open prairie spots covered in wildflowers. The stillness is absolute, the sense of solitude certain. This is one of the lesser-used trails in the preserve – unlike the shorter yellow-blazed loop connector – and it shows in the lack of trail maintenance. You may frequently find yourself pushing through dense saw palmetto fronds along this section, and in need of continually watching for the next blaze. Fortunately, the trail stays atop a low berm which once served as a narrow gauge railroad bed, so it’s easy to follow in this vast landscape, zigzagging between the pines down the berm. At 6.5 miles the trail leaves the berm to head through a thicket of saw palmetto, skimming along the edges of wet prairies. Cross over the faintest trace of a forest road, where the footpath is damp, a perfect environment for carniverous plants like sundews and bladderwort. A stand of ancient saw palmetto attempts to mimic the cabbage palms of this forest, the skinny trunks rising nearly ten feet high. As saw palmetto grows barely an inch a year, it takes a long time for a thicket like this to form. Just beyond the thicket is a rusted piece of rail from the old narrow gauge railroad, and you’re following its tracks once again.
Swimming through saw palmetto fronds, looking for the next white blaze, you’ll encounter a bowl of saw palmetto to the right. The slash pines are especially old and spindly overhead, providing little shade. The trail remains tough to navigate; keep watching for the next blaze. A slash pine of majestic size rises on the right at 6.9 miles. Wading through the sea of saw palmetto, you’re on the tramway on the faintest of footpaths. Keep focused on those blazes! By 7.1 miles, you reach the intersection with the incoming yellow blazes from the left, with a sign pointing to Tiger Branch Campsite. Cross this forest road and continue straight ahead. Now that the shorter yellow blazed loop has merged into the trail, the going is much easier. The trail passes through patches of prairie in the pine flatwoods, and it’s here you’ll find some of the prettiest wildflowers along the trail, including brilliant orange pine lilies in the summer months.
Transitioning from the open, older pine flatwoods into denser pine/palm flatwoods, the trail works its way through a denser understory at 7.7 miles, but the footpath is easier to walk, a more comfortable stroll than before. Crickets sing as you approach a marsh dense with an edge of wax myrtle and cross a bridge to a forest road. Leaving this road off to the left at an angle, the trail heads down what feels like an old tramway with a slight water-filled depression to one side. Dropping off the berm, the trail zigzags through mature pine flatwoods and stands of older saw palmetto. Lance-leaved arrowhead and other aquatic plants are briefly underfoot before the trail rises into the slightly wet flatwoods, where coreopsis puts on a show with its yellow blooms against the haze of wiregrass. It gets a little tricky again to follow the blazes. Keep alert to the twists and turns through the open flatwoods. Looking off to your right, there are standing skeletons of slash pines, very old trees taken out by a raging fire sometime in the past.
Diving into a saw palmetto thicket, the trail weaves its way through it to emerge at the back side of a sign that says “Trail” at 8.4 miles. Walking onto a grassy strip, perhaps a forest road, notice where the blazes turn right to lead you towards the powerlines. Reaching Powerline Road, cross it and continue through Parking Area 26. Immediately after entering the treeline, the trail makes a sharp left, tacking away from where you expect to go, heading west parallel to Powerline Road. It’s a return to palm hammocks again as the trail works its way away from the road, deeper into the forest, where dark, rich earth gathers around the massive bases of the cypresses. This, too, is an area that can flood when the river is high. The understory of the palm hammock at 8.9 miles is so open that you must pay attention to find the next blaze, walking past a “heart in the tree” inside one of the oaks – a hole in the middle of the trunk. As the trail moves into palm/pine flatwoods, marsh fern crowds up close to the footpath.
By 9.5 miles, you reach the northernmost junction of trails. The white blazes take off to the left to head for the main entrance of Tosohatchee WMA. The orange blazes of the Florida Trail come in from the north from the preserve’s northern gate off St. Nicholas Road and head southeast towards where your car is parked. Turn right and head down this forest road for 0.3 mile, keeping alert for where the orange blazes leave it and make an abrupt right into the pine/palm flatwoods – red diamonds go straight ahead, and a double blaze and sign make this intersection obvious. By 10 miles, there’s a transition into palms and pines intermingled throughout the forest, but you’re soon back in the palm hammocks again, where roots and soft earth can trip up tired feet. Two cabbage palms and an oak have grown together, creating a natural sculpture. The trail winds its way through a swampier place around the large, buttressed bases of cypress trees. Going through twists and turns, the footpath enters another palm hammock. At 11.5 miles, a bright patch becomes obvious off to the right, the sun drenching into the edge of the forest from the clearing along Powerline Road. It’s time to watch for that blue-blaze back to the parking area. Turn right and walk out to the parking area, wrapping up this all-day traverse at 11.7 miles.
|0.1||junction Florida Trail|
|0.8||junction blue blaze / red diamonds|
|1.7||cross Powerline Road / bridge|
|2.3||junction yellow / blue / orange blazes | Swamp Spur|
|2.4||end Swamp Spur|
|2.6||cross forest road|
|3.1||firebreak / creek|
|3.2||cross grassy forest road|
|3.8||cross grassy forest road|
|4.2||trail junction yellow / orange|
|x.x||cross forest road|
|5.6||Tiger Branch blue blaze|
|5.6||Tiger Branch campsite|
|5.7||cross forest road|
|6.0||trail junction orange / white | Bottom of loop|
|6.5||cross forest road|
|6.6||ancient saw palmetto|
|6.9||enormous slash pine|
|7.1||junction yellow blaze|
|x.x||cross forest road|
|8.4||grassy strip / sign|
|8.5||cross Powerline Road|
|9.5||junction white / orange | Top of loop|
|9.8||leave forest road|
|11.6||blue blaze to parking area|